By JB Clark
TUPELO – Police, attorneys and civil rights workers gathered at White Hill Baptist Church on Saturday to inform young people of basic civil rights, specifically when it comes to interacting with the legal system.
Jim Casey, treasurer of the Lee County NAACP branch, said he sees too many young people start off on the wrong foot with law enforcement and as a result end up in jail.
“It’s all about knowing our rights and how to respond when you’re stopped by police,” Casey said. “We want to make sure as civilians that we respond appropriately to them so that they can respond appropriately to us.”
Each speaker, no matter which part of the legal process they spoke of, stressed the importance of remaining calm and respectful to keep the situation from elevating.
Michael Bowens, Tupelo police officer and member of the U.S. Marshals Task Force, said the thing he deals with the most is attitude.
Bowens assured everyone in attendance that while there are bad police, there are more good police and he and the other good police will only pull someone over if they’ve done something wrong.
“The first thing I’m going to do is say, ‘Good morning, my name is Officer Bowens. I’m with the Tupelo Police Department. My reason for stopping you is…” he explained. “The most disrespectful thing to me is if I take the time to introduce myself and answer all your questions and you’re on your cellphone. Because, the first question I always get is, ‘Why did you stop me?’ Well, I just answered that question.”
Bowens said the easiest way to ensure a traffic stop or law enforcement encounter goes well is to be respectful and remain calm.
Attorney Cherika Witherspoon said it is important to only answer the questions police ask, nothing more, and make sure an attorney is present to help judge which questions need to be answered and which don’t, even when innocent.
Both said most cases that go from a simple stop to jail time or felony conviction quickly do so because the person being questioned acts out, speaks when they should or is disrespectful to officers.
Most of the program’s attendees were middle age and older, something Casey said he hopes to address.
“We’re really disappointed with the turnout today but now we’re going to go to the young people,” he said. “We’re going to take this to the barber shops and basketball courts and get the information out to our young people who need to hear it most.”