How to Interact with the Police
A Modern Survival Guide Interlude
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook for navigating and interacting with the modern world. And this article is an interlude, an article that talks about a tip for modern living. This isn’t a philosophical insight, or a deep discussion of human impulses, or an explanation of some major phenomenon; it’s just something people might want to know. And one thing we all ought to know is how to interact with police officers.
Let’s get an elephant in the room out of the way first — I’m not trying to beat up on police officers in this article. They have a hard, necessary, thankless job, and it’s very easy for them to be tarred with a broad brush by the media in cases where individual members fail at that job. Most cops are dedicated, qualified officers who do a good job.
But they’re only human, and they’re subject to human foibles, biases, and prejudices, and that means you need to be prepared to deal with a human in an authority position (who can and will exercise force-backed authority) whenever you deal with a police officer. It doesn’t matter who you are, or what your social station is — any interaction with the police is serious business, with the potential to turn into a life-threatening confrontation. Some caution is always warranted.
So for this article, I’m going to assume that there are three basic situations where most people interact with police officers:
- When you are the victim of or witness to a crime
- When you are pulled over in a traffic stop
- When you are under arrest
We’ll cover these one by one, starting with reporting a crime.
When You Are a Victim or Witness
I lumped these two categories together because they fall in a different mindset compared to the others — specifically, that this is a situation where the police are (or should be) there to help you. That means that this is not (or at least should not be) an adversarial situation, and therefore the rules are a little different.
Whether you are a victim or a witness, there are some important things to keep in mind if you have chosen to go to the police:
- Report crimes quickly — It’s a sad fact of human nature that we don’t make a lot of allowances for trauma. This can make it seem suspicious to police (not to mention the court system) if someone waits a long time to come forward to report a crime. This is especially true of rape cases and domestic violence. If you wait too long, you’ll have trouble convincing the cops that a crime was actually committed. So if at all possible, try to report crimes quickly. I know that’s a serious ask in some cases; there just aren’t any other good options here.
- Don’t lie — Police are human too, and that means that you shouldn’t expect superhuman behavior out of them. They don’t know you. They don’t really have a reason to trust you, at least not at first. In situations where you need the police, the worst thing you can do is damage your reputation with them, and the easiest way to cause that damage is to lie in your report. So don’t lie. Even if it makes you look bad, don’t lie.
- Distinguish between what you know happened and what you think happened — People make terrible witnesses. Part of the reason for that is that we have a tendency to substitute what we think happened or what ought to have happened for what actually happened when we remember an event. So as you make your report, be very conscious of your memory and try to only make statements about things that you know.
- Be patient — It may take awhile to get to see an officer. It may take the officer some time to get your statement. And the officer may ask you to go over the same event multiple times. This is all routine, and getting mad about it won’t help (in fact, police often ask victims and witnesses to go over events several times precisely because people are bad witnesses). The officer may seem rude or condescending. Keep in mind that police are human too, and they have very stressful jobs, so maybe cut them some slack; that being said, remember that you can always ask to speak to another officer if you feel like you’re not getting help. But you may not have that option in some cases.
- Be concise — Try to avoid rambling stories. Try to answer questions simply, with as much detail as you can remember, but always on subject.
- Be respectful — Calling the officer names or adopting a disrespectful tone is a great way to get ignored. Remember that police see a lot of disrespect as part of their daily routine; they don’t need any more from you. Be polite and do not curse at the officer.
- Get records — Ask for copies of any statements you make. This can come in handy if you’re going to be testifying later, as it will help you keep your story consistent.
- Get ready for the long haul — The US judicial system is a lot of things, but “fast” is usually not on the list. If you are reporting a crime, be prepared to give additional testimony or appear in court weeks or perhaps years in the future; in other words, expect some disruption in your life, and leave any expectations of swift justice at the door. This is a terrible thing to say about the criminal justice system, but a lot of the time that’s just how it is.
Also bear in mind that there are some situations where you might not actually want to go to the police as a matter of course. When dealing with a mentally ill person, particularly a family member, calling the police can be dangerous; cops often don’t have a lot of training in dealing with mental illness, and that can cause events to get out of hand. If you do choose to call the police in these cases, be sure to follow the NAMI guidelines.
Finally, be aware that if you call the police, you need to lock your animals up immediately. Police have a terrible record of shooting family dogs, and the sad part is it’s really not their fault. Pets will often view cops as aggressive intruders because… well… sometimes that’s the job. And cops have exactly zero desire to be mauled because a dog is doing its job to defend its family. So control your animals in advance.
When You Are Pulled Over in a Traffic Stop
This is probably the most common interaction most of us will have with police officers — particularly if you’re like me and just naturally assume that speed limits are for other people. It’s a character flaw, I know. In any case, if you are in a traffic stop situation, please be aware that this is one of the most dangerous situations that you are likely to face in your everyday life. Yes, really.
It’s worth remembering that police officers are quite often shot, beaten, or run over while issuing speeding tickets. That makes a “routine” traffic stop a dangerous, stressful situations for police officers, and that means it’s a dangerous situation for you.
Accordingly, you should probably make the effort to ensure that any traffic stop is as stress-free for all parties as possible — assuming you enjoy being alive and not arrested, that is. And that means doing a few things if you’re pulled over:
- When you see blue lights behind you, pull over to the nearest area that looks wide enough to fit your car. If you don’t see one, it’s a good idea to give some signal that you are aware there’s a cop behind you — turning on your emergency flashers, for example — and then decrease your speed and putter along until you find a good spot. If the officer tells you to pull over, though, pull over.
- Once you have pulled over, don’t move around too much. Too much movement may look suspicious. If you can do so without rummaging through your car, though, it’s generally a good idea to get out your license and registration, and make sure your seat belt is buckled. Then roll down your window.
