Friday, June 22, 2012

How Not To Interact With The Police

File this one under 'Positive, Not Normative'.

I think not nearly enough people give any thought to plausible psychology when interacting with police. You can observe this by the dumb@$$ things they do.

If I had to guess at what motivates people to be police officers, it might be some combination of the following:
1. They like the idea of keeping the city safe.
2. They like the thrill of fighting crime.
3. They like having authority over other people.
4. They like being part of a fraternal organisation that looks out for each other while doing the first three items.
You can read blogs like Second City Cop to get a sense of what I'm talking about.

To my mind, this set of motivations explains both the positive and negative aspects of typical police responses:

a) If a police officer decides that you're an innocent bystander being threatened by some thug, they'll put themselves in physical danger to help you out. Say what you will about this being their job, it's still an admirable trait.

b) If the police officer decides that you're a minor nuisance but otherwise not a serious problem (speeding by a small amount, yelling too loudly in public) and are being polite and respectful to them, they'll likely tell you to stop, and will perhaps be content to let you go on your way, or give you some small fine.

c) If the police officer decides that you're being disrespectful to him, even if you're not posing a serious threat to public order, they're almost certainly going to make your life difficult. They'll do this knowing that point #4 will work in their favor - other cops, and law enforcement generally, will back them up, even if they've acted like a bully.

d) If the police officer decides that you're being disrespectful to him AND being a threat to public order, you'd better believe that they're going to bring the pain.

Let's suppose the 4 stated assumptions form a fair amount of motivating psychology for police officers. How should you react when interacting with a police officer who stops you?

Consider the following example of one way to behave:

Let's begin by noting that you have no legal obligation to be polite. The cop in question was acting like a power-mad bully, and manufactured a bogus reason to arrest the guy. In a more just society, the cop would be fired, and the guy would get an apology, if not compensation.

We all know, however, that that ain't gonna happen. The cop will get off scot free, and the motorcycle rider has already had several hours in prison, regardless of whether he eventually gets prosecuted. Remember, positive not normative. We're working with the world as it is, not as it should be.

If you're the kind of person who stands on principle that you're going to be rude to a cop who acts rudely to you first, I can see a fair case to applaud that action. Cops shouldn't just be able to get away with any kind of bad behaviour.

But suppose you're just interested in making your life as easy as possible. What overarching principle would you choose?

I would venture the following four bits of advice :

1. Always be scrupulously respectful.

2. Only offer verbal resistance to the cop's demands in order to assert your legal rights.

3. Think very carefully whether asserting your legal rights is likely to be worth it, and do not offer any verbal resistance unless you think you're going to be arrested or charged anyway. 

4. Never offer physical resistance.

If we believe the psychology we described earlier, cops really hate it when you don't defer to their authority over you. Being rude or swearing is an obvious way of getting them pissed off. You're already in either case c) or d) of their likely responses, and what have you gained? You've given vent to your feelings. If that's all the benefit you get, you're paying very heavily in the amount of hassle in the next hours and days of your life for that opportunity to tell Officer O'Malley to get f***ed.

Another obvious mistake is to demand to know their badge number. People think that because this isn't swearing, it won't land them in trouble. Think again - this indicates your desire to retaliate against the cop, and that's going to annoy him a ton. If you're getting arrested, there'll be plenty of time later to find out the arresting officer's name and file a complaint - why make that intention obvious up-front? Demanding to know his badge number if you don't actually intend to file a complaint is just as stupid as swearing at him.

But does that mean you should always submit to everything a cop asks you?

No. This is where point #2 comes in. You do not want to give the police officer further evidence that will help convict you of a crime, should the matter proceed to court. What kind of things does that mean?

If they want to ask you questions about a crime you may have committed, don't answer anything without a lawyer. If you're unsure, just don't answer. What if you didn't commit the crime, or don't think you did? Doesn't matter - shut the hell up.

If they want to search your car, house or pockets, you want to indicate that you don't offer your consent. In the US, if you  don't consent to a search, the police must establish probable cause in order for any evidence they find to be admissible. If you consent to the search, they don't have to establish squat.

But, (and here is the rub), you can't refuse to do any of those things without indicating that you're not submitting to their authority. And that will piss them off - there's no avoiding it.

Hence point #3 - you want to be very careful before offering the first signs of not acquiescing to the cop. You only get one chance to be a nice obedient citizen. Once you've given that away (by politely resisting demands or by being a jackass), it won't come back. Trying to be polite once he starts arresting you won't win back his good graces.

It's not easy to know exactly what the threshold is for resisting demands though.

If you've been pulled over for speeding and they ask you if you know how fast you were going, most answers you give are going to hurt you from a legal standpoint:

-"I was going 70 in the 65 zone" - you just confessed your guilt. Case closed.

-"I don't know how fast I was going" - this makes it hard for you to assert in court that you weren't speeding, since the officer will testify that you claimed at the time you couldn't be sure you weren't speeding.

-"I was doing 65" - if the officer can prove you were speeding, they might decide to get you for making false statements, yet another crime.

So legally, it's in your interests to refuse to answer the question. But this will piss off the cop, and at a minimum it guarantees they'll give you a ticket, and perhaps hold you up for longer. Is that worth it?

In general, probably not. The main time it might be is if you're planning to challenge the ticket in court. If you're not, you're probably just better off admitting you were speeding and offering your apologies.

For me, I'd draw the line at the point that they want to search my car (or house). At that point, my response would be 'I know you're just trying to do your job officer, and I don't have anything to hide, but I'm sorry, I don't consent to searches.'

I'd do this knowing that they're going to be pissed off. They might call the K-9 unit. They might call for backup. They might insist I get out of the car and search it anyway. They might hold me up for the next 3 hours.

That's the price I pay to increase my chances in an actual court case. If the officer wants to search my car, he's already pissed off with me. I'd rather not take the chance that he breaks something, or plants evidence and I've now consented to the search.

None of this means that we shouldn't be angered by scenes like the video above. It's maddening that cops get to act like thugs and bullies and just get away with it.

But everything in the video was entirely predictable. Guy is part of a motorcycle group roaming around. That's your right, but it makes you look like a potential threat to public order. At 1:42, the guy gives the two-finger 'up-yours' sign to the cop as he drives by. When he gets pulled over, the guy tells the police officer that he can't take the camera (instead of just that he doesn't consent to the camera being taken although he will not physically resist such an action, a different formulation). Guy asks for the cop's badge number. Shortly afterwards, guy gets arrested. Guy doesn't immediately acquiesce when asked to place his hands behind his back, raising the possibility of a resisting arrest charge.

It may well be that the cop was going to make up a bogus arrest reason in order to confiscate the camera. It may be that the arrest was unavoidable.

But all the acts of resistance displayed were almost certain to irritate the cop, and did very little to help the man in court.

If you feel that as a matter of principle that it's worth it, more power to you.

If you, like me, don't feel it's worth it, you're better off swallowing your pride, shutting up, and acquiescing to  their demands when the po-po start acting like bullies.

Either way though, you should know the cost of your actions when you make them. Otherwise you resist running afoul of the advice of the great Sun-Tzu:
To begin by bluster, but afterwards to take fright at the enemy's numbers, shows a supreme lack of intelligence.

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