How can I safely interact with the police?
January 5, 2009 10:16 PM   Subscribe

What is the proper protocol to use when dealing with police officers?

As I read the recent thread about a policeman shooting a man in the back, I realized that I don't know the proper form for safely navigating interactions with the police.

How should one act in such situations so as to minimize the risk of misunderstanding and injury?
posted by esd to Human Relations (35 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
One thing I was told was that if you're pulled over, turn off your motor (if it's not extremely hot or cold) and keep your hands on the steering wheel until the police officer asks for your license and registration.
posted by IndigoRain at 10:22 PM on January 5, 2009

via the blue - don't talk to the police"
posted by nadawi at 10:30 PM on January 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

Be polite and respectful.
posted by zippy at 10:30 PM on January 5, 2009

It really depends on which country you're in, or even which city/town.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:31 PM on January 5, 2009

The thing you have to keep in mind is that once the police are engaged in a situation, they are engaged professionally. That is to say that they fulfill a role which is mandated as both the enforcement of the law, and also self preservation, to the point of lethality.

Generally, police officers don't "know" you, but even if they did, once a question of law is at hand, they are supposed to treat you neutrally with an eye toward upholding the law. In other words, police maybe affable, easy going, friendly, or whatever, but when they have probably cause, when they are engaged in the law, don't expect anything other than a cold calculation about your suspect motivations, and their own self preservation.

We have what can be considered a social contract with law enforcement. As such police deserve a healthy amount of respect and deference. They have guns after all. Generally it is best to do what they say, within the scope of your rights, for any given situation. But only within the context of the larger legal system which is designed to provide oversight for police abuse.

At the end of the day, if you argue, if you run, if you spit on them (that's battery, btw) - even if your actions are immediately justifiable - you're often forfeiting your broader protections by the legal system. So a cop hauls you because he's a pig who didn't like your punk face. If you go along quietly, you're in a much better position to defend yourself latter before a judge, than if you go kicking and screaming.

This is not to say that the populace should be docile in the face of totalitarian treatment by their own sworn protectors, but generally speaking you personally will come out better by engaging the law (via the court,) rather than physically struggling at the moment of confrontation.

The onus is upon you to know your rights as a resident of your state, and a citizen of your country.
posted by wfrgms at 10:33 PM on January 5, 2009 [3 favorites]

I think its important to remember that police officers are people who are just as worried about something going tragically wrong during a routine situation as you are. A police officer doesn't know whether or not you have a gun, whether or not you're mentally together, and whether or not you hate the police. Mix this in with the fact that police officers usually interact with people in stressful situations and you end up with a lot of fear on both sides of the interaction.

In any interaction with a police officer, I would take extra care to explain why you're doing anything you're doing. If your license and registration are in the glove department, say that they're in the glove department and ask the officer if you can reach over to take them out. Saying that first will make your lunge over to the glove department look a lot less threatening than if you didn't say anything first. It may sound stupid, but if it keeps you safe, a lot of communication and extra precaution is always useful.

Weirdly enough, this is the same advice I got when a police officer told me how to behave if I was getting mugged. Keep communicating and listening because nobody wants the situation to get away from the script.
posted by eisenkr at 10:35 PM on January 5, 2009 [3 favorites]

Everytime I've ever been pulled over or questioned by the police, I make a point of being as polite as possible (and not the subtly dickish polite), answering questions honestly, making sure my car is turned off and my hands are kept in view. They are doing a job, they get a rash of shit from every other dick they deal with so I try to differentiate myself by being polite and nice.

I've been in cars when they've been pulled over and the driver was a complete asshole to the cop. They, generally, get as big a ticket as is possible.

Not so coincidentally, I rarely get given a ticket. I've been pulled over for speeding on my motorcycle and ended up talking bikes with the cop for forty five minutes and no ticket.

Don't be a dick, be honest and, by the way, don't be a dick.
posted by fenriq at 10:54 PM on January 5, 2009

Give minimal information asked (doesn't hurt to be a tad pleasant about it, but not too pleasant or you will be suspected to be drunk) and don't say anything else. Chances are they'll leave you and go look for more entertaining prey. If you really are "caught in the act", just go with them and keep the communications minimal. During the arrest is NOT the time to contest the police's actions. Please note that these techniques will not remedy being shot in the back without warning.
posted by telstar at 11:06 PM on January 5, 2009

Hand over your ID and shut up. videos

Sample question that you don't have to answer: "Do you know how fast you were going?"
posted by rhizome at 11:08 PM on January 5, 2009

