Should You Speak to the Police?

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(Note: this article was originally posted in 2013, but in light of the unpleasant events over the summer of 2104 with multiple unarmed black men being shot dead by cops, rightly or wrongly, it takes on a new urgency.)

Suppose one day you witness folks behaving in a manner that is maybe “just not right”.  Do you call the police and volunteer information?  Do you answer all questions honestly if approached by a policeman?  Or do you just mind your own business, and keep your mouth shut?

The issue we are discussing here is whether or not you should, under any circumstances, speak willingly with the police.

Now in an ideal world, the answer to this question is, “Yes, of course!” You should always talk to the police, volunteering whatever information you have to help them do their job. This is how I was raised, to trust authority figures, and assume that the police are always there to serve and protect us.

A quick internet search will find many resources opposed to this point of view. A youtube search for “don’t speak to the police” gives many results, but the one I find most interesting is this one, which features an ex-cop who is now going to law school: .

If you watched it, did you catch what he said? EVERYONE who drives will eventually break the law. It is IMPOSSIBLE not to! Did you also catch how he says he tries not to interview anyone who is innocent? I thought it was the court’s responsibility to determine guilt or innocence, not the police?

Now a true story to drive these points home. My wife’s best friend in Columbia, SC had a BAD experience with the local cops there. She lives with her hubby and kid in a marginal, “transitional” neighborhood. One day the cops were looking for a young man who had been breaking into houses. She saw someone running through her backyard towards her neighbor’s house, then saw the cops pull up. Disturbed by this, she went outside, and I forget whether she volunteered the information, or they asked her, but she said she saw a guy who fit the description of what they were looking for.

What did she get in return? The cops IMMEDIATELY asked her for identification, and what she was doing in that area. Now remember, this is taking place in the front yard of the house she owns! At the time she only had a green card, (she is from the Philippines), so she went inside and returned with that. Once they saw she was only a green card holder, they started asking her all sorts of intimidating questions.

She was really, really scared by all this, and twenty or so minutes later after the police left phoned her husband at work, in tears. She was so upset that he had to come home and calm her down. Because of this she will probably never willingly deal with police again. My wife was scared too, (this happened about two years ago, and my wife wasn’t a citizen yet), and to this day she is still scared of the police.

My humble opinion? When necessary I will speak with the police, even initiate the contact if I have to, but I do so knowing that it may cause me unpleasantness and possible harm. The necessity of their aid will have to be greater than the possibility of their harm.

One final note: Police are human, just like you and me, and like you and me they have individual strengths and weaknesses. They are asked to do a difficult, often impossible job, and they don’t get paid nearly enough for the risks they may encounter. So if you do interact with a cop, be extravagantly polite, even if he or she is totally out of line.