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."