10 Rules For Dealing With Police: Prudence and Subservience

Over at the Cato@Liberty blog, Chris Moody announces the premiere of the movie 10 Rules for Dealing With Police, a new short film by Flex Your Rights. 10 Rules presents, in a surprisingly compelling and non-cheesy dramatic frame, excellent advice for navigating encounters with law enforcement. I think it's a great resource for clients, kids, and friends who are not familiar with their rights.

Here are the 10 rules, stripped of the detail and commentary that makes the movie very worthwhile:

1. Always be calm and cool.

2. You have the right to remain silent.

3. You have the right to refuse searches.

4. Don't get tricked into waiving your rights.

5. Determine if you're free to go.

6. Don't do anything illegal.

7. Don't run.

8. Never touch a cop.

9. Report misconduct: Be a good witness.

10. You don't have to let them in.

Many of these rules — the ones about shutting up, not consenting to searches, not waiving rights, and demanding that police clarify whether you are free to go — are excellent points about asserting constitutional rights. Asserting your rights may, in the real world of cops, get you detained, abused, assaulted, tased, arrested, accused of false charges premised on "testilying", and occasionally murdered for contempt of cop, but it's crucial that you know what those rights are and how to assert them.

But then there's that first rule — "always be calm and cool." In the movie, it's dramatized by a young black man being pulled over and, when he gets mouthy, subjected to retaliatory detention and searches.

Women's rights advocates often complain that advice to women about how to avoid rape often degenerates into ancient victim-blaming rapist-excusing stereotypes, no matter how well-intentioned or sensible (for instance, "don't go to a frat party alone and get drunk") the advice is. I've always had a conceptual problem with this complaint; I think one can advise a friend not to walk down a dark alley at midnight without suggesting that people who do so "deserve" to get mugged, or that muggers are justified or excused. There's a difference between recognizing a need for prudence, on the one hand, and accepting the circumstances that call for it, on the other.

But when I watch 10 Rules, I can understand better what the women's rights advocates are talking about.

See, if your goal is not to be abused, wrongfully arrested, falsely accused, searched without probable cause, or proned out on the pavement because you irritated someone with a gun and a badge, then "don't be mouthy to a cop" is excellent practical advice. But dammit, we shouldn't have to give that advice. The concept that you should expect to be abused if you aren't meek (or, to be more realistic, subservient) in dealing with public servants ought to be abhorrent to a society of free people. Courtesy is admirable, and unnecessary rudeness is not, but rudeness ought not be seen as inviting government employees to break the law. But the reality is that our society largely issues apologias for, not denunciations of, police abuse. The prevailing belief is that claims of abuse are about lawyers or crooks trying to game the system, that people accused of crimes generally committed them, and that cops are heroes of the sort who deserve the benefit of the doubt when their account of a roadside encounter differs from that of a citizen. Our society, for the most part, indulges cops in their expectation that citizens will be subservient. As a result, "don't talk back to a cop" remains tragically apt practical advice.

Moreover, the truth of it is that many cops will interpret an assertion of your constitutional rights, however politely delivered, as a rude challenge. They are supported in that view by four decades of "law and order" talk that classifies constitutional rights as mere instrumentalities of crime, not as the rules by which we have chosen to live.

Shame on us if we put up with that.

Edited to add: The police reaction is classic:

A spokesman for the D.C. police, who had not seen the film, said the rules are good rules to follow. "However," he said, "if you have nothing to hide and police are doing some kind of investigation, you should tell them whatever they need to know. Police are there to protect the society and the community in which we work."

In other words, if you stand on your rights, you must have something to hide, and you must be a foe of society. Because remember — cops are friends.

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  1. Vice Magnet says

    A pretty useful article. I don't engage in illegal activity but have been intimidated by police officers in the past. Oddly enough, I have had some fellow bar patrons ask if I was an undercover cop. Apparently I must look the part. I just finished watching the Busted video on YouTube, a precursor to this 10 Things movie. Good stuff, thanks for posting!

  2. Ann-Marie says

    Although I'm from the UK, not the US, I found it an interesting film and commentary. Very well made.

    It's just a shame the Q&A session was cut short – hopefully the full Q&A will be published at some point.

  3. fred says

    Yeah p I learned the hard way at 55 and when I still believed in civil rights and the ACLU – . I stood up for my right to take pictures for a civil case against a slumlord who was retaliating against me because I was on SSI and disabled and older and poor and yes female.
    The cops wrote up two fake reports and in the report it says I yelled at them and asked for their cards and names, which I did.
    But i did not yell at them, I simply didnt think they had any right to arrest me.
    so they got together with the slumlord ) who must be a friend of the cop) and made up a story that they had told me never to go to my neighbors yard in the complex three doors down, the mexican nationals, who also made up a story .
    Its complex, I am screwed.
    so two months after the first cop visit, and I am packing to move out of the slum, I go out into the backyard to get my cat, who is 16 and blind, and an hour later I am arrested, the mexican nationals made up some story that I was at their backdoor peeking in when I was about 40 feet away. I am put in jail, with no previous criminal record, for two days. My cat dies while I am in jail. The DA decides that I am a dangerous criminal because the Mexican nationals are so scared of me, after living three doors down for one year and I haven't even spoken with them, except the first day when they cut through my backyard , three mexican males and I yelled they couldn't do that,
    I was locked out of my apartment for good, put on a release agreement that amounted to a blank check for my re-arrest, and my case has been set back four times, once because the Mexican nationals need a spanish interpreter.,
    So yeah I stood up to a cop and my lawyer was crap really crap. my public defender tried to dump-truck me after eight months and have me plead guilty because its okay if my life is ruined and my family bankrupted, but I shouldn't place any demands on the system for fair representation.
    but please do post this – it happened in Oregon- The poor have no rights and by the way I am white , which counts for nothing in the United States. Civil rights Fair housing its all a joke-