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What To Say And Not Say If You Are Confronted By Law Enforcement

Romario Conrado
Romario Conrado Student, UC Berkeley
Romario is in his early 20's and enjoys swimming as well as reading first-person political narratives.
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What to say or not say to a cop

This week, police in Atlanta shot and killed Rayshard Brooks at a Wendy's drive-thru.

Seconds before the shooting, video shows the officers struggling with Brooks.
Brooks wrestled away a taser gun from one of the officers.
He ran, and then pointed it at them.
The cops fired their guns, and Brooks died on the scene.

A few minutes before this violent end, video shows that Brooks and the officers spoke calmly.

 

So what went so terribly wrong?

 

While these situations often rely on an individual officer’s training and expertise with de-escalation tactics, there are some things citizens can do when confronted by law enforcement.

 

What to say

 

1. Narrate your actions for clarity. 

If you’re reaching for something or opening something, explain what you are doing in a calm, but loud, voice.

 

For example, if you’re reaching into your pocket to grab your identification card, yell, “I am now using my right hand to reach into my jacket pocket to retrieve my identification card.”

 

Clear communication with law enforcement could prevent things from going very wrong.

 

2. Calmly ask to see a badge number and/or a warrant. 

Transparency is a core principle for ensuring accountability.

 

If you ask for a badge number or for a warrant if an officer asks to search, you send a signal to the officer that their actions are being noted and accounted for.
This will hopefully make an officer less likely to abuse power.

 

3. Ask for your phone call and consider dialing a lawyer.

In most states, it is your right to call anyone you desire when in the custody of law enforcement.

 

While law enforcement can listen in on conversations you have with others, they can not listen to calls with lawyers.

 

You do not have to comply or speak to police if you are waiting for an attorney.

 

If you need an attorney, a court can appoint one to you.

 

Remember that tone and delivery are imperative to ensuring de-escalation.

Even if an officer is not treating you with respect or dignity, stay calm. Confrontational language, and yelling, could just make matters worse.

 

Speak slowly and clearly. Raise your voice only if the officer is far from you and couldn’t hear otherwise.

 

It’s hard to be the bigger person at times, but it could prevent a terrible situation.

 

What not to say

 

1. Go ahead, search me. 

The 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reads: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

To prevent a potential escalation, always politely decline a search request, even if you think you have nothing to hide.


2. Your whole life story.

The Constitution also guarantees you do not need to verbally cooperate with law enforcement. 

“I plead the 5th” isn't just something people say on TV. You can say it too.

To plead the fifth means you are refusing to answer a question on the grounds that you might incriminate yourself.

However, it’s important to understand that non-compliance can be interpreted as an intent to hide a crime, so it could also result in an escalated confrontation.

As with all of these recommendations, use your best judgement.


3. Anything you don't really know.
Law enforcements are intimidating forces, so it’s natural to feel uneasy or unsure of how to respond.

But expressing this uncertainty with statements like “I’m not sure” or “I think so” could be exploited by the police.

If you’re unsure, breathe and take time to respond.

There’s no rush.


4. Anything about your citizenship. 
The only authorities who can ask citizenship questions are federal authorities — county police cannot ask citizenship questions. 

In the end
Law enforcement are powerful figures in our society and with the state-sanctioned power to kill. Consequences can be severe.  Think before you speak.             


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