You’ve asked what you and your friends should do when you find yourself in an encounter with the police. What I’m going to suggest isn’t a perfect code of conduct. It’s not to excuse or ignore the terrible things that have happened to people in police custody, especially to people of color, that has been sadly going on for years.
So how does one best behave in an encounter with the police? Is there a basic set of rules? In order to avoid the tragedies that some encounters become, is there a sensible list of do’s and don’ts?
In order to answer, as best I can, my dear son’s question, I offer these guidelines from my own experience over the years with law enforcement, as a defense counsel and prosecutor, in Navy JAG and as a civilian lawyer, in a variety of court settings. I draw as well from what I’ve seen as a Family Court judge, in cases ranging from domestic violence to juvenile delinquency, with the Navy’s shore patrol, with civilian police, sheriffs and correction officers on all levels, and thousands of defendants, suspects, and of course, the wrongly accused.
For the good officers who know their job and do it right, I note that they are officers tasked with the daily challenge of real police work. The overwhelming majority of them do their work remarkably well, with skill, professionalism, and compassion.
One kind of frequent encounter with police occurs when a driver is pulled over in a traffic stop. Other causes for encounters with police come under the category of when one is a crime victim, or a witness to a crime. What to do?
First, there’s a lot to gain by starting off with being polite and respectful. No matter how intimidated you may feel, try to stand your ground, but with a simple, low-key tone of respect.
Recognize at the outset that any interaction with police is very serious. Taking on an attitude, whether hostile or provoking, on your part, will quickly prove to be a senseless, often long-term mistake.
A police officer is trained for these encounters. As with you, their mannerism should be calm and courteous. If the officer violates rules of basic courtesy, it’s all the more reason for you to be courteous, calm and cooperative. This last behavior — being cooperative— has its limits, which we’ll get to in a moment.
Second, when the police officer tells you to do something, your job is to comply. Whether you want to comply has nothing to do with it.
Third, if you are placed under arrest, don’t resist. If you resist arrest, you are committing a crime. Worse than that, resisting arrest never has a positive outcome.
Do not run from a police officer. It is not the time to seek justice or defend yourself against unfair charges. All that comes later. Arguing combatively with what you are charged with at the scene of an arrest is another mistake. Resisting arrest means you choose to bring the encounter to a dangerous level. Never forget this.
A traffic stop is among the most common causes of interacting with police. It is when police and civilians are most often injured, shot, or run over. But it helps to understand that they live with this daunting risk more now than ever.
As the driver, pull over as soon as it is safe to do so, or immediately if the officer in a patrol vehicle tells you to. If it’s an unmarked car, make reasonable efforts to make sure, politely, that it is indeed a police officer who stopped you.
Then you will set the right tone for the situation by behaving in this way:
- Slow down as soon as you see the flashing lights behind/next to you;
- Turn on your hazard lights as you pull over and stop;
- Have ready your license and vehicle registration to give to the officer;
- Roll down your window, remove the key(s) from the ignition and place it, or the starter, on the dashboard;
- Keep both of your hands in view, preferably on the steering wheel;
- Passengers should keep their hands visible as well, placing them on the dashboard or, if in the rear seat, atop the seats in front of them, or simply in the air;
- Move slowly if you must move at all, but it’s best to remain still;
- Tell the officer in advance if you want to get something from your pocket, console, glove compartment, etc.;
- The key word for you at all times is courtesy;
- Stepping out of the vehicle means just that – comply and cooperate.
If the officer directs you to cooperate with a sobriety test, you either follow those directions, or as is your right, refuse the test, which has life-changing consequences best discussed beforehand with your attorney, rather than understanding from this letter. In either case, do not flee the scene, on foot or in your car, as all manner of criminal charges will haunt you for the rest of your life.
There are some tips worth noting:
If you are asked how fast you were going, it’s best to indicate your awareness of that area’s speed limit, but you need not admit to your actual speed.
If you are asked to consent to a search of your vehicle, consent only if you are confident nothing incriminating will be found. Otherwise, do not consent to a search if asked, and leave it to the police to take the next step in this. Refusing a search does not mean you can obstruct a search. Interestingly, the ACLU website offers sound advice on searches, and your attorney is an important source as well.
If there be an arrest, experience has shown that an arrestee who is calm and polite has the best chance, once at police HQ, to call an attorney as early as possible. Make no statements till your attorney arrives.
Keep in mind that a police officer is no more and no less than a human being in an authority position. They are constantly in danger just so that we can be protected from danger. They have their minds on tracking fugitives, being alert and observant, pursuing violent gangs, receiving radio calls or a citizen’s desperate plea, and running to explosive situations that send the rest of us running for cover.
Note as well that police have more discretion in matters of law enforcement than any judge, prosecutor or lawyer. You should interact with them wisely for that reason alone.
With all the focus on illegal guns on the streets, it is the police who confiscate and remove guns from criminals and crime scenes. They save lives, and do all kinds of heroic acts as first responders, patrolling fast-moving highways or waterways, assisting in a baby’s birth, heart attacks, you name it.
And if it’s something of vital consequence that we’re not willing to do, reflect on how they do it regularly. Rarely overall do they act wrongfully, but if and when they do, get the badge number and address it with the processes available.
These processes have sadly not worked for Blacks and too many others. That and other terrible injustices, including being murdered at the hands of police, is why Black Lives Matter was founded. They ultimately will achieve what your life as well should be devoted to: helping the world to be a better and just place.
When you are a witness to or the victim of a crime, accept that it is a tedious effort for the police officer to take and record your statement. This is where, again, being patient and calm makes all the difference.
With these guidelines in mind, conduct yourself with care and common sense, and use your head. Your ego and your temper are your enemies at such times. Strictly from my experience and observation, if you follow these simple rules, you are likely to avoid the horrible events into which some police encounters have exploded in devastating ways. Guidelines of this sort have worked well in many situations, regardless of the civilian’s age, race and background. Not a bad idea to go over these again, and maybe with your friends.
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