How to Interact with Police

The Rule:

Don’t talk to police.  Don’t answer their questions.

If you’re in the United States this is serious advice. But following it is not as easy as it may sound. There are a few essential phrases you need to know to preserve your freedom when confronted by police. I don’t talk to police! is only the first.

Recently I talked to a friend (who I’ll call Jane) who had a brush with a police officer. A stranger called 911 after seeing Jane’s young child alone in her car. Jane had left the child there to briefly push her empty shopping cart back to the store. The cop pulled up just as she was returning to her car. He stepped out and began to question Jane about the situation with her child.

This is exactly the sort of situation for which The Rule was written. The cop is not there to help. He is there to determine whether it appears that a crime is being or has been committed. The best outcome for Jane is that the cop concludes nothing is wrong. A very realistic outcome for Jane is that in the course of talking she gives the cop a pretext to charge her with a crime.

Jane knew The Rule well. She promptly told the cop, “I don’t talk to police officers.” But she wasn’t completely prepared to maintain her stance. The cop was persistent.

The cop kept using all these interrogation tactics on me, like coming at questions from different directions to try to find a way to start me talking. He made me feel like I was doing something wrong. It was hard enough to not say things to defend myself, and instead to keep saying “I don’t talk to police officers!” But I kept thinking, “He’s trying to trap you.”

Which is exactly right. The only thing the cop could accomplish by continuing to question Jane is to turn her benign situation into a bad one. And cops have years of training and experience manipulating people. They can make it excruciatingly awkward for a normal person to continue to say, “I’m not answering any questions.”

Frankly, I was impressed that a courteous person like Jane was able to stand her ground. I wanted to give Jane the other tools every citizen should have ready to withstand a police encounter:

First: turn on any video recorder you can. (Recording police is always legal in the United States, but police don’t always respect the rights of citizens – particularly the right to record officers acting in their official capacity – so it may be best to do so discretely.)

Now, in addition to your answer to any question from police (“I’m not answering any questions”), there are two questions you need to be prepared to ask to the police until you get an answer:

“Are you detaining me?” If not, “Am I free to go?”

Jane asked me to clarify this.

“So I just interrupt him? Like when would I ask those things?” The answer: Continuously, unless he’s answering one of those two questions very clearly.

OK, so like, “I’m not answering questions. Am I free to go?”

What if he says I’m not free to go, or just keeps asking me questions?

You already said you’re not answering his questions. So you keep on asking your questions. Over and over.

If he says you’re being detained, (i.e., you are not free to go), you ask, “Why?”  And after that you return to your script: respond to his questions by saying, “I am not answering any questions,” and continue to ask, “Am I free to go now?”

If he says anything other than “No” then you leave promptly. And if he subsequently obstructs or threatens you in any way you call 911.

As Jane learned, this can take a lot of resolve. Fortunately there are a lot of examples of how to do this, and how it works, online. Search YouTube for “flex rights.”

Good police know and accept that citizens have these rights, and they don’t take it personally. But there are cops who will try to confuse or intimidate you. The worst will disregard your rights and the law and may decide to arrest you. If you are told you are under arrest then you need to use the last of the four phrases you should ever say to police acting in their official capacity: “I want a lawyer.”