When I was a kid, “The Talk” meant something different. It meant a father telling his son or a mother telling a daughter about the birds and the bees, a necessary education that all parents should give their children about human sexuality when they reached a certain age.
But now, “The Talk” has come to mean rules of survival for a Black boy in the mean streets, particularly when it comes to encounters with police. As we have seen within the last month, not every Black boy survives these encounters. Still, not every kid gets this education, or is clear on how to handle such an experience. So now is a good time to lay down some rules to use or tell your son or daughter when it comes to Mr. Johnny Law.
1) Calm down. This is the cardinal rule for dealing with any law enforcement agent, be they your local or state police or the FBI or Homeland Security. Bottom line is flying off the handle or taking an attitude will make them think you’re a potentially volatile subject and that means possibly dangerous. Many cops deal with volcanic personalities on a daily basis and they don’t know who is a nutjob with a gun or a knife who might harm them or someone nearby. What’s more, if you wind up arrested, your actions and words can be used against you in court. In the cop’s brain, he or she is most likely thinking, “Diffuse the situation,” that is also how you should be thinking, even if you have to take a few deep breaths to do it. A simple “good morning/afternoon/evening, officer” will do.
2) Keep your hands visible. This is a major part of diffusing the situation. When the cop can’t see your hands, he or she doesn’t know where they are or what you are doing with them. To them, you could be holding a weapon or hiding contraband. You don’t have to put your hands up just because you’re stopped either. Just in a normal position at your side or on the steering wheel if you’re driving. Also, if you’re in a car, turn off the engine. When they see you’re not a threat, they are less likely to perceive you as one — and less likely to draw a weapon.
3) Shut up. I can’t stress this enough. Other than identifying yourself when asked, you’re really under no obligation to start running your mouth, and when you do, you could be inadvertently incriminating yourself. Whatever you do, DON’T ARGUE. When you get mad and start cursing at the officer, spewing a tirade of “I know my rights” or NWA’s “F*ck Tha Police,” you’re not doing yourself any favors. Truth is, unless you are under arrest, you don’t have to speak (outside of a few things we’ll discuss below) and even then the only things you should say are, “I want to remain silent,” and “I would like to speak to a lawyer.”
4) Have your identification handy. A police officer may momentarily detain you for what is called “reasonable suspicion,” meaning facts that would lead him to believe a crime has been committed, is being committed, or will be committed. So one of the first things he might do is ask for your identification. Give it to him, and you might even tell him you’re going in to your pocket or purse to get it so that he can’t say you’re reaching for a weapon. Again, stay calm and even-tempered through this process. There are states where you are required to show ID and some where you’re not necessarily. See this list for more details. But unless it’s something you’re prepared to fight over in court, it’s best to show them your ID — and your registration and insurance if you’re driving.
5) Find out if you’re being detained. A simple question will let you know if you have to stay and deal with the police or if you can go on your way: “Officer, am I being detained or am I free to go?” Don’t ask it in a snide or condescending way. Check your attitude and just ask the question. Either they’ll tell you yes or no. If they tell you no, it’s because they have reason to believe they should keep you. It might be because they need to write you a traffic ticket (Hint: take the ticket, you can always fight it later) or it could be for a more complex reason. But what you want is to end the engagement as calmly and as soon as you can. If they are not detaining you, and you are not comfortable answering any questions, then they can’t keep you unless they are arresting you. If you stay, that can be interpreted as voluntary. Remember when the cop tells you that you are free to go, just leave. Don’t say anything more than “have a nice day,” not even under your breath. Just walk away.
6) Do not consent to illegal searches. Again, a police officer can stop you for reasonable suspicion or “probable cause,” which means the cop reasonably believes that you have committed a crime. For example, he sees or smells drugs on you, you admit having committed a crime, or he or someone else has witnessed you committing a crime. But if none of this evidence is apparent, there is no reasonable suspicion or probable cause, and there is no search warrant, then the cop can’t just go through your car or home. He can pat you down to be sure you don’t have a weapon, but that’s about it. If he goes further and says he wants to search your property, you can simply say: “Officer, I do not consent to any searches.” That won’t make him your best buddy, but he cannot violate your Fourth Amendment rights. In some cases, the cop will search anyway, but even if they find something, it would not be admissible as evidence against you in court because it came through an illegal search.
