Monday, December 1, 2014

Avoiding Confrontations with Law Enforcement -- Dos and Don'ts

The issue of confrontations with police officers -- whether physical in nature or involving weapons -- has been a major topic in the news lately.  The Mike Brown shooting in Ferguson, MO is far from the only issue police have had involving violent confrontations, but it certainly was a major rallying point for the public.  There are a lot of questions being asked about how to avoid these terrible situations.  Nobody wants to see continued incidents of violence involving police officers that end in injury or death to citizens.  Police don't want this.  Attorney's don't want this.  The courts don't want this.  But, most of all, the citizens that continue to be the victims in these situations don't want this.  So, what can be done to eliminate these situations?  What can you do, personally, to ensure that you are the next victim of police violence?

In order to figure out what has to be done to fix the problem, we must first understand what is causing the problem.  This is a much more complicated issue than a lot of people realize.  I'm not talking about incidents of violence that are clearly initiated by civilians.  When someone brandishes a weapon at a police officer, they're doing so with the knowledge that they might not come out of this encounter alive.  The incidents I'm referring to are the ones in which unarmed citizens are killed by law enforcement.  People who claim that the issue is overzealous police officers who are too quick to use their service weapons are ignoring that there are always two parties involved in these confrontations.  People who claim that the issue is citizens not respecting the police and acting inappropriately towards them aren't taking into consideration that the penalty for being insubordinate should not be death.  There is no easy answer to this issue, but there are some things that I believe the average citizen can keep in mind when dealing with police officers that can help to diffuse these situations before they explode into violence.  I'm going to give the same advice here that I give to my paying clients.  The following are three general things to remember when confronted by a police officer, and three actions that you can take (or not take) when confronted by a police officer to ensure that the situation doesn't end in tragedy.

THREE THINGS TO REMEMBER WHEN CONFRONTED BY POLICE OFFICERS

1.  Police officers are trained to treat every confrontation with a suspect as a potential life or death situation.  This might be something that seems crazy to the average person, but it's a completely reasonable stance to take for officers.  While the VAST majority of people who have encounters with law enforcement pose no threat to the officer's safety whatsoever, all it takes is for an officer to let his guard down at the wrong time to fall victim to someone who does pose a threat.  Mendota Heights, MN police offer Scott Patrick learned was shot and killed in August of 2014 during what probably seemed like an innocuous enough traffic stop.  Officer Patrick was unfortunate to just happen to stop a motorist who had numerous outstanding warrants for his arrest and was driving a car that was not yet registered to him, making it impossible for Officer Patrick to know who he was about to happen upon.  This is a very real concern for officers, and they often act accordingly in situations that seem routine to the average person.

2.  Police officers don't know you.  We, as citizens, expect to be given the benefit out the doubt when dealing with police, but it's important to remember that the officer (probably) doesn't know you.  Eventually, when they ask for your license and look up your criminal history on their computer, they'll know a little bit about you, but when they first confront you, they have no idea who you are or what you are capable of.  It's important to remember this when first encountering an officer who clearly thinks he/she has business with you.

3.  The majority of police officers are good people.  We tend to hear about the ones who do bad things.  This guy from Minneapolis, or these guys from Saint Paul.  What we don't hear about are all the times officers do amazing things.  Just like I try to remind people that the good lawyers vastly outweigh the slimy ones, the same can be said for police officers.

THREE ACTIONS YOU CAN TAKE (OR NOT TAKE) TO ENSURE YOUR SAFETY

1.  Keep your hands where the officer can see them.  This can be tougher to do than it seems.  Something as benign as putting your hands in your jacket pocket or reaching for your wallet can seem like an aggressive move to an on-edge officer.  Keep your hands out of your pockets, don't reach inside your jacket, don't put them behind your back if you're facing the officer, and don't reach under your shirt or into the waistband of your pants.  If the officer can see your hands, they don't have to worry about what they might be doing, and they'll be much less likely to act rashly due to feeling threatened.

2.  Don't use profanity or call the officer names.  Confrontations with police officers can certainly get heated, but it's important to remember that the language you use can ratchet up the intensity unnecessarily.  By using profanity or using slurs towards the officer, you're telling them that you don't respect their position.  Once an officer doesn't believe you care whether or not he's a police officer, they're going to assume that you'll treat them like you'd treat any regular citizen.  This can cause them to be more short-tempered and have a quicker trigger (no pun intended).  By watching your language and addressing the officer in at least a somewhat respectful manner, you will greatly increase your chances of exiting the situation without a violent confrontation.

3.  Do not go out into public under the influence of mood-altering substances.  This is a really important point that is completely under your control 100% of the time.  I know that people like to go out to bars and have a few with friends, but it's important to keep yourself under control.  A high percentage of violent encounters involving police also involve intoxicated citizens.  By controlling your alcohol intake or not doing any drugs (even marijuana) before heading out into public, you're going to A) improve your decision-making, which will limit the chance that police will have any business with you, and B) decrease the chance that you act inappropriately if you are confronted with the stress that accompanies dealing with law enforcement.  Remaining clear-headed could be the difference between walking away unscathed or getting into a fight with law enforcement that you are not going to win.


My point in writing this advice to everyone is not an effort to deflect blame belonging to police officers for these unfortunate situations that seem to be happening more an more.  In situations where unarmed citizens are killed by law enforcement, the officer absolutely should not escape culpability for the death.  However, we as citizens have to take responsibility for our actions.  If you follow these recommendations, you will decrease the chances of you finding yourself in a violent encounter with a police officer exponentially.

My heart goes out to all those who have lost loved ones in encounters like this.  There are a lot of people in the country who are using this opportunity to demonize law enforcement.  The truth is that we as a society have to play a role in ensuring that no more families have to know the pain of losing a member to violent encounters with police.  The best way for you to do your part is to be respectful and use discretion when dealing with police offers.  Remember that they have a tough job to do, and you being a sullen jerk after being pulled over isn't going to make it any easier.  Police officers aren't perfect, but the majority are out there doing their best.  Keep that in mind, treat them accordingly, and these kinds of preventable incidents will become a thing of the past.


As always, the information presented in this blog is to be used for entertainment purposes only and is not to be construed as legal advice.  If you or a loved one are in need of such advice, please contact a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction for personalized information.

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