Videos circulating the Internet show regular, unthreatening people of color calmly asking why a police officer is arresting them. First and foremost, attorneys, civil rights advocates, and even police officers, offer this advice: Do not argue. Don’t do anything to escalate tension. Be polite. Give your name, ask if you are under arrest, and if you are not, calmly ask if you can leave.
If you want to minimize your chances of becoming another statistic, here are some suggestions from professionals you might want to take into consideration.
Give the Officer Your Name
According to Sarah Deer, attorney, “For the average person, you will be better off if you provide that information or you could be accused of obstruction of justice. [Though] if there are warrants, or with other kinds of questions, that is where I would assert the right to remain to silent.”
In a parody list of what to do when questioned by the police, this suggestion makes sense, “If you’re stopped by a police officer, simply answer any questions truthfully and try to remember that he could beat you to death with absolutely no consequences.”
Stay Quiet and Calm
The police officer’s job is to stop people that they perceive may be of some threat to themselves or society. One of the most common bits of advice is to keep quiet. Once you have given your name and mandatory information, announce that you wish to remain silent until you have an attorney present, and then remember to remain silent.
In a list from the Libertas Project, “Some people state that they will be invoking this right to remain silent, then answer all the officer’s questions, which does not help your case if it goes to court.”
Document or Videotape
There are laws in some states that prohibit videotaping your own interaction with the police, however, it is fine for others to videotape you. “You have a first amendment right to videotape the officers in a public setting,” Deer said. If no one is there to videotape the event, be sure to document everything carefully, including the officer’s badge number and names and phone numbers of witnesses.
The police do not have to read you the Miranda Rights unless they intend to interrogate you. You can be arrested without being “Mirandized.” This makes that much more important to announce that you assert your right to remain silent until you have spoken with an attorney.
If Stopped While Driving
According to PursuitSAFETY, police officers are not just questioning you, they are also intent on preserving their own safety. If you are stopped while driving, turn the overhead light on and put your hands on the steering wheel so the officer can see them. If you have anything in your hands that could potentially be mistaken for a weapon, such as a bottle or a cell phone, put them on the seat in plain sight. Don’t reach for the floor or glove compartment without telling the officer what you are doing.
Don’t Admit Anything
Deer said that whether or not your rights will be honored can depend on your exact wording. Deer recommends that after you have provided your name and information, you may say, “I wish to exercise all my legal rights including my right to silence and my right to speak to a lawyer before I say anything to you.”
Carry A Card
Knowing exactly what to say is critical. In 2006, the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health in Vanier, Ottawa, issued cards to tribal members that explained exactly what to say to a police officer to defend your rights.
An excerpt from the card reads:
Officer, if I am under arrest or being detained please tell me so.
If I am free to go please tell me so.
If I am not free to go please tell me why.
I wish to exercise all my legal rights including my right to silence and my right to speak to a lawyer before I say anything to you.
I do not consent to being searched.
I wish to be released without delay.
Please do not ask me questions because I will not willingly talk to you until I speak to a lawyer.
Thank you for respecting my rights.
The American Civil Liberties Union also has a paper that can be folded and kept in your wallet. It describes exactly what to do if the police interrogate you in your car, home, or if you are simply detained. If there is a constant problem with the police in your town, contact the local chapter of the ACLU and invite them to come to your town for a discussion of your rights. They may launch a mediation or lawsuit against the town if the offenses have been egregious.
What the Police Want You to Know
Cops are people too. In a webpage of complaints called Things Cops Know (and want the public to know), police officers describe their pet peeves—from bad donuts to people who drive beat-up cars. One officer wrote, “Cops make mistakes, and sometimes they’re big mistakes. Some cops are bad, and sometimes they’re real bad.” When an officer of the law detains you, he may be as nervous about you as you are about him. Any tension could easily result in your arrest or harm. Being quiet, polite, and answering questions could make a difference in how things turn out. As one cop wrote, “You can’t talk yourself out of a ticket, but you can certainly talk yourself into one.”
Who to Contact
Two organizations, the American Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. Department of Justice, will help you file a complaint if you have been unfairly targeted, racially profiled, or been the victim of excessive force. Unfortunately, some people are afraid of reporting criminal behavior of police officers based on past histories or the belief that the DOJ and Federal Bureau of Investigation will not help. But you can file a complaint with the DOJ by visiting Justice.gov.
To find and contact your local ACLU, visit ACLU.org/ACLU-Centers. Remember that your case will be stronger if a lot of people back up your story, or if the problem has been constant in your community, especially if a lot of arrests seem to be based on racial profiling. When writing up your story, include others who had similar experiences (and agree to be on the complaint). Your complaint will be taken much more seriously if you are not alone in the situation.
Check out comedian Elon James White speaking on behalf of the ACLU:
Read Know Your Rights put out by the ACLU.