It really depends on which country you're in

This. I've never had a New Zealand police officer get upset if I get out of the car at a stop, never mind something like pulling my wallet out of my pocket. That this would apparently end up with me getting shot dead in some parts of the world is odd to me, but apparently true.
posted by rodgerd at 11:30 PM on January 5, 2009

A few 'personal experience' thoughts'...
usually it's better when there is just the one cop. though several years ago in Texas if there had not been a bakers dozen to restrain one out-of-control 'officer' lord knows how it would have ended.
With one you can often reason and there is not the effort for them to 'out macho' each other. "Real' (vice) cops are more professional and in control than 'traffic/parking' ones (I generalize shamelessly).
I advise freezing the moment they are on to you and following any directions to the T. Deny nothing, confess nothing. Speak only when spoken to and in respectful terms. Don't say too much, you don't have to. This will often piss them, but 'anything you say can and will...'
In a car, I pull off as soon as I can with blinkers on, hands visible, window open, face turned towards open window, sitting motionless. I say sir (ma'am), please and thank you a lot.
I was once arrested (civil disobedience with a trespassing charge) and even though I made it as easy as I could on the arresting officer, (turning slowing, extending my hands, palms down, behind me) he got a bit rough.
I don't have as much experience as this might all suggest, but you can get in situations.
Remember you can respect cops w/o admiring them.
posted by dawson at 11:47 PM on January 5, 2009

If you get pulled over: move promptly (but not erratically) to the shoulder, put it in park or neutral+brake, kill the engine, turn on your flashers if you know where they are, and turn on the dome light if you know where it is. Don't worry about the last two if you can't do them without a lot of fuss. If you have to have your car on to put your window down, put it down now. Keep your hands on the wheel at 10 and 2, where they can be easily seen by the officer as they approach from the rear.

Do not start hunting around for stuff inside the car. Do not get out of the car unless told (really, "ordered") to do so. Those are the things that start to increase your likelihood of getting shot, because they're threatening.

Be polite. Be respectful. A traffic stop on the side of a road somewhere, alone, is not the time or place to make a stand against authority. If you think the ticket you're getting is bullshit, the appropriate venue is probably Traffic Court, where you can make your case and have significantly less chance of ending up face down with your hands cuffed behind your back.

Every cop I've ever talked to has pretty much told me that it's not really a winner to try and "talk" your way out of a ticket. The decision of whether to give you a ticket or not is generally made by the time the officer gets out of the car, or maybe in the first few seconds after they walk up to your window, and most of the time it's based on aspects of the situation you can't control.

Legally, you're not obligated to answer very many questions, or obey requests ("would you mind if I searched the car...?"), but my understanding is that you are obligated to obey direct orders ("step out of the car."). Anecdotally, I've heard of people doing the absolute minimum required at traffic stops, which involves opening your window a tiny crack, just enough to pass your license and registration through when demanded, but this never struck me as a good idea (unless you happen to be a criminal defense attorney with an intimate understanding of the law and a habit of driving after putting down a few, which is the anecdotal example I heard). Seems like that would be an invitation for the police to really put their minds into coming up with every last thing you could possibly be ticketed for, which depending on the circumstance could be a lot.

And, of course, be polite, but not obsequious. Addressing the officer as "officer" probably won't hurt.

If you have any desire, or think you might have any desire, to protest a ticket in court, IMO it's advantageous to not do anything that will stick in the officer's mind or cause them to give a crap about your particular ticket versus the dozens of others they might write in a week or a month. This is because, in many states anyway, if you go to court and the officer just doesn't bother to show up, your ticket gets thrown out. (Personally, I have never avoided a ticket at a traffic stop, but I've never had one not thrown out in court.) The more anonymous you are, the better.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:54 PM on January 5, 2009

This comment in the very thread you linked in the question contains the answer you need.

1. If you get pulled over in a car, turn on your interior light
2. Put both hands on your wheel, at 10 and 2, so the officer can see your hands.
3. When you go to a glove compartment or wallet, say so first and move smoothly and deliberately over to it.
4. BREAK EYE CONTACT WITH POLICE AT THIS POINT (not mentioned in that comment, but I've heard it from officers many times that someone wanting to shoot them keeps looking at them, normal people look for their stuff)
5. Say thanks and be 100% honest. I've said things like "I was going about 82mph in that 60mph zone back there" and had cops let me off with a warning because they wanted to thank me for being upfront and honest.
posted by mathowie at 12:00 AM on January 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

My philosophy is that the point is just to get through it and let the cop do their job. You are not required to do their job for them, however. And seriously, this goes double if you're caught red-handed or as part of an investigation.

