I have had more opportunities to deal with police officers than most people, both as a collaborator on certain justice initiatives, as an adversary defending clients, and as a motorist with a penchant for fast cars. I also have several friends “on the job” (I’ve been watching Law & Order) with whom I’ve had many interesting conversations about policing, justice, and civil rights. They might call me a sleazebag who works to keep criminals on the street, and I might call them unwitting tools of an oppressive state, but at the end of the day we have a mutual respect and understand the role that each other has to play in our system.
As of today, there’s one more police officer in my Blackberry contacts list – a long time friend of mine graduated from RCMP training yesterday and is now packing heat and flashing tin (that’s more great TV cop show lingo). I’m sure he’s going to make an excellent officer and serve the community well, and I offer him my sincerest congratulations.
In honor of this occasion, I offer my readers my top five tips for dealing with police officers. Whether at a routine traffic stop, as a witness to a crime, or even as a suspect, there’s a good chance that at some point you’ll have to interact with law enforcement – here’s how to make sure that interaction is safe and uneventful for everyone involved.
- Be polite. The overwhelming majority of police officers are good, honest people just doing their job. Be polite and respectful, and know that yes sir, no sir, please and thank you will go a long way. Don’t talk back, don’t get confrontational, and don’t be rude. If an officer is considering giving you a ticket (or worse), arguing and yelling isn’t going to change his mind. Police spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with scumbags who treat them with utter disdain- don’t be one of those people.
- Don’t give him reason to be nervous. Every police officer has a gun and knows how to use it. Every police officer has also been trained to react quickly and decisively to threatening situations, and to be constantly on the lookout for potential threats. I once got called home after the alarm went off at my house, and the alarm company had automatically called the police as well. The officer must have showed up just after I did, because as I was going towards my patio door to check it from the inside, he was approaching from the outside. I’m not sure who frightened who more; I jumped and shrieked like a girl, he reached for his weapon. A few seconds later we laughed about it as I excused myself to change my underwear. The moral? Don’t be jumpy, don’t make unexpected movements, and keep your hands in plain view. A relaxed and comfortable police officer is much less likely to taser your twitchy ass.
- Don’t think you’re smarter than the police officer. You might be smarter, you might not, but keep in mind that it is the officer’s job to pick up on lies and I can assure you that an officer can sniff out bullshit better than you can lie. Don’t try to be cute or a smartass- it’s not going to get you anywhere, or at least not anywhere that you actually want to go.
- Know when to shut up. So if you can’t outsmart a cop, what can you do? Shut up, that’s what. No matter what a police officer tells you, no matter what promises are made or how much pressure gets puts on you, no matter how innocent you are, you are under absolutely no obligation whatsoever to talk to an officer, to make any sort of statement, or to answer any question. Police are very skilled at extracting the information they want, and even an innocuous line of questioning could be much more serious than you realize. If you think you might be in trouble, shut your mouth, call your lawyer, and don’t say a single word until he or she arrives. Don’t even accept an offer of a coffee while you wait – police coffee is the absolute worst. And possibly poisoned.
- Know your rights. While it’s important to be reasonably polite when dealing with the police, it’s equally important to know your rights. That includes the right to keep quiet, the right to refuse a request to search your belongings, your car or your house, and the right to walk away if you’re not being detained. When I offer this type of advice, I often get the folksy response “If you didn’t do anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to worry about.” That’s just not true- you’ve got plenty to worry about, as miscarriages of justice do happen. You’ve also got the right to take a principled stand against unwarranted state intrusions on the lives of its citizens. Understand your rights and be willing to exercise them.
Keep your noses clean, folks!