There are some basic ways to avoid personal harm in situations with a police officer who has a gun drawn. Much of this advice involves common sense, but when there’s a gun pointed at you, it’s easy to panic and accidentally do something that could be misinterpreted as threatening. The safest approach is to follow the officer’s directions, remaining aware of your physical movements and maintaining a calm and respectful tone whenever possible.
Don’t flee from police
If the police approach you and speak to you, do not run, walk away or threaten them. This applies whether you believe you are innocent of wrongdoing or not. Regardless of your rights, running arouses suspicion and greatly increases the chance of a fatal misunderstanding.
- A common belief among police officers is that suspects do not run unless they have a reason to. Do not play into this belief by fleeing. The police are very likely to perceive you as a threat and chase you.
- Fleeing in a high-crime or suspicious area does not in itself create a “reasonable suspicion” for police officers to stop you. However, police often use characteristics and known histories of an area when making a decision about pursuing a suspect, and this is supported by US law.
- It is an unfortunate fact that in some cases, race plays a factor in police shootings. Joint analysis by the Washington Post and Bowling Green State University revealed that over three-quarters of the officers charged with fatal shootings in the United States since 2005 were white, while two-thirds of their victims were minorities and all but two of that number were Black. If you are an ethnic minority, you may be in greater danger of police shooting if you flee.
- Whether or not you are guilty of something illegal, running from the police can be charged as a crime, such as evading arrest or obstruction of justice. In many US states, these crimes are felonies. Running from the police if you are guilty will only make your situation worse. On top of that, if you are not guilty of anything illegal, you will most likely end up with an unnecessary and avoidable arrest and prosecution. That is the last thing you want.
Avoid any sudden movements
No matter what you’re doing when contacted by the police, stop and remain still. At this point, any movement you make that is unexpected is one step closer to getting shot. Do not move toward the officer, either.
- If you’re in a car, don’t reach for anything. Officers are trained to notice when drivers are reaching for something, and they might assume you’re reaching for a weapon or hiding drugs.
Keep your hands visible
Do not make any sudden movements with your hands. Keep them plainly visible.
- If the officer makes a request that requires you to move
your hands, such as asking to see identification, verbally confirm that you are
complying with his or her request before making any movements.
- For example, you could tell the officer “I am going to reach into my left back pocket to get my wallet so I can show you my ID.” Do not make any movements unless you have to in order to comply with a police request.
Do not touch, hit, or otherwise assault a police officer
This will almost certainly result in physical force used against you. Police officers are authorized to use deadly force to defend themselves or others from serious harm or threat. As one LAPD officer puts it, “initiating a physical confrontation is a sure recipe for getting hurt.”
- Assaulting or battering a police officer is a very serious crime.
Do what you’re told, and do it slowly
The officer will tell you exactly what he or she wants you to do. That typically includes putting your hands on the back of your head, walking backwards toward the sound of their voice, or lying down on the ground. Obey their orders, but do it at a slow enough pace that you don’t alarm them.
- Police have the right to stop and frisk or pat down suspects if they have “reasonable suspicion” that they are involved in illegal activity. Reasonable suspicion is very broadly defined. Racial and social biases may come into play, and it is very difficult to prove these. For example, over 90 percent of stop-and-frisk incidents in New York City between 2002-2011 were with Black or Latino individuals. If you are an ethnic minority, you may be more likely to be stopped and ordered to submit to frisking, even if you are not behaving suspiciously.
- Do not assume that you will not be frisked simply because you have done nothing wrong. In New York City, for example, 9 out of 10 people who are stopped and frisked are innocent. It is safer for you not to resist.
- Police officers are legally required to avoid “excessive force.” Thus, if you submit and do not resist, the officer must stop using force against you. While in reality this does not always happen, complying with an officer rather than resisting will improve your chances of remaining uninjured.
Let yourself be handcuffed
While that may be uncomfortable, struggling against the cuffs or trying to resist in any way is only going to result in further trouble. In many places, it is police protocol to place handcuffs on even the most cooperative of suspects.
- If you have an injury (such as a stiff or
“frozen” shoulder or a recently broken shoulder), let the officer
know before he or she tries to cuff you and ask politely if your hands can be
cuffed in another way rather than behind your back.
- It may seem unfair to allow this if you do not believe you have done anything wrong. Remain calm, submit to the cuffing, and ask for an attorney. You are far more likely to survive your police encounter this way.
Avoid talking more than necessary
At this point, you’ve either already broken the law and don’t need to make it worse on yourself, or you are the victim of a misunderstanding and need to cooperate to prevent an unfortunate accident. Be cooperative, but do not volunteer any information you are not explicitly asked for. If you are asked a direct question by police, you usually have the right not to answer. However, you should be aware that not answering could be perceived as hostile behavior.
- In the US and many other countries, you have a right to protect yourself from self-incrimination. You should never volunteer information, even if you do not believe yourself guilty of any wrongdoing. Doing so without an attorney present could conceivably cause you problems.
- If you are foreign to the country and are not sure of your rights, answer questions politely and give only the barest details. If you do not speak the local language fluently, do not attempt to defend yourself verbally. You may accidentally say something that, when translated, incriminates you in some way.
- An exception to this rule may be if the officer tells you to do something that involves moving. It’s good to tell him what you are doing, even if it seems obvious. It will keep the officer feeling safe and less likely to use a weapon.
Avoid using humor about the situation
Humor is very subjective, and there’s a chance that what you think is a joke could be interpreted as a serious threat by the police.
- Don’t make sarcastic or ironic remarks. The police will likely take anything you say at face value. Even “joking” remarks can be used against you in a criminal court.
It can be terrifying to be stopped by the police, but it’s vital that you remain calm and in control of yourself. If you must speak, do so in a level, clear voice.
- Do not yell, curse, scream, or use aggressive language. Do not call the officer names. Police officers perceive this as threatening behavior and may respond with force.
Police officers represent the law. Always use respectful, polite language when interacting with an officer. Call a police officer “sir,” “ma’am,” or “officer” when speaking to him or her. Even if the police officer is aggressive, maintain a level head and stay polite.
- Do not speak defensively or with hostility. For example, do not say things such as “What are you doing?” or “What’s your problem?” If you want to clarify your situation, ask a polite question, such as “How can I help you, officer?” or “What is the reason, officer?”
Refrain from making threats
For example, do not threaten to sue, take the officer’s badge, or retaliate. This will only make things worse for you.
Ask if you are being detained
You should use that exact language: “Am I being detained?” Police must tell you whether they are detaining you. If the officer tells you that you are not being detained, ask “Am I free to leave, officer?” Do not simply walk away. This could convince police that you have something to hide.
- If the officer says you cannot leave, you are being detained. You should ask for an attorney. You are entitled to an attorney whenever you are being detained by police.
- If the officer does say you can leave, you should confirm that you will be leaving before doing so. For example, confirm your “intent to depart” by saying something like “If there is nothing else, I will be leaving now.” Then walk slowly away.
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