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How to act when approached by police

Law enforcement officers swear to ‘protect and serve,’ but that mantra has become clouded in recent months. