Friday, July 24, 2015

Helpful Hints for Traffic Stops and Other Police Encounters

With the death of Sandra Bland now reopening what were already very fresh wounds in the community, the media and the ever-vicious internet has also reopened their bags of salt to pour into them. It seems like whenever something like this happens, whenever a citizen, particularly one of color, is threatened, abused, or killed by the police, the dialogue, or more like monologue, turns quickly to an analysis of what the victim did to cause the violent situation. Sure, we get some insightful commentary from people like actor Jessie Williams, who just posted a very long series of tweets which accomplished two things for me. First, they really clarified what many of us already knew about the difference between white folks and black folks exercising their rights or speaking their minds to the police. Second, they made me question whether Williams understands how Twitter works. But that's not the point.

For those of you who haven't read much of the story or haven't watched the video, here's the context. Based on what I see, Sandra Bland gets pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. Now, she claims that he only reason she even changed lanes was to get out of the way of the same cop who ended up pulling her over, because he turned on his lights behind her. This seems reasonable enough to me, since I've done the same thing a hundred times, and would probably forget to signal, in my urgency, about half the time. However, this raises a question in my mind - why did he turn on his lights if he then pulled her over for the lane change? If he turned on the lights for some call or whatever, then why not ignore her and go to the scene? If he turned on the lights for her, then why is he giving her a warning for changing a lane after he turned on the lights?

Either way, she's pulled over. He gets her documents - no problems. He returns to his car and does whatever cops do when they go to their cars - no problems. He comes back to her car with what turns out to be a warning - no problems. He states that she seems irritated, and asks her why - no problems. She tells him. in a voice that is irritated, but not disrespectful - problems. He then tells her to put her cigarette out, because all of a sudden the smoke he's been smelling coming from her car for the last few minutes is now intolerable. She asks why she should have to put out her cigarette inside her car, and the cop orders her to get out of the car. Whether or not you believe that you have the right to stay in your car, and the advice I've seen on this is murky, the truth remains that while it is certainly an appeasement to get out when asked, for some people in some situations, getting out of the car for a cop is akin to allowing yourself to be taken to a second location by a criminal. At this point the officer drags her to the side of the road, well out of range of his dash cam, and all hell breaks loose. Before the weekend is over, she is found hanging dead in her cell. Where she was booked and held on charges of apparently changing lanes sans signal and resisting arrest.

My wife and I were talking about Bland's situation last night over dinner, which made for a super sexy date night, and her main question was, "So, what do I do if I get pulled over?" Honestly, at the time, I wasn't sure what to say. On the one hand, I guess you should be respectful and not start any arguments. In fact, a lot of the websites I looked at on the subject say that very thing. Interestingly, the way that many of them put is "don't give him a reason to abuse you." This really is the most curious way of looking at the situation, as if the cops are just ravenous, bloodthirsty predators roaming around, and you really do bring it on yourself by leaving the house wearing meat-scented perfume. How does that conversation go anyway?

"So why do you think he attacked you?"

"I don't know. He asked me if I was irritated, and I said I was, because I didn't think that I deserved a ticket."

"Well, dadgummit, that's it right there! You gave him a reason. Why the hell did you do that?"

As stupid as it sounds, the real problem with that kind of thinking is that it's just not how we want to live. We shouldn't tolerate the kind of logic that says that cops can do pretty much whatever they want to you, and so the trick is not to let the situation get out of hand. When I get pulled over for speeding or whatever, I am not the one on the job at that moment. It is not my responsibility to deescalate the situation. That's the cop's responsibility. While it might be rude and disrespectful, I have the first amendment right to speak my mind - including but not limited to asserting my rights, defending my actions, using profanity, calling the officer names, and raising my voice. And the cop should be able to deal with any and all of those things, as unpleasant as it is, because he is presumably a trained officer of the law. When I worked in retail, I got cursed out on a pretty regular basis for upholding company policy, and it was my job to smile, deescalate, and give good customer service. I got exactly ninety minutes of training for that, via an awesome VHS tape. As a teacher, it's happened far less frequently, but there have been moments. I had a mother curse me out in front of no less than ten parents and children for helping her child remove his against-uniform earring - after he asked me to help him. Out of all of my classes, I don't remember any training for that. Still, I didn't have the right, even as an authority figure at the school, to put her in handcuffs and throw her off the balcony, regardless of how badly I may have wanted to do so. What kind of world are we living in where we actually tell people that rudeness and disrespect for authority figures can justifiably result in abuse, infringement of rights, or homicide?

The point I want to make is that the higher standard is for the law enforcement officer, not the citizen. I don't have to behave perfectly in these interactions in order to keep my rights and prevent abuse. On the contrary, the police are getting paid (and their low pay scale is an argument for another time) to protect and serve me, even when I act like a jerk.

And let me be clear, I don't think that Bland acted like a jerk. In fact, I think she showed remarkable restraint until she was ordered to get out of the car. After that, one could say she was somewhat abrasive, but then again, it's hard to be nice with a knee in your back when you're getting arrested for resisting arrest. That's kind of like getting fired for failing to get a job, or being executed for refusing to die.

But this is generally how it gets played in the media and on the internet; we pull out the microscope to pick apart the victim's actions, so that we can find some reason to excuse the cop's actions. Just to be helpful, to try to answer my wife's question, and anyone else with the same concern, I've searched through all of the advice from the news reporters and opinion shows and Facebook feeds, to pull together all of the wisdom on the subject and present it in one place. You know, so people will know what to do.

So, to get through an encounter with police safely, make sure you avoid the following behaviors:

DO NOT have an attitude.
DO NOT appear to be having an attitude.
DO NOT fail to answer any questions you are asked truthfully.
DO NOT defend your actions in any way.
DO NOT assert your rights.
DO NOT try to answer any questions you are asked truthfully, if the truth would make you seem to have an attitude.
DO NOT record the encounter.
DO NOT disrespect the authority of the officer.
DO NOT appear to be disrespecting the authority of the officer.
DO NOT have drugs in your vehicle or on your person.
DO NOT be caught using drugs.
DO NOT use drugs in the months leading up to the encounter.
DO NOT use drugs in high school, regardless of how long ago it was.
DO NOT get suspended or expelled from high school.
DO NOT get any grades lower than a C in high school.
DO NOT wear hoodies.
DO NOT play music too loudly.
DO NOT play hip-hop music at all.
DO NOT play country music or rock music, if it might be perceived as mocking those who enjoy it.
DO NOT wear caps turned backwards.
DO NOT make sudden movements.
DO NOT make movements that might appear to be sudden.
DO NOT be aggressive.
DO NOT appear to be aggressive.
DO NOT wear caps turned forwards, if it might be perceived that you are attempting to hide your face.
DO NOT use bad words, i.e. profanity.
DO NOT use "not-nice" words.
DO NOT look directly at the officer, or appear to be "eyeballing."
DO NOT insult the officer.
DO NOT appear to be insulting the officer.
DO NOT look away from the officer.
DO NOT carry illegal weapons.
DO NOT carry legal weapons.
DO NOT carry objects that might look like weapons, legal or illegal, including toy guns, sticks, spray cans, or wallets.
DO NOT have inflammatory messages or images on your car or clothes, unless it is a Confederate flag.
DO NOT be leaving the scene of a crime you have committed.
DO NOT be leaving the scene of a crime someone else has committed.
DO NOT be leaving a night club or strip joint.
DO NOT have a criminal record.
DO NOT appear to have a criminal record.
DO NOT let your pants sag, or otherwise expose any part of your underwear at any time.
DO NOT give him a reason.

Really, it's not that much to ask, just kind of minding your p's and q's, when you think about it.