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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Safety over rights when encountering police

As early as elementary school, we are taught what is great aabout America. Usually, freedom and our constitutional rights are highlighted.

We are taught that our rights are our most valuable possessions, that generations of American soldiers have fought and died for them. Being proud of our rights and being willing to defend them is embedded within the American identity.

Still, even if most of us know that we have these rights, it can

be difficult to understand how

they work.

Unless you’re a lawyer, you’re probably not an expert. When citizens interact with law enforcement, these rights appear ambiguous in the face of a steep power disparity.

Although we know we have certain rights, such as the right to remain silent, to be protected from unlawful search and seizure, to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, to not be profiled, we also know the man or woman with the badge and the gun has a certain authority over us.

We may assume that we have to comply with every instruction or request by a police officer. This assumption often leads guilty people to self-incriminate, or allow police to search and seize when they didn’t have to. Innocent people who comply often feel violated, profiled and powerless.

There are those who know (or think they know) their legal rights well and choose to exercise them to the fullest. YouTube is full of videos showing people—mostly young, white men—challenging an officer’s every request, swearing at the police, blasting their music during traffic stops and citing the Bill of Rights off the top of their head.

There is a popular YouTube channel of a white, non-Hispanic guy who spends his free time intentionally driving to border patrol checkpoints, just to film himself being a pain in the ass. Some people even like to flip off passing cops simply to flex their First Amendment rights.

Nevertheless, many parents teach their kids to put their rights and pride aside while dealing with the police. For many families of color, “the talk” is not about the birds and the bees, but rather about making sure their children make it home safely after an interaction with the police. If you’re a person of color, it is likely you have heard some version of this conversation described by Jeannine Amber in TIME magazine:

“If you are stopped by a cop, do what he says, even if he’s harassing you, even if you didn’t do anything wrong. Let him arrest you, memorize his badge number, and call me as soon as you get to the precinct. Keep your hands where he can see them. Do not reach for your wallet. Do not grab your phone. Do not raise your voice. Do not talk back. Do you understand me?”

This is a difficult conversation for many reasons. No parent wants their child to feel their rights are less important because of the color of their skin. No parent wants their child to be treated like a criminal when they’ve done nothing wrong. No parent wants their child to sacrifice their pride while interacting with a stranger. But for these parents, their children’s safety ultimately trumps all of these concerns—and for good reason. If an officer perceives a threat, they will most likely act quickly to protect themselves and others whether they are right or wrong.

In an article for the Washington Post entitled “I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me” Los Angeles Police Department veteran Sunil Dutta doles out similar advice:

“Even though it might sound harsh and impolitic, here is the bottom line: if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me.”

The officer doesn’t have any legal justification to tell you not to do any of these things. Only the last bit could reasonably be perceived as threatening, but whether or not somebody is walking aggressively is a subjective judgement susceptible to bias. If the officer finds your body threatening to begin with, they may be more likely to think you are acting aggressively.

There are many legitimate reasons a police officer may perceive an unarmed, even innocent citizen as a threat. There may be an armed suspect in the area, or that person may fit the description of someone else. It is important to remember that the officer has seen numerous training videos depicting routine traffic stops turning deadly.

These legitimate concerns can be exacerbated by more problematic ones: police officers of any color likely harbor some of the same unconscious racial biases that society ingrains in us all. In some precincts, this racism may be even more entrenched, and biases might be consciously acknowledged.

As much as I believe in the Bill of Rights, I’m not willing to be martyred for it. If you want to challenge the police, cite the constitution, or be a pain in the ass, that’s your right. If you are a person of color, just know that doing so may be more dangerous for you than for somebody else.

If your safety is your first concern, cooperate and politely state that you don’t consent if you know an officer is violating your rights. The safest option is to deal with any rights violations in court. This may feel wrong, painful or humiliating, but ultimately it may ensure your survival.

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