Friday, 13 December 2019 19:23

Hamlet PD encourages residents to 'know your rights'

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Hamlet Police Chief Tommy McMasters talks about free speech protections during a Know Your Rights forum Wednesday evening. Hamlet Police Chief Tommy McMasters talks about free speech protections during a Know Your Rights forum Wednesday evening. William R. Toler - Richmond Observer

HAMLET — Know your rights.

That was the purpose of forum presented by the command staff of the Hamlet Police Department, Wednesday night at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church. Sheriff James Clemmons was also there and helped to clarify points of the law.

The goal of the forum, Chief Tommy McMasters said, is to “eliminate negative encounters through sharing and dialogue” so the police and community can “work together, collaboratively.”

Chief Tommy McMasters opened the event with a few clips showing individuals exercising their First Amendment rights and how the interaction with law enforcement went.

The first was from the website Photography is Not a Crime, which showed Floridian Jeff Gray conducting what he calls a First Amendment audit, by holding a sign that read “F--- City Hall.”

The city manager first came out and confronted Gray, complaining that the sign was vulgar, before the police got involved and arrested Gray for refusing to leave.

McMasters asked the crowd if they thought Gray was in the wrong for displaying such a sign before explaining that, even with offensive words, displaying the sign on public property was protected speech. 

The chief’s slide referenced the 1971 Supreme Court case of Cohen v. California, where a man had been arrested for wearing a jacking reading, “F--- the draft.” 

The court ruled against the state, with Justice John Harlan II famously writing for the majority opinion :”For, while the particular four-letter word being litigated here is perhaps more distasteful than most others of its genre, it is nevertheless often true that one man's vulgarity is another's lyric. Indeed, we think it is largely because governmental officials cannot make principled distinctions in this area that the Constitution leaves matters of taste and style so largely to the individual.”

McMasters also explained that abusive language and rude gestures, such as the middle finger, don’t legally count as disorderly conduct as they fall under free speech protections.

“We’re not going to infringe on anyone’s constitutional rights,” McMasters said. “It’s not our job to deliver attitude adjustments, although some people might need it.”

However, he added, free speech rights aren’t absolute, as courts have ruled that cities and towns can require a permit for protests, but they vary depending on the municipality.

If you’re ever stopped by an officer, McMasters said, the officer should articulate the reason you’re being stopped and/or detained.

Clemmons added that you should give the officer a chance to say why you were stopped.

“People out there, when they see a blue light, their blood pressure goes up,” he said. “I don’t care what color you are, where you come from, when you see that light come on, you’re nervous, you’re jittery and guess what? When that officer walks up to the window and says, ‘Ma’am/sir, I stopped you because …’ … now you know what the situation is ...

“There should be no reason for anybody to argue fuss or fight at that particular point,” Clemmons added. “But in the society where we live today … these people (who challenge officers) are out there every single day. They’re looking for a conflict, looking for a paycheck.

“When we were coming up, we had respect for the law. We were taught that respect for the law” the sheriff continued. “We live in a different world today. There’s so much conflict, there’s so much turmoil going on. So, we too, as law enforcement officers, have to rethink, retrain the way that we (handle) situations.”

The first ten seconds of any stop, he added, are either going to be good or bad.

“A lot of it starts with us and our attitude and our demeanor,” Clemmons said. “That’s what we’re teaching our officers today, how you approach people, how you talk to people.

“But yet, we’re the ones that are paid … to receive the abuse, the profanity and stuff that you hear,” the sheriff continued, offering an anecdote of a traffic stop he once conducted where the driver began cussing at him before he even had a chance to say why. However, after he explained the reason for the stop the driver apologized and handed over his license and registration.

Clemmons said younger officers are being trained to de-escalate the situation.

“But remember who we are … we grew up in your neighborhood. We’re not perfect, you’re not perfect” the sheriff said. “Think about how you react when someone uses profanity towards you. I don’t care how much training you receive in life, there ain’t but so much you can take. We all have our limit.”

Clemmons went on to say that “it’s unfortunate” that officers, because of their training, are expected “to take that.”

“Why? Why should we have to take that,” he asked. “But at the same token, it’s how we come back that makes the difference. And that’s what’s so crucial in these relationships that we’re trying to build in the community.”

The sheriff said he wants the public to feel comfortable coming to law enforcement, “no matter what it is.”

“If we’re doing bad, tell us. If we’re doing good, tell us,” he said. “But … as administrators, we can’t change our agencies if you guys don’t tell us what it is that you think or feel that we’re doing wrong.”

Later in the forum, when one of the audience members complained about another agency, Lt. Donald Ray Morton encouraged anyone who has a complaint to start with that officer’s supervisor and work up to the head of the agency and, if that fails, to city hall or county leaders.

During the forum, Morton spoke about how the different types of encounters with officers and how to establish if it’s casual and you’re free to go or if you’re being detained.

The audience also heard from Detective Lt. Dale Capel on juvenile law, including the raise the age law which recently went into effect.

One legal downside to the law, Clemmons added, is that teens who are 16 or 17 are still considered adults in traffic court and from then on are considered adults in the court system.

Detective Corey Wilson spoke about domestic violence issues and what the laws are regarding restraining orders and Sgt. Grant Jackson went over traffic law.

Two elected officials were in the audience: Hamlet Councilman Maurice Stewart and County Commissioner Tavares Bostic.

Bostic said he hopes there will be more similar forums in the future.

“I think that it’s think tanks like this one that (are) able to heal some of those wounds that we see in the public,” Bostic said. 

McMasters said another forum is scheduled for April.


Last modified on Friday, 13 December 2019 19:26