Cedric Hopkins wants you to know your rights during police stops

The lawyer and Columbus native wrote ‘Black Book of Rights’ with the aim of shrinking the ‘fault line’ he saw growing beneath police interactions with the Black community

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Black Book of Rights by Cedric Hopkins

Nearly three decades ago, as a high school senior in Columbus, Cedric Hopkins and three friends were leaving a house party when police arrived on the scene.

“There were four young, Black guys in my car, which was like a jeep, where you could see all the way in, and the top was off and everything,” said Hopkins, 46, by phone from his home in California. “But the cop draws a gun on us, and he’s yelling at us to turn off the car and take the keys out.”

At that moment, the father of the student who hosted the party bolted out the front door, yelling at the officer “that these were good kids,” Hopkins said, and to put his firearm away, which he did.

Though the incident lasted less than a minute, it left a lifelong impression on the attorney and new author, who recently released Black Book of Rights, a how-to designed to help Black citizens navigate interactions with police, providing everything from an explanation of a person’s legal rights in the situation to an exploration of the history of policing and the fraught relations between officers and the Black community. 

Recently, Hopkins posted to Facebook, and the white student who hosted the party commented, sharing how that moment had stuck with him, and asking Hopkins if it was something to which his mind still returned. “And I was letting him know, yeah, I still think about that today,” said Hopkins, who was born in Columbus to a public school teacher father and a mother who owned and operated a hot dog cart, Sonny’s Grill, which she used to station outside of the courthouse. “Especially now, in the context of today, when I know what could have happened, where it comes down to that police officer’s decision to pull the trigger, and that’s how close it was then, because I was the driver.”

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Following a number of high-profile police killings of Black citizens, including the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May 2020, Hopkins started to wonder how he could do something to address the growing fault line, as he termed it, he saw growing beneath police interactions with the Black community.

“I look at those interactions and I see a fault line appear under the ground, where things are so delicate and it seems like the fault line can erupt at any time,” said Hopkins, who was further inspired to tackle the issue by his children entering into their teenage years. “It’s such a touchy situation when I see a police officer interacting with someone, especially a young Black kid, so I want to help create as much safety as I can. Coming from a father's perspective, when you see your child behind the wheel for the first time, which I’m seeing with my 16-year-old, you want to tell them everything you know about driving, and I look at police interactions the same way.”

With Black Book of Rights, Hopkins started from this point — the ways he could help increase the safety of Black citizens stopped by police — and built outward from there. As a result, the book includes a guideline to safely interacting with an officer, including a full explanation of a person’s legal rights in the situation, a knowledge Hopkins hopes will help de-escalate tensions and, longer term, perhaps have some impact on the higher rate of incarceration among the Black populace. “The first line in the book is about trying to reduce the number of Black men going to prison, and I think by invoking your rights, and safely invoking your rights, that’s how I’m trying to reach that goal,” Hopkins said.

Cedric Hopkins

Of course, Hopkins is fully aware that, even if a person is aware of and correctly invokes their rights, there is still plenty of room for a stop to go sideways. But his hope is that the information can at least minimize these tragic outcomes.

“Any situation can escalate, and invoking your rights can’t stop an overzealous cop, or a cop who feels threatened — either justified or not — in taking the situation to the next level,” he said. “The first suggestion is to remain calm. You almost want to think of it as a business transaction. If the cop has what he or she needs to cite you, try to get to that citation as quickly as possible and get out.”

In writing, Hopkins focused on keeping the language simple and direct, avoiding some of the legalese that can shape the briefs he composes in his legal work so that teenage readers could more quickly grasp an understanding of cases such as Terry vs. Ohio, a 1968 Supreme Court case in which the courts ruled that it was not unconstitutional for police to “stop and frisk” a person they reasonably suspected to be armed and involved in a crime. “I’m used to talking to parents of people who are incarcerated, explaining legal issues in terms they can understand, taking something complex and breaking it down into simple, everyday terms,” Hopkins said. “I was mindful of making sure attention wasn’t lost because of the language in the book.”

Hopkins even worked with the printer to have the book published at a smaller size, with the idea being it could more easily fit into a back pocket, making it accessible for reference whenever the situation might call for it.

While geared toward citizens, Hopkins said the book could also benefit law enforcement, and he hopes it can spark conversation across the spectrum. 

“I’ve contacted a couple of school districts, and I’d like to go to schools and talk to students, letting them know what their rights are,” he said. “But I’m also trying to start a conversation with police officers. … They’re supposed to know your rights, and when you invoke them, they need to respect it.”