That said, there's not a lot of defenses against a cop shooting you in the back while you're laying down and restrained on your stomach.
posted by rhizome at 12:04 AM on January 6, 2009

Move slowly, talk slowly, say as little as possible, and be as white as possible.
posted by orthogonality at 3:16 AM on January 6, 2009 [10 favorites]

If you need to approach a police car from behind at night (I had to do this once when lost), trace a wide arc around the car before doubling back and approaching from the front.
posted by gene_machine at 4:10 AM on January 6, 2009

It is better to say nothing to a cop than lie to one.

That might sound really obvious, but you'd be amazed how many people still lie to the police thinking they can avoid problems (of course, their real problem is they just can't shut up).
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:38 AM on January 6, 2009

Philosophically it's important to keep in mind that whether you support police or don't or whatever your political opinions might be, there is a man with a gun talking to you. This inspires people with problems with authority to get all bristly sometimes. Don't do this. Treat the cop like a beehive in your garage. Perhaps it is an injustice that it is there, but it's best to treat it as respectfully as possible until you get away from it.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:32 AM on January 6, 2009

Zippy has it. Be polite and respectful. So much of this world runs best on "do unto others as you would have done unto you." When I was in college I was getting arrested and my good, drunk friend who could legally drink was arrested and got totally worse charges "defending" me by verbally engaging the officers. I kept telling him it was fine and to go back inside.

If there is any possibility you could get prosecuted, your battle is to be won or lost in court, NOT with the officer.

I am not your lawyer and this is not legal advice.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:34 AM on January 6, 2009

If standing up, don't put your hands in your pockets.

Don't reach for anything suddenly in your car. If you're going through your wallet and drop your insurance card on the floor, ask the cop "I dropped my insurance card, I'm going to reach down and pick it up now?" and wait for a nod before doing so.

Broadly speaking, they deal with two categories of people--those who may suddenly do them harm, and those who won't. Make it clear that you're in the second category.

And if you are licensed to carry a concealed weapon and have one on your person, make that the first words you say. That is the only good moment during a traffic stop to convey that information.
posted by kprincehouse at 5:48 AM on January 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Today's Seattle PI has the ACLU's recommendations of what to do when stopped, and the Seattle PD's policy on how an officer should act during a stop.
posted by nomisxid at 6:19 AM on January 6, 2009

God it creeps the shit out of me when I see police with guns, so I'd suggest that the safest way to interact with them is to start by living in a country where they don't carry except when they really absolutely have to.

Other strategies include treating everyone as a human, and deserving of some degree of basic respect, whether they're police or otherwise. Never being a criminal scumbag. And, just like with flight attendants, never making any stupid jokes - most of these people take off their senses of humour when they put on their uniforms, it doesn't matter how funny you think it's going to be, zip your fucking lip. Don't talk yourself into trouble.
posted by The Monkey at 6:53 AM on January 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

All of this is excellent advice.

The get out of the car thing definitely depends on where you are. Some places, it is appreciated because you are more visible. In others (most urban areas of the US) it is frowned upon because it can be intimidating to the officer.

Other comments:

- You don't want to intimidate a police officer. They don't know you, they don't know what you are capable of. They have two things on their mind- "do my job" and "don't get hurt". Police officers are trained to be in control of a situation- if you also try to control the situation, they are trained to escalate until they gain control. It is for their own safety and that of the public. If they are dealing with a nut, letting them go all over the place could get peope hurt.

- Interactions with the police are, conflictingly, both the time and not the time to play lawyer and assert rights. Start with the assumption that the officer is just doing his/her job. If they ask you to do something that you believe to be outside their authority, politely say so. "Please open your trunk." "I'd rather you didn't search my vehicle." If the officer persists, clearly state "I object to this search." After that, do what he says and deal with it in court.

- Your rights are yours to assert, but also yours to give up. If you believe letting an officer search you or your car will make things go better, let them. Or don't. If you don't assert your rights and the officer finds something, you are pretty much screwed. If you do object, you might have a shot at getting out of it.

- You can't know what they thought you were doing, or who they thought they were pulling over. I've had two interactions with the police where they thought I was a Bad Guy and were then relieved to find that I wasn't. One was a guns drawn fright fest... The other was late at night and they thought I was some kind of criminal. I opened my glove box to get my insurance card and some allergy pills came out. The cop was delighted- "drugs! what are those??!" He was disappointed when they were indeed Benadryl.

- The word "cop" is sometimes considered to be derogatory.

- You are not a member of their organization, so you aren't obligated to use their rank when speaking to them. Sir or ma'am is fine.