7) Do not resist arrest or even give the impression that you will. In countless police shootings, this would have been the difference between life and death for so many brothers. Some cops are assholes, yeah I get it. But they deal with far more civilian assholes than you care to know. It is much, much better to simply comply when you are under arrest. Running will only make them more frustrated and may compound any charges against you. Being patted down on a wall or on your car,or being told to lie down on your stomach won’t be the proudest moment of your life, but just let it happen and live to fight another day. If you’re perceived to be resisting arrest, that could be an extra criminal charge at best. At worst, the cops could use maneuvers that can be physically harmful or lethal.
8) Do not become “Super Negro” or “Billy Badass.” Somehow Hollywood has us under the impression that we, too, can become an anti-hero and thwart the cops like in a Blaxploitation flick or a rap video. You cannot win out in a police encounter by thinking you’re Dolemite. If you give the impression that you will fight them, the police will make use of years of training to subdue you. This means that sudden movements, nervousness; loud, angry or profane talk; or putting your hands on a cop (really stupid) could be enough to make them draw a weapon on you. From there, if they even think you have a weapon and might use it, they will aim at you. If you draw a weapon and refuse to put it down, they will fire. And here’s another hint: when an officer fires his weapon, he does not shoot to wound. Again, this isn’t the movies. His intention is to neutralize the threat — even if it means killing you.
9) Tell your friends to follow the above rules as well. If you are in a group, that doesn’t mean strength in numbers. There is no reason for the police to behave any differently if they believe there is reasonable suspicion and detain you. Here’s an example: A long time ago, I was riding with friends along the expressway in Los Angeles and we were pulled over by the California Highway Patrol. This was just months after the Rodney King incident, and stereotyping all Southern California police as new age gestapo, we were terrified. But the policewoman was cheerful, pleased to meet a bunch of guys from Michigan, and once she gave us directions (L.A. roadways are notoriously confusing), we were on our way. Because we were all quiet, let the driver do the talking, and kept our heads, there was no trouble. If we had behaved differently, she would have been under no obligation to act as the happy public servant that she did.
10) Use your eyes, ears, and memory. If it turns out that the police were engaged in misconduct, your best weapon is your ability to take mental notes of the whole encounter as best you can. That’s why it’s always a good idea to be sober and cognizant (meaning not drunk or high) when you’re in public. Remember what the officers said to you, what they asked you, and what reason they gave for stopping you. Look at them directly and remember what they looked like and how their voices sounded. If you can, try to remember their badge numbers. I once took a cellphone photo of the badge numbers of two cops who stopped me. But you might not be able to do that where you live, so check out the law in your area. Speaking of cellphones, in this day and age, people record everything on their mobile devices so later on try to find witnesses who can describe the incident or took pictures or video. They can be used as evidence. Most importantly, as soon as you can, write down or voice record what happened, and omit anything that might be inaccurate.
At the end of the day, both you and the police officer want the same thing: to go home at night. No cop wakes up in the morning thinking, “I’m gonna shoot myself a Black kid,” and no Black kid wakes up in the morning thinking, “I’m gonna get myself smoked by a cop.” By no means is this a guarantee of fair treatment by police either. Some cops out there are rogues that even other cops don’t like. Others are pinnacles of public service and would even give their lives to save yours. Most fall somewhere in between. But the best way to keep out of trouble with the law is to keep your nose clean, have a basic knowledge of your rights, and know how to act if you ever do encounter the police.
In the meantime, check out this excellent video on dealing with police that speaks to people from every walk of life:
Madison J. Gray is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based multimedia journalist specializing in urban issues and criminal justice. He writes for NewsOne on the subject of Black males in America. Follow him on Twitter:@madisonjgray