By: Laisha Harris
Whenever I’m driving on east Tidwell, traffic slows to a near stop when an officer is talking with a black person on the street. For the reasoning, we may never know, but you get a vibe that the community is interested in whether that person walks away unbruised. It’s different when you’re driving on Westheimer and there’s a woman who’s pulled over to the side of the road to aid police in finding a local homeless man who “likes to hang out at the bus stop.” On one side of Houston, you see police and feel genuine concern for the person in your community that they’re talking to. On the other side, you’re enabling the police in removing people you feel do not belong in your community.
Seeing red and blue lights in your rearview mirror, or hearing police sirens off in the distance, may trigger a trauma response, if you’ve heard about stories like Ashtian Barnes, Danny Ray Thomas, Sandra Bland, Daunte Wright, Sean Bell, Philando Castile, Jacob Blake, Robbie Tolan, or maybe your memories go back to Marquette Frye. Interacting with the police may feel uncomfortable, especially considering the violent precedent they have established in black communities.
The need for local police grew when an influx of immigrants and newly freed slaves came to occupy spaces previously reserved for white people. The era of lynching lasted for more than 60 years, and in that time, local police turned a blind eye to the terror that reigned in black communities. In 1890, Harris County police and county commissioners targeted and shot John Walton in First ward. In 1917, Burt Smith was attacked by more than 400 whites in jail and hung from a tree. In 1928, during the Democratic National Convention on Westheimer road, Robert Powell was hung from a bridge.
After desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement, lynching shifted towards police excessive use of force. In 1993, unarmed Paul Monroe was shot and killed by Austin police officers. In 2008, unarmed Robbie Tolan was shot by Bellaire police. In 2016, unarmed Ashtian Barnes was shot and killed by a Harris County officer.
I think I can say this boldly and loudly, that it is we, black people, who genuinely fear for our life when we are stopped by police. With the history of unacknowledged brutality and violence by the police against black men, women, and children, I thoroughly understand why we are reluctant to trust and cooperate with law enforcement agencies. The law has not always been on our side. However, that fear or distrust should not stop us from embracing the rights that we have. Knowing your rights can be empowering the moment you recognize they are being violated. If we want to stand against injustice, we have to know what is just.
What are your rights if you are stopped by the police?
If you are a law-abiding citizen walking down the street, you do not have to engage with the police. If you are doing nothing illegal and you are stopped by an officer, you have a right to ignore and walk away. If you are in a high crime area, it is lawful for an officer to conduct a stop and frisk for dangerous weapons.
If you are stopped by an officer because you committed of a traffic violation, officers are acting within the law when they ask for ID, registration, and insurance. This is information needed in order to check warrant status and issue a ticket. In fact, some traffic violations are arrestable offenses. If you have not been placed under arrest, an officer would need reasonable suspicion or probable cause to search you.
No one wants to hear “stay calm” in situations where you’re being mistreated or taken advantage of. However, for those of us who live to tell the story of police misconduct or abuse of power, we have options. You can file a complaint with the agency involved, Police Chief and Internal Affairs Division. You can always contact a civil rights attorney if you are a victim of police brutality or misconduct.