Yes, Officer, Is There Something Wrong?
You’re driving with your friends, having a great time. You’re only going a little over the speed limit. Or your town has a curfew, and you didn’t leave your friend’s house in time, so you get in your car to drive home and start rushing because you don’t want to get into trouble with your parents. Or you desperately want to see your girlfriend, so you wait until your parents are asleep and then sneak out the back door. It’s awesome to be outside enjoying the night air—until a police car slowly pulls up beside you . . .
You inevitably at some point will be stopped or pulled over by a police officer. Your experience is going to vary a great deal based on what community you live in, your race, your socio-economic class, and how well known your family is known in the community (for better or worse). To help you manage the situation most effectively and minimize the problems you’ll get yourself into, I’ve asked Officer Lindsey Wilson of Virginia, a police officer with over sixteen years of experience, to explain the dos and don’ts when interacting with law enforcement officers (LEO) and what to do if you run into an officer who’s a bully or a racist.
Top Five Things Not to Do When Speaking with a Law-Enforcement Officer
1. Don’t tell the officer what he/she must do. LEOs are trained to take charge of the situation, restore calm, and fix the initial problem . . . then leave. LEOs are controlling by nature, and they’re also human beings with egos and faults. They don’t like being told what they must do. Officer Wilson says, “If you tell me I have to let you go on your way because you know someone important, I guarantee I’m giving you a ticket after I take my sweet time writing it.”
2. Don’t tell the officer what he/she can’t do. On the flip side, a big and common mistake is telling a LEO, “You can’t arrest me.” You’re practically placing yourself in handcuffs and ensuring yourself a ride to the pokey when you make this statement.
3. Don’t insult the officer. “Don’t you have anything better to do?!” This classic statement always leads to a negative experience. Officer Wilson’s response to this question is usually, “No, this is what I do. I write tickets, I stop you from parking in the handicapped space, and I interact with the public while enforcing the law. No, there are no unclosed murder cases I’m working on, and no, I’m not assigned any drug kingpin cases . . . so pretty-please-with-sugar-on-top move your car out of the fire lane in front of
the grocery store and park it in the vast empty parking lot like everyone else.”
4. Don’t assume a LEO is uneducated. Many LEOs attended college and earned degrees. Many more are prior military with years of public service. Some people think that LEOs aren’t intelligent and that it’s important to remind the LEO that he/she is a public servant and that, in a figurative or perhaps literal sense, “I pay your salary!” Trying to make yourself feel better by degrading others is never a winning hand.
5. Don’t be physically aggressive. Never become physically aggressive in posture, gesture, or movement when dealing with a LEO. As Officer Wilson explains, “Don’t stand behind me. Don’t point to my gun or reach your hand toward it. If I step back, don’t continue to step forward toward me. Don’t become angry and try to fight me. The more you win the more you lose. I have a pretty good idea how many LEOs are in my sector, my county, and the county next to me. If I press a button on my radio, they will all come to help me. …plus some guys and girls alike are happy to say, ‘You can’t make me . . . I don’t have to . . . my parents pays your salary . . . and don’t you have anything better to do?’ I recall one sixteen-year-old who puffed up his chest and came at me when I wouldn’t allow him to enter a high school basketball game. Luckily for him and me, his mother tackled him before he reached me. The bottom line is a reality that we all knew at one point but may have forgotten somewhere along the way. LEOs are empowered to use force to achieve their objectives. ‘You can’t touch me!’. . . Well, actually I can . . . and I will if I must.”
Top Five Things to Do/Say When You Encounter a Law Enforcement Officer
“Every fight, drunk in public, domestic abuse, loud noise complaint, accident in the home, dissolved friendship, and tragic occurrence seems to start with a can of beer or a margarita,” Officer Wilson observes. “And it’s not that you have to be drunk to say something stupid. Maybe your girlfriend only had one twenty-two-ounce beer when she blurted out that your best friend was hot. Perhaps you asked, ‘Do you want to dance?’ but her ears heard, ‘You look fat in those pants!’ The fog of her vodka-and-cranberry can be blurry indeed. I’ve never broken up a fight where intoxicated people started arguing over the Higgs-Boson particle versus Jesus Christ, or the dangers versus the benefits of nuclear proliferation. People get drunk and stupid. A lot.”
It should hardly come as a surprise, then, that Officer Wilson’s first rule for speaking to law enforcement is:
1. Be sober. “Really. You would be surprised at how many people end up talking to LEOs when they’re drunk. Including the people who call to complain about something and have an officer respond to their home.” In Officer Wilson’s experience, these people “are oftentimes drunk themselves. The number-one rule when dealing with a cop is to be sober, and act sober.”
2. Be polite even if it’s hard. “Your perception of the police often depends on where you live,” Officer Wilson notes. “Just saying the words ‘New Jersey State Trooper’ sends a wave of fear through many people’s body. Or perhaps ‘Fulton County, Georgia, Sheriff’s Office’ bothers another. Immigrants new to the United States bring their own fears when the specter of blue lights flashing in the rearview mirror becomes reality. But no matter what, be polite. It seems easy enough, but when you’re stopped and speaking to a LEO, there’s often a film reel of thoughts, fears, and prejudices going through your mind as the officer is standing in front of you. It’s important to put all of your thoughts behind you and simply be polite.”
3. Be direct. “If you’re asked a direct question,” says Officer Wilson, “answer the direct question. LEOs generally get frustrated when they have to sift through a lot of meaningless backstory that isn’t relevant to the case at hand. Stick to the facts. Politely.”
4. Stay put. Officer Wilson asks that you “appear calm and refrain from sudden movement. A LEO doesn’t need you to reenact the crime or wave your arms like you’re a signal officer on an aircraft carrier. Keep your hands out of your pockets. A LEO will appreciate your hands on the steering wheel where he/she can see them, or your feet firmly planted on the ground with your hands by your waist. Motionless.”
5. Be honest. “We all lie to ourselves a little bit. I’m bald,” Officer Wilson admits, “but I still brush my hair. Much to my wife’s horror, I rinse and repeat with the shampoo in the shower. Sure it’s a waste of soap, but I like the way the $20 bottle of Biolage shampoo smells. So what? I’m not hurting anybody, and if my follicles are trying to regenerate on my thirty-nine-year-old pate, then more fragrant power to them! Lying is common, and for most people it’s a problem we live with and keep under control.” It’s a different matter if you’re talking to a law enforcement officer. “When a LEO’s standing before you,” Officer Wilson advises, “be honest. Don’t lie or you’re cooked. Don’t think they won’t find out. You don’t have to vomit out a crazy story that runs around the truth. Tell the facts as you know them and purge yourself of fear and uncertainty. LEOs won’t judge you … at least not immediately … in your presence. LEOs place a very high value on honesty, so play into their value system.”