Skip to main content

Bronx Barriers: Knowing Your Rights

Rebecca Lewis, WFUV


The Norwood News and WFUV continue their five-part series profiling ongoing challenges impacting the Bronx.

The life of a Bronx resident who only went by Mitchell could have taken a different turn had he known his rights. Mitchell, who is 22, was just 14 years old when he entered the criminal justice system, arrested on a gun possession charge. He was living in the Crotona section of the Bronx and said he was on his way to the local precinct to drop off a gun he had found for a gun buyback program. But a recent stabbing in the area had increased police presence and when Mitchell saw some cops, he panicked.

“I knew I had a weapon on me and that I was trying – I didn’t want to pull out a weapon and get shot or anything like that. So I was scared, so I ran,” Mitchell said. “I’d rather go to jail than be dead.”

When the police saw Mitchell running, they chased him, arrested him, and brought him to the precinct. There, he said the police questioned him for a long time until he finally gave a false confession and admitted to a crime he didn’t commit. Mitchell would spend the next five years in prison.

At the time of his arrest, Mitchell didn’t realize the police weren’t allowed to question him without a parent present, given that he was a minor. And he has learned since that the first thing he should have done was ask for a lawyer before he said anything to police.

Mitchell learned a hard lesson about the law and his rights, one that might have been avoided if he had known them. The Bronx Defenders, a non-profit group offering free legal defense services to Bronx residents, holds know your rights workshops hoping to prevent outcomes like Mitchell's. Walter Rodriguez is charged with organizing these sessions. He said at the start of every single one, the trainer asks five true or false questions on police interactions.

  1. I have to speak with a police officer if he or she wants me to.
  2. If a police officer tells me I’m not being detained, I can walk away.
  3. If I am a non-citizen, I have to tell police what my immigration status is.
  4. It doesn’t matter if I consent to a search or not.
  5. If police ask me questions at the precinct, I should respond.

With the exception of question two, all the other questions are “false.” But Rodriguez said residents often get the answers wrong. He said “90 percent of the time” people think that if a police officer wants to talk to you, they have to talk to them.

But simply knowing your rights is not enough, according to Stanley Richards, executive vice president of Fortune Society. The organization helps former inmates reenter the community and offers alternatives to incarceration. Richards said he has been arrested multiple times and each time, learns more about how to interact with police.

“My first arrest, I was busy trying to tell them I didn’t do it. And what I’ve learned is everything I said to them, when I got in front of a judge, the district attorney was repeating it,” Richards said. “So I learned after that interaction you don’t talk to the police; you don’t try to tell them your story because there is no ‘your side’ of the story. The only thing they’re going to do is they’re going to document it and they’re going to use it against you in court. And they say that in your Miranda Rights, but your first interaction, you’re not thinking about that.”

Richards said a resident from an area like the Bronx, a borough largely affected by broken window policing, is much more likely to interact with police than in other parts of the city. He said knowing your rights goes beyond simply knowing your rights, but understanding the best ways to exercise those rights when interacting with police. Richards said that understanding happens from experience. His main piece of advice is what he and Mitchell learned after their first arrests: “I want to talk to my lawyer.”

Karume James is one such criminal defense attorney who works for the Bronx Defenders. James noted if a person or client hadn’t interacted with police before, knowing their rights is sometimes limited. But those with past interactions know far more. For James, the issue comes down to whether police respect those rights.

“I have had plenty of clients who initially stated their rights when they were on the street, when they actually followed what they were supposed to do,” James said. “And instead of their rights being protected, they were beaten, they were tackled.”

James said the burden should not be on “people who do not have the power in these situations to have to assert their rights, manage the entire situation, deescalate aggression between officers, and try to preserve their life at the same time.”

Bronx Councilman Ritchie Torres wants to remedy this through a bill he introduced in 2014 called the Right to Know Act, where officers would need to identify themselves and explain the reason for an encounter. The officer would need to formally ask for consent to search while explaining the person’s right to refuse.

“Without the Right to Know Act, the burden falls on the civilian to ask the officer ‘Who are you? Why are you stopping me?’ And I worry if it’s not proactive… you could risk provoking the officer,” Torres said.  “I see an affirmative obligation on the part of the police officers to identify themselves and explain the reason for an encounter as a way to deescalate the exchange, and to set a tone of mutual respect.”

The City Council didn’t vote on the bill, but brokered a deal with the NYPD to include aspects of the Right to Know Act in their official NYPD handbook. Torres said the agreement involved a stripped down version of the bill’s proposals that fails to cover the majority of police interactions that would be covered under the bill. He also said without the force of law, enforcing the policies is optional for the NYPD.

Since 2011, stop-and-frisk tactics have substantially dropped throughout New York City. In 2015, police stopped people 22,939 times compared to 685,724 times in 2011. In 2014, the most recent year with borough data, 6,823 people were stopped. But the stops resulted in 1,730 arrests. That’s more than Brooklyn, the city’s most populous borough where 13,371 stops resulted in 1,511 arrests. This coincides with data from the same year showing the Bronx has among the highest rates of incarceration in the city.

The NYPD had not returned a request for an interview by the time this publication went to press.

*Edit: Mitchell's first name has been removed upon his request out of concern it could impact his future opportunities.