An encounter with the police can be unnerving for even law-abiding citizens. At a presentation and discussion held at the Levy Center earlier this month, Evanston  Deputy Police Chief James Pickett, Chicago attorneys Lori Roper and Richard Dickinson, and Chicago activist Charles Jones agreed that the most prudent course of action when stopped by the police is to cooperate.

Mr. Dickinson is a criminal defense attorney in private practice; Ms. Roper is the supervising attorney for the Cook County Public Defender’s office; and Mr. Jones is an activist and has participated in violence-interrupting activities such as CeaseFire. All three had stories to tell about abuse of suspects and arrestees by Chicago police officers. Deputy Chief Pickett, the sole Evanston representative, described safeguards, policies, and supervisory personnel in place at the Evanston Police Department to prevent maltreatment of suspects and arrestees.

Events of the past several months have shown that protections are not in place universally.

“There are a lot of incidents with law enforcement, and some of them end in fatalities,” said Deldri Dugger, president of the Delta Chi Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, sponsor of the event. “We want you to know your rights and be able to communicate them in an effective, non-threatening manner,” she added.

There are several reasons for a police officer to stop someone, said Deputy Chief Pickett: Traffic stops are for moving or equipment violations. A “street stop” is prompted by an officer’s reasonable suspicion that the person has been involved in criminal activity. A third type – “call-driven” – can cause or escalate tension. “One of the biggest [type of calls] we get is for ‘suspicious activity.’ This can create a lot of friction. I can stop and interview the person,” he said.

What is said and what happens next can be either an unsettling but non-confrontational event or the subject of the next day’s headlines.

“The only thing you are required to give is your name, age, date of birth and address,” Mr. Jones said. “You should not give any other information. Law enforcement will ask you a lot of questions. You do not have to answer them.

“Young people tend to get confrontational – we urge them not to get confrontational. Ask the questions, ‘Am I free to go? Am I under arrest?’ You have to invoke your rights.”

“The playing field is not level in the street,” said Mr. Dickinson. “You could be right, and you could be dead right. The primary thing is to get through the interview and into a courtroom. … You have to survive the first encounter.”

Ms. Roper agreed. “Survive the encounter. If you are dead, you can never get your story told. For your lawyer to do what has to be done, you have to survive. Any small resistance is taken as disrespect. … Anything that has to be legally done, let your lawyer do that in court,” she said.

Mr. Dickinson added, “You don’t have the right to resist arrest. … If you know that you did not do something, you still can’t resist. Cops don’t have to beat you to get you to tell something. They can trick you, lie to you.”

“I’ve been on both sides,” said Deputy Chief Pickett, who lives in Chicago and has a son. ”Speaking as an Evanston police officer, I can tell you there are things in place. We have supervisors. Patrol supervisors are requested to go on a lot of calls. We also have a commander of Internal Affairs. The Evanston Police Department takes every complaint. … In Evanston, you can ask the officer for a supervisor, and that officer has to do it. A supervisor will come out. All cars have in-car cameras and they must be on.

“When we do have a reason to stop someone, what we are trying to stop is escalation,” Deputy Chief Pickett added. “If a suspect gets angry, that raises the bar – and a police officer calls for help. If I roll up in my car and see my co-worker fighting [with a suspect], I’m going to help my co-worker. You cannot resist arrest.”

“You can walk away,” the Deputy Chief added, “but once you start running, that’s reasonable suspicion [and cause for arrest.” He also said, “My message is, ‘Just cooperate.’”