- Never admit anything you aren't willing to pay the price for. (Hell, never DO anything you aren't willing to pay the price for- I'm cheap, I don't like paying speeding tickets, so I don't speed. Often, anyway.) The police are allowed to lie. I don't like it, but they are. Because of this, you can't trust that they are telling the truth. "Do you know how fast you were going?" "I was just keeping up with traffic."

- Further, never lie. That is sometimes a crime in itself.

- My comments are assuming a routine stop and that you aren't doing or holding anything illegal. If you are engaged in illegal activity, you probably should seek counsel and not listen to the internet.

- If it's something bigger than that, an investigation of some kind, the "don't talk to the cops" advice is much more apt. You can't know what their real intentions are, and you can inadvertently talk yourself into more trouble.

- Most police officers are just people doing a job. Plenty of bad ones, but plenty more good ones. Like anyone in a stressful job, they appreciate it when people are nice to them.
posted by gjc at 7:09 AM on January 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

They want the dome light on for safety, to see if you've got a weapon, but also to look at what you have in your car. You don't have to allow them to search your car, but they may look in the windows. Fenriq's advice: "Don't be a dick" is perfect, and applicable to most of your life. But you also don't have to allow the police to violate what's left of your civil liberties.
posted by theora55 at 7:21 AM on January 6, 2009

If you're white and look like you could be rich, just be polite. If you're Black, Hispanic, immigrant, gay, poor white, etc -- crawl.
posted by Brzht at 8:21 AM on January 6, 2009

Treat the cop like a beehive in your garage.

I like this one. I was thinking "treat the cop like a grizzly bear", but some stupid people shoot at grizzly bears, too.

In other words, keep your mouth shut when they ask you questions, stay still unless they instruct you to move, follow their orders and don't argue until you're in front of a judge. This is presuming that you're in the US, of course.
posted by muddgirl at 8:40 AM on January 6, 2009

Police officers are trained in "verbal judo", see here. This is not true in all jurisdictions certainly, but it's true in many communities. Verbal judo is used to control situations, and cops use their mannerisms, gestures, facial expressions, and words very carefully in every encounter.

They are expert at tripping people up, using the natural discomfort with police situations that people feel to control, cajole, and convince. Police officers often do not speak to you unless they're interested in what you're doing (or not doing). So nearly all police encounters are investigations. And should be treated as such.

The police are good at trying to get you to admit to wrong doing and to consent to give up your rights (your right to go about your business, and your right against unreasonable searches and seizures, as well as your right not to incriminate yourself). When you consent to a search, or to entering into a conversation with officers, you are voluntarily giving up those rights.

It's a balancing act.
posted by zpousman at 8:52 AM on January 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

It was Guiiani who said that citizens should recognize badges of rank, and address officers accordingly as Officer, Sargent, Lieutenant, etc. A bit a frill, perhaps, but appreciated none the less, and probably worth the effort if you expect such encounters.

Admissions of guilt are never a good idea, but if you did do something wrong a hang-dog demeanor of shame and regret, and not any kind of oppositional bluster, might prevent a situation from escalating.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:20 AM on January 6, 2009

In the US, at least, it is horrible advice to suggest people get out of their cars during a stop unless specifically ordered. I cannot think of any situation where this is a good idea.
posted by odinsdream at 9:33 AM on January 6, 2009

To expand on what I said and what others have said, it seems like it's important to distinguish between a request and an order. "Do you mind stepping out of your car, ma'am?" can be refused (although there will probably be consequences if you say no - I believe cops can "reasonably detain" a person until, say, a canine unit arrives). On the other hand, "Step out of your car and put your hands on the hood" should be obeyed promptly.
posted by muddgirl at 9:43 AM on January 6, 2009

In general, you should be polite and courteous to all people. If you are in a rough neighborhood, maybe be a bit more circumspect. If you are in a good neighborhood, you can probably be a bit more aggressive with no worries. This holds true whether the people you are dealing with are police or no.
posted by charlesv at 10:18 AM on January 6, 2009

Nth'ing polite and respectfull. Just don't grovel.
posted by Dr.Pill at 12:19 PM on January 6, 2009

My dad is a cop, and there is nothing he appreciates more than people being (genuinely) polite to him.
posted by at 2:05 PM on January 6, 2009

If you are female, or just have a "pretty mouth," and a solo cop is acting weird, in the US you can and should request he call backup.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:59 PM on January 6, 2009

Thanks for all of the help! Everyone made good points, and I think I have a much better idea of how to handle myself in a situation with the police now.
posted by esd at 6:41 AM on February 5, 2009

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