In my post last Friday, I asserted that Professor Gates could have done a better job in handling the incident, which ultimately resulted in his arrest. I also brought up the possibility that Sgt. Crowley’s actions may have been influenced by unconscious or institutional racism. Many readers disagreed with me and felt that race had nothing to do with Crowley’s actions.
The reality we can all agree on is that they both are apparently good men who may have overreacted to the situation. I do hope that after they have that beer together at the White House, Gates and Crowley can shake hands, form a partnership and travel together to help initiate positive and important dialogues about race.
But the uncomfortable or inconvenient truth is that race and prejudice are still major problems in our society that we must all address. As a psychologist in New York City, I work with many police brutality cases. Though some of the victims have been non-black, most are black, ranging from teenagers to adults, from all socio-economic classes. The police have been representative of different races and genders.
In almost all cases, the victims have been stopped by officers who may be investigating a crime and believe there may be some illegal behavior on their part. Invariably, something has gone wrong during the detainment or questioning, resulting in the suspect being beaten and arrested. In the majority of the cases, disorderly or any criminal charges are dropped and civil lawsuits commence.
So what is the common thread that results in the victims being wrongly beaten and arrested? Sometimes the arresting officers have a rage or fear that is inappropriately exercised on the victim/suspect. But more often than not, it has been a misinterpretation by the police that their authority has been challenged or questioned.
There are times that the misinterpretation is fueled by conscious or unconscious fear or prejudice because of the race of the victim. That is why it is important that all people, but especially black men (who are often perceived as being threatening) understand how to react, conduct and protect themselves when approached or stopped by a police officer. Thus, I often counsel young black males about common sense and appropriate behaviors that will keep them out of harm’s way if they are dealing with an officer, with or without emotional issues.
Before I lay out the strategies I give them, let me be very clear here; I absolutely believe the majority of police officers are honest and professional. They protect and serve and therefore we must respect their authority. They put their lives on the job every day, and any traffic stop or detainment of a person could cost them their lives. Thus, they are emotionally aroused and in hyper mode.
That’s why the advice I have and will provide here should be heeded by all, regardless of race, but especially by black males who again, are more at risk for being perceived as a threat, even if they are not. Of course, the assumption here is that you are not guilty of any crime. In that spirit, here is my guide to dealing with the police if you are stopped or detained:
1. Address the officer as “sir,” “officer” or “officer (last name).” This technique will engage him quicker and add a human element where you become less of a stranger or perp. It automatically sets a more professional tone and relationship.
**2.**Never raise your voice or challenge the officer even if she is confrontational and raises hers. By keeping your voice to a normal tone, you will not feed into the escalation of the situation. You may even end up bringing the officer’s tone or aggression down a few notches.
**3.**Never walk or run away from a police officer. That will automatically imply some sort of guilt, putting you on the wrong side of the law.
**4.**Know your rights beforehand, and within those rights, follow the instructions of the officers. Cooperation within your rights will enable a smoother situation and bring down the chances for any violent action or reaction on the part of the officer.
**5.**You do not want to come across as being belligerent or confrontational, even if you are not. It will only work against you. So do not ask the officer for his badge number; instead memorize it. Do not tell him you will report him. When you are out of the detainment or arrest, consult an attorney.
**6.**Police officers are trained to read body language and to react immediately. Therefore, your physical behavior is very important in keeping a detainment or stop from going awry. Always keep your hands in full view, on the steering wheel or in front of you. Never make any sudden moves. In fact, explain your physical actions; “Officer, I am reaching into my pocket, or the glove compartment, for my license.”
**7.**Never resist arrest. If you exert even the tiniest, most minuscule verbal or physical resistance, the officer will respond in force to quickly contain the situation. This, in fact, may have the potential of turning into a grievous or deadly altercation.
**8.**If you are a minor, kindly ask the officer to contact your parent, or take you to your home as soon as possible. You can give your name, birth date, social security number, address, and where you attend school. But do not say anything else until your parent or guardian arrives. Because you may not have the maturity and wisdom, your words can easily be misinterpreted or used against you.
**9.**As soon as you get out of the situation, begin recording your thoughts on paper as time does begin to erase memory. The document will assist you if you file charges to pursue litigation against the officer.
10. Finally, always carry a form of legal identification wherever you go. This will immediately establish legitimacy and reduce suspicion on the part of the officer.