Sunday, October 13, 2013

How to Behave Toward the Police

This is a subject typically tackled from a racial, comedic standpoint by the likes of Chris Rock and Dave Chapelle, but today I'd like to take a few minutes to share a very recent event and provide some honest advice. To make it clear, I'm talking specifically about how to behave toward the police in a traffic-related context, since I'm guessing drug dealers and SWAT teams have a rather different dynamic than most of us are likely to encounter.

Let's begin with story time. Tonight my internet was driving me crazy with its total lack of performance (and by this I mean it wouldn't even open web pages). I decided, since I hadn't eaten dinner anyway, to go grab a hamburger and just use the wifi at McDonald's or wherever I went. So I grabbed my keys and my laptop and headed out the door. A block down the road I realize I forgot my wallet so I go back to get it, which turned out to be pretty important.

Anyway, back on the road, just a few hundred yards off The Strip, I decide to change lanes because mine is at a dead stop. I glace in my mirror, all looks clear, so without turning my head to check my blind spot I whip to my left and hit a taxi. Broken shards of plastic scatter across the street as he hits his breaks. Great. I flip on my hazards and the cab driver and I do the whole get-out-and-survey-the-damage thing as he puts in a call to his supervisor. The next hour or so is spent waiting and answering questions in one form or another, as two police officers and his supervisor arrive and do their thing. In the end, the officer in charge elected not to write up a full report or give me a ticket, since there was minimal damage and there were no injuries, so I was sent on my way with nothing but a dented fender, a broken turn signal casing, and some contact information for the other party should I choose to file a claim.

This whole thing could have gone differently. I could have been given a ticket for several hundred dollars and potentially seen an increase in my insurance rate. That didn't happen, though, and I'm going to share with you some of the reasons why (I think).

These are four things I did that we should all do when dealing with the police in a traffic-related incident.

1. Be polite. This really should go without saying, but for some reason many people seem to ignore it. I'm not saying you have to turn into some fawning, obsequious toady, but you should behave in a calm, civil manner. Remember those basic rules for polite behavior that your parents (hopefully) taught you as a child? Well consider this a good opportunity to practice them. It's just common sense that a police officer is going to respond better to somebody who is polite to them.

2. Be honest. I was at fault, and I knew it. What's more, I admitted it. This is another of those things that needn't be overdone (you don't have to become a fountain of incriminating information) but when you're asked a clear, direct question you should give a clear, accurate answer. Don't adorn it with hyperbole, don't avoid the question, and don't feign innocence. When you're asked what happened you should just give a clear, accurate, and appropriately detailed account of the event. These are people who deal with traffic accidents on a daily basis, so a quick look at your situation has probably already given them a good idea of what occurred. Further, they constantly deal with people lying to get out of trouble, so if you're full of shit, the odds are pretty good that they know it. Nobody likes being lied to, so if a police officer senses that you're trying to pull one over on them they probably won't respond very well to you. In my case, I was specifically told that part of why I didn't get a ticket was because I fully and immediately admitted that I was at fault. That's something to keep in mind.

3. Be cooperative. This pretty much goes hand-in-hand with the previous point. These can be stressful situations, and the officer on the scene is trying to keep everything controlled and orderly, so do your part to make his (or her) job easier. Have your license, registration, and insurance card ready. Answer their questions, stay put when they tell you where they need you to be, and generally try to make the situation as convenient and manageable as possible. If you spend your time freaking out at the other driver, wandering into traffic, or trying to avoid providing your information, you make the officer's life harder. And when you make peoples' lives harder, they have no reason to refrain from making your life harder in return.

4. Be non-threatening. Maybe you just want a stick of gum, but don't dive into your pocket. Don't use aggressive body (or spoken) language, and always keep your hands clearly visible. The officer at the scene doesn't know whether or not you're a dangerous person, and for all they know you might have a concealed handgun. It's not unheard of for a police officer to get shot because somebody didn't want a ticket. Keep in mind that as stressful as this is for you, they have the additional stress of not knowing whether you're a threat to their safety. This is basically just another facet of being cooperative, but it warrants special attention because it is very important. An officer who is at ease, like anybody who is at ease in a given situation, is much more likely to treat you kindly than one who thinks you might try to harm them.

So in summary: be polite, honest, cooperative, and non-threatening. I feel like all of this should be common sense, but as is often said, I fear that "common sense is not very common" when it comes to dealing with the police. Traffic accidents can bring out the worst in people, but if you keep a level head and behave appropriately you can save yourself a lot of trouble. And money.

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