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Blue Lights Special 

Unlikely bedfellows collaborate on instructional video for those stopped by police

Back in 1996, when the Western Pennsylvania chapter of the ACLU filed a class-action police-misconduct lawsuit against the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, you couldn't have found a nonprofit organization less popular among local law enforcement. And the ACLU's stock with cops certainly didn't rise when that suit led to a consent decree requiring federal oversight of the department.

Yet within months of filing the suit, local ACLU director Vic Walczak had begun envisioning a project that would team his group with city police in an unlikely enterprise: making a movie.

Walczak had noted that many allegations of police misconduct result when people don't know their rights or otherwise respond inappropriately toward police, escalating uncivil encounters into citations, physical violence and arrests. Working with local NAACP head Tim Stevens, Walczak completed a pamphlet, "You and the Police: Rights, Responsibilities and Reality," intended to teach civilians what to do, for instance, if the police stopped them in traffic or on the sidewalk.

But Walczak and Stevens thought they could reach even more people, especially youths, with an educational video. Seven years later, Police Stop, funded largely by grants from local foundations, has finally been shot. With the full cooperation of the Pittsburgh police, it should be coming soon to a classroom or community center near you.

For Bill Duck Jr., helping make Police Stop has a sense of mission about it: Waiting for shooting to begin on a warm July night in the Strip District, the assistant production manager recalls one time when he was pulled over by police and the encounter went badly. "I ended up in handcuffs. I got a little hotheaded for the simple fact that I was pulled over," says Duck, 36, remembering a traffic stop some 16 years ago. "I got boisterous. I should have been more compliant than what I was."

Duck knows cops; his dad is one. But that's not the same as knowing your rights, or doing what's smart.

The first part of Police Stop, a 14-minute short, is designed to show what not to do. The fictional scenario involves four high school- and college-age kids, two couples --one black, one white -- out for a night of fun. Sharon, who's been drinking, spills a beer in Jessica's car. Out on the road, Jessica, underage but sober, makes her gray Buick "dance," a move quickly followed by flashing red lights in her rear-view mirror. Confronted by two officers who smell beer, the kids vehemently protest their innocence. "This is harassment," complains Sharon. When Jessica refuses to exit the car for a sobriety test, she's led away in cuffs.

In the completed video, the action cuts away to a "this didn't have to happen" segment starring actors playing a male police detective, a female lawyer and a young, hip-looking guy. They name-check Rodney King, Jonny Gammage, Amadou Diallo, and Abner Louima and inform viewers that a "shocking number" of encounters with police end in the use of force. But they add that most civilians who say force was used against them also admit they threatened, assaulted or otherwise antagonized an officer. The three note that drivers who refuse a police request to exit their car are subject to arrest, and that refusing to submit to a sobriety test automatically costs you your license for a year. On the other hand, a driver is permitted to respectfully decline a police demand to search his or her trunk.

Then Police Stop replays the fictional scenario. This time, though, Jessica (played by Schenley High School senior Margot Goldberg) submits to and passes a sobriety test, politely refuses a trunk search, and escapes with a citation for reckless driving. The other kids (played by local actors Rasheed Clark, Lonnique Gennelle and Ryan Longeway) claim their innocence respectfully, and the officers (portrayed by John Yost and Art Terry) are authoritative but less confrontational.

Walczak says one goal is to sensitize people to other points of view. "A traffic stop is an inherently dangerous situation for a police officer," he notes. "People need to recognize that there are different perspectives."

Duck, who's been stopped by police but never arrested since that one incident, says, "This is going to teach people how to conduct themselves."

Editing Police Stop in August with videographer Jim Ledoux, director Billy Jackson had a small concern. It had taken the ACLU about two years to find a writer to produce an acceptably realistic script -- one which then went through multiple revisions, including roughly two years of vetting by the command staff of police Chief Robert McNeilly. Some changes were made to more accurately reflect police procedure, such as how officers might speak when calling for backup. But other alterations toned down the conflict in the "bad" scenario, and Jackson -- a veteran producer of media on inner-city culture and issues -- thinks the video's realism suffers. In the original script, for instance, an officer approaches the car whose stereo is blaring and says, "You wanna shut that noise off?" Jackson says, "The department said, 'Well, they wouldn't call it 'noise.'"

Lt. Karen Dixon, who served as the department's liaison to the filmmakers, says police insisted on changes to dialogue that contradicted police training, which emphasizes conflict avoidance. "It's language we wouldn't have tolerated from an officer," says Dixon. "[The original script] was just too much emphasis on trying to portray us as what some people expect to see." The line was changed to: "You want to turn that off?"

Walczak says that when the ACLU first approached the police about the video nearly four years ago, "They responded cautiously because for a long time there's been a fair amount of tension between the ACLU and the Pittsburgh police."

But police spokesperson Tammy Ewin says, "We thought it was a very important project to participate in to [promote] mutual understanding in how to react in certain situations."

Under the consent decree, Walczak says both the number and severity of complaints about police have decreased. As soon as January, Police Stop will be required viewing for 9th- through 12th-graders in Pittsburgh public schools, and after that perhaps outside the city.

Raymond B. McClain, the school district's program officer for citizenship, hopes so. McClain remembers an incident from three decades ago in which a high school student sustained severe injuries after reacting with hostility during a police encounter. "If something happens and you don't feel [police] have a right to do it, you don't try to physically restrain them from doing that," says McClain. "If someone's got a gun, brass knuckles, a billy club and mace, it's just common sense, you're going to lose. &We want [youths] to be reasonable, rational thinkers out there."


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