When we were kids, the police were the good guys. They were who you could turn to if you got lost. They were the ones who protected us from the bad guys. They were on our side.
When we were kids, of course, we learned a simplified version of reality. All the “lies we tell children” because the truth is too complex, or because it’s the way we’d like them to think. The problem is that lots of us grow up without ever learning the “reality” version of reality. The results can be tragic.
Because the police are not on our side. And woe betide the honest citizen who acts like they are. It’s not that the police are bad. The vast majority are good, decent folks. It’s that the police see the world in “us against them” terms. And we good honest citizens are part of the “them.”
We all know that being a police officer can be dangerous. When a cop pulls you over, or encounters you on the street, he has no way of knowing whether you’re going to be that one wack-job who pulls a gun or a knife on him. It happens. Because the world contains wack-jobs, thugs and the like, we are all potential threats.
But that’s not the half of it. For a while now, the police have felt embattled. They’re constantly criticized for violating civil rights. They’re hamstrung by “technicalities” that make it harder for them to do their job. Politicians, protestors and the proletariat are constantly pointing fingers at the police. We civilians are a spoiled, ungrateful bunch.
And hence, the “thin blue line.” From a police perspective, it’s an us-against-them world, and if you’re not in law enforcement then you’re on the other side.
Now a police officer cannot help but notice that there are only a few of “us,” and a heck of a lot of “them.” The only thing protecting the police is a perception of their authority. If the public loses that perception, the police lose their power. So they desperately need us to respect their authoritah. Any sign of insubordination must be dealt with right away.
It’s a neurotic worldview. It’s a perfectly rational reaction, but that doesn’t make it any less paranoid.
And of course their job is not “to protect and serve” — at least not in their eyes. Their job is to make arrests. Arrests mean numbers that make their unit look good to politicians. Arrests mean overtime, which means mortgage payments. Arrests mean status. And arrests mean the enforcement of their authority (which is far more important than enforcement of the law). So if a police officer can make an arrest, you’d better believe they will.
So what do we have here? We have people who don’t think you’re on their side. Who think you may well be a threat. Who have banded together in a defensive, neurotic, well-armed gang. Who have been given extraordinary powers and authority over the rest of us, and who will defend that authority as harshly as they have to. And who have every incentive to exercise that authority whenever possible.
This can only lead to abuse of power. Cops would have to be superhuman beings for it to be otherwise. And they’re not. So they abuse their power — often without even realizing it — and this leads to worse public perceptions, which leads to the police feeling even more embattled, which becomes a vicious circle. (So it’s no wonder that we’re now being told of an “unprecedented” level of disrespect for the police, as YouTube and Reddit only accelerate the public’s awareness of police abuses.)
So when a good citizen lets the police in his house, thinking he’s being good cooperative teammates, that citizen winds up getting arrested. Because he mistakenly thought the cops were on the same side.
When a good citizen gets pulled over for no good reason, and gives the cop a piece of her mind, thinking they can talk to a police officer like anyone else, she winds up getting arrested. Because she thought she was a fellow citizen, when in reality she was an enemy combatant.
When a good citizen gets hassled by the police, and makes the mistake of thinking he can just walk away, he winds up getting assaulted. If God forbid he tries to protect himself, he’s getting tased or worse. And he gets arrested. Because he thought the same rules of conduct applied to police as to the rest of us good guys.
If you’re a grownup, and you’re still relying on the lies we tell children, here is a quick summary of the stuff you should have learned. It’s only 4 things. Pay attention:
1) Do not talk to the police. The only exception is when you’re reporting a crime or someone in danger.
2) Do not trust the police. They are allowed to lie to you, to get you to say something incriminating. They are trained to lie to you. They do lie to you. They want you to make an admission that lets them arrest you. (See #1)
3) Do not give the police any reason to fight back. Don’t argue. Don’t try to piss them off. Don’t blow bubbles in their face. And for crying out loud, do not touch a police officer. Your “asserting your rights” will be interpreted as a confrontation. Which means a fight. Which you will lose.
4) Don’t give the police permission. The answer to “do you mind if we come in” is always “you cannot come in.” The answer to “do you mind if I look in your car/bag/whatever” is always “no, you cannot look in there.” You may feel like you’re being rude. Deal with it. The officer was being rude first. Do not reward that officer with a chance to find something that can get you arrested. (And don’t say “I’ve got nothing to hide.” Too many of our clients thought they had nothing to hide, and wound up arrested, charged with very serious crimes, and paying us quite a lot of money to deal with it. In these days where practically everything is a crime, letting the police look around is practically the same thing as begging them to arrest you.)
That’s it. Don’t talk to them, don’t trust them, don’t start a fight, and don’t give them permission. It’s very easy to remember.
But if four things is too much to remember, just remember this one thing:
They’re not on your side.