2004-04-16 / Community

The Citizen’s Police Academy Report

The Citizen’s Police Academy Report


I have an embarrassing admission to make: I don’t know the Constitution and the Bill of Rights from a pothole on Rockaway Beach Boulevard.

Obviously this is not something that I am proud of, but I chose to declare my general ignorance on page 2 for a reason – to free myself from the denial stage and force myself to finally learn what I forgot from my grade school government classes and was "too busy" to learn in college. And I am inviting (challenging, really) those of you with as little knowledge as I to do the same.

I realized how much more there is learn as I sat in the Citizen’s Police Academy class last week. Sergeant John Donnelly, who knows the Constitution, Bill of Rights, standards of proof and the Penal Law inside out and backwards, was giving the first of a two-part lecture on police and the law. I was barely prepared: The previous week had been a busy one between my work at The Wave and my so-called social life, and I had only skimmed the reading for class.

I do remember pledging to do my reading for this particular class twice, and in truth I wound up barely doing it at all. So, I’m coming clean about that.

As Donnelly engaged the class participants with his beat cop/Ralph Kramden/Ed Norton all-in-one persona, I worried that he would call on me for the answer to a question on the First Amendment, of which I know enough to do my job and keep myself out of trouble.

I was never called on, but I realized that the average police officer knows more about our rights than I do, and I feel fairly comfortable in my assumption that we could all benefit from Donnelly’s lecture. I ask those of you who disagree with me to answer these questions for yourselves: What three things does the Eighth Amendment protect against? What is the difference between reasonable suspicion and founded suspicion? Would you bet your job on your answers?

The Police Student’s Guide chapters on the law and the legal use of force number more than 150 pages – by far the thickest block of reading that the Citizen’s Police Academy participants have to absorb.

"Although the Constitution severely limits the powers of the police, those limits must be respected rather than viewed as an obstacle to effective law enforcement," says one part of the reading.

If you have decided to join me in this learning experiment go to www.Archives.Gov, which is the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration website where you can view and print the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in their entirety.

The standards of proof might be harder for you to find, so let’s spend some time with them here. When police interact with civilians in non-enforcement situations, such as when an on-duty officer speaks at a Community Council meeting, there are few legal restrictions on their behavior, but when the police are responding to a call or witness criminal activity, the law comes into play. An officer’s power to intrude, by stopping someone and asking questions, increases as they gather information and facts.

A police officer can ask your name, your address and what you’re doing, which is considered a "request for information" at any time in a public place within the geographical confines of his/her employment. The officer does not have to suspect criminal activity to make such a request, and you don’t have to answer, but it’s probably wise to do so.

If the officer’s questioning becomes extended or accusatory the dialogue becomes a "common-law inquiry," and must be founded on the suspicion that "criminality is afoot." A civilian still doesn’t have to respond.

Police recruits learn that the courts closely scrutinize their actions, particularly if a request for information leads to a search of a person or their belongings.

"Founded suspicion" is the level where police have gained some factual reason to believe that a person is engaging in criminal activity.

"A police officer requires at least founded suspicion to legally request consent to search or to conduct extended questioning while requesting an explanation of an individuals conduct," according to the Citizen’s Police Academy text.

In order to force someone to stop for questioning police must have "reasonable suspicion" that the person is committing, has committed or is about to commit a felony or a misdemeanor defined in the Penal Law, and an officer can search the person for a weapon if he/she "reasonably suspects" that he/she is in danger of physical injury.

There is so much legal information for the Citizen’s class to cover, interspersed with case law and common examples, that we were given a one-week break from the subject. Donnelly’s next lecture will include more on stop, question and frisk, search and seizure and the use of physical and deadly force. Meantime we will spend a week covering people in crisis, which will be lectured by Sergeant Anthony Direnzo.

Please keep in mind, as I will, that this bit of knowledge about interactions with police officers is not a license to be ill mannered during your next encounter with the authorities. During our very first class Donnelly told us that people who are stopped by police are often quick to threaten that they know their rights. His response, he said, is that, whether they do or not, he knows their rights as civilians and his as an officer.

Getting back to the question that I posed earlier about the Eighth Amendment, it protects against excessive bail, excessive fines and cruel and unusual punishment.

Over the next several weeks, as I continue to attend the Citizen’s Police Academy, I am going to spend extra time focusing on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It’s not going to be easy, but I am going to try to make the articles and amendments a living part of my memory. I figure by the time the summer rolls around, and my friends Josh and Matt Stern return from law school, I will be able to carry my own weight in a discussion. Let me know how you do if you decide to take my challenge.

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