St. Louis area law professors teach the system to change the system

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The statistics, which have come to light since the shooting of teenager Michael Brown rocked the city of Ferguson in August, are shocking: Cops hand out three arrest warrants for every household in the city every year. There are more warrants issued annually than there are residents of the city. Twenty percent of the city's budget comes from fines stemming from low level crimes.


SEE ALSO: Ferguson and St. Louis protest coverage by Fusion

It is part of what experts say is a systemic problem that often has a simple solution: learn the rights you have when interacting with police. And then exercise them.

"Many of the situations that these people are getting into with warrants and other petty crimes can be avoided in the first place, if you just exercise your rights during that first contact,"  Saint Louis University School of Law professor Susan McGraigh told Fusion at a legal workshop she hosted to aid and inform protesters.

The event featured mock interrogations and very blunt explanations about what citizens should and should not do when interacting with police.

Here's a few notes from the event:


Student Avvennett Gezahan of St. Louis University said that she was motivated to organize the workshop when she realized that much of the pent-up frustration from Ferguson residents came from incidents where they cooperated with police when they had no legal obligation to do so.

"It is the psychology of intimidation. When you encounter an officer a lot of people feel under pressure, and they do things that they really don't have to do," she said. "If you can remember some of these simple things we are telling you, the hope is that the number of these meaningless arrests will start to go down."


St. Louis resident Chioma Chukwu-Smith said that the hour and a half workshop helped her understand how to conduct herself both when demonstrating in the streets and living her day-to-day life.

"Knowing my rights is super important, especially here, because there is a lot of abuse and treating people unfairly simply because how they look," she said. "Just knowing that the police can legally lie to you when saying if you tell them something, they will give you something — that is a big deal, and I wasn't even aware of that."


In the short term, co-host professor Justin Hansford hopes that the workshop will help with protesters who are facing off with police every day and night. But in the long run, he hopes that this knowledge can begin to put a dent in how cities use petty crimes and infractions to line their budgets.

"If you know your rights, and the police are forced to go through the whole process, and they come up with nothing because you actually used your constitutional rights, it disincentivizes those arbitrary infractions that they make their money on," he said. "That's how you actually change the system like everyone keeps talking about. You have to know the system to change the system."


Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.