- When the officer gets out of their car, make sure both of your hands are in view from the perspective of someone looking in through your driver’s side window. Resting them on the steering wheel is a good option. Make sure any passengers’ hands are similarly visible, placing them on the dashboard or simply held up in the air.
- When speaking with the officer, be courteous, calm, and cooperative at all times. It is never in your best interest to tick off a cop by being rude or uncooperative — that’s how people get tased. Remember that police officers can almost always find some reason to screw with you; don’t give them the motivation to do so. If you have to retrieve anything from a compartment inside the car, or from a pocket on your person, tell them in advance that you are going to do so, and move slow.
- If the officer asks if you know how fast you were going, don’t lie, but don’t outright admit you were doing 80 in a 35 zone either. This is a trap question — the officer is trying to extract a verbal confession. The best answer is to be vague and say you think you were trying to go about (whatever the speed limit was) but you’re not sure exactly how fast you were going when you saw the blue lights. This also confirms that you knew what the speed limit was, which prevents the officer from citing you for failure to obey traffic signs.
- If the officer asks to search your car, you have a choice to make. If there is absolutely nothing incriminating in your car, and you know it for sure, it may be the best choice to consent to a search. But generally speaking this isn’t the best option; there are all kinds of things a traffic cop might be able to cite you for, and you may not want to take that risk. However, it may also look incriminating if you refuse to allow a search of the car — and keep in mind that officers can drum up “reasonable suspicion” on the slimmest of pretenses. When in doubt, remember the phrase “I do not consent to a search.”¹
- And always be compliant — never, ever physically resist the officer. If they ask you to get out of the car, get out of the car. If they ask you to take a DUI test, take the DUI test. Do not attempt to physically stop them from searching your car or your person; in either case, simply repeat (in a respectful tone) “I do not consent to a search.” Do not give the officer an excuse or motivation to resort to physical force. If they do anyway, congratulations, you now have an excellent basis for a lawsuit. Get paid, not shot.
In general, it’s best to keep in mind that once you’ve been pulled over, you’re probably getting a ticket. Just accept that going in. If you get off with a warning, that’s a happy surprise, but that should never be your expectation.
Once you have the ticket, it’s usually a good idea to hire a traffic lawyer. Those guys are basically magic. They can usually find a way to reduce or, in some cases, eliminate your ticket. This can keep points off your license, help you keep your license, and generally make a bad situation slightly better. In any case, always keep your court date.
When You Are Under Arrest
Last but by no means least, when you are under arrest there is a simple trifecta of actions you should take in order to reduce the risk to everyone involved:
- Be respectful
- Be compliant
- Don’t run
Being respectful is the simplest, easiest way to defuse a lot of potentially very bad situations. Do not call the officer names. Do not insult the officer’s parentage. Do not curse. Simply say “yes sir,” “no sir,” or “I understand, sir,” and respond respectfully to the officer’s questions until things have calmed down and you’re booked.
Being compliant is critical. Unless you get a real psycho, most cops are going to follow a script when placing you under arrest. They may shout at you. Let them. They may order you around or say disrespectful things. Let them. It’s not worth getting shot. Never, ever, physically resist arrest — this is an excellent way to commit suicide by cop and the odds of them ever getting punished are slim. Always follow the officer’s directions, and be sure to keep your hands where they can see them.
And finally, don’t run. If you watch the news at all, you’ll see a story every few days about a perp who got shot in the back while running from the cops. Do you know how often officers get convicted of murder for doing that? Spoiler alert: almost never. So keep it in mind that frustrated cops don’t necessarily have an incentive to not shoot a fleeing suspect. And even if they don’t shoot you, you’re gonna get pepper sprayed, tased, and probably beaten if you run, just because you made them run after you.
Plus, there’s the minor detail that evading the police is very, very difficult in the modern world. They can track your phone, your car, you credit cards, and all of your friends’ and relatives’ phones, cars, and credit cards. They can blast your face across social media and news media. You’re probably not going to evade capture for long, and in the end you’ll just have the extra charge of fleeing arrest. It’s better to let them take you in with dignity.
Once you’re at the police station or jailhouse, keep going with the trifecta, but add one more point:
GET A LAWYER
Do not speak to the police until you have a lawyer, aside from the necessary statements you’ll need to make in order to get the lawyer (also note that your odds of getting a phone call in a timely manner go up drastically if you’re polite). Remember that anything you say can be used against you. Also remember that police are very good at extracting confessions — sometimes they even extract confessions for crimes the perp didn’t commit. Do not, ever, respond to interrogation until you have a lawyer. This is your right as a citizen; don’t throw it away.
Know Your Rights
To wrap up, it’s worth your time to know your rights as a citizen in any dealings with police:
- You have the right to remain silent.
- You have the right to refuse to consent to an unwarranted search of yourself, your car, or your home.
- If you are not under arrest, you have the right to calmly leave.
- You have the right to a lawyer if you are under arrest.
- You have your constitutional rights in all cases.
You may have other specific rights and protections depending on your circumstances; check your state’s or ACLU’s website for additional information.
The bottom line is that, in any of your interactions with police, it is worthwhile to conduct yourself as a citizen. A citizen obeys the law, so long as the law is legitimate, and is respectful towards those who uphold it. But a citizen also has rights, and should be prepared to defend them in court if they are violated. So remember — polite, respectful, and compliant is usually the way to go, and when it’s not, that’s what lawsuits are for.
¹Bear in mind that if the officer tries to search your car or your person without a warrant, without your consent, and without informing you that they are going to search your car/person, that constitutes a violation of the 4th Amendment.