When police approach: What to say, do

By Jeffrey Wallace Richman
The Scene staff

Did you know that you should keep your hands on the steering wheel during a traffic stop so a police officer won’t think that you’re reaching for a weapon?

Are you aware that you can say “no” when a police officer asks to search your car because of your Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures?

Those tips were among many offered by Forest Park police officer James Kenner in a recent presentation called “Ethical Interaction upon Police Contact.”

“I give this ethical interaction class just to teach the students how to positively interact with the police upon contact,” he said.

And to help avoid tragedies like the one in Ferguson.

On Aug. 9, 2014, the St. Louis suburb was turned upside-down when police officer Darren Wilson, 28, shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown. Protests led to rioting and looting and intensified after a grand jury elected not to indict Wilson, deciding he acted in self-defense.

“There are some officers who act out and racially profile,” Kenner said. “To prevent another Ferguson, we need to teach the community how to act when an officer approaches.”

Kenner has worked in law enforcement for more than 25 years in the U.S. and overseas, including Russia, Kosovo and Germany during military service. He joined the St. Louis Community College staff six years ago.

About 15 students attended Kenner’s presentation on April 11 in the Highlander Lounge at Forest Park. It was sponsored by Campus Life.

Kenner advised students to always make sure their vehicles are properly registered and that they are carrying proof of insurance; and to avoid sudden movements while retrieving wallets or cellphones during traffic stops.

Kenner emphasized that negative responses or disrespectful behavior toward a police officer could result in additional charges, such as failure to comply or disturbing the peace. Touching a police officer can be assault.

“I learned that I need to be cooperative and have positive manners because you don’t want a situation to get worse,” said theater major Derrick Owens, 28.

Baking and pastry arts major Willnelle Warren, 18, also attended the presentation. One of the things he learned was how a traffic stop can go one way or another based on the way a driver answers questions.

“If the officer asks you for your name and you tell him your name respectfully, then the officer will treat you with respect,” he said. “If you respond with an attitude, then that officer will respond with an attitude.”

Kenner was impressed by the openness of audience members about personal encounters with police. One student talked about running late for class and being stopped on school property just because he looked suspicious.

Another person told of her daughter recording a conversation with a police officer who asked to search her car. She was heard on tape saying “no” and sounding upset.

“I think the way the people interacted during the class will change the way these students interact with the police,” Kenner said. “(They) were very active and very open on a lot of topics like race and racial profiling.”

As for the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures, Kenner explained that a person can say “no” to a police request, but that doesn’t mean the officer will say “OK” and walk away. He or she might still search the vehicle.

If this happens, drivers should get the officer’s name, car number and date and time the incident happened. By obtaining this information, they can legally report it.

For more information about what to do and say to a police officer, contact Kenner at 314-644-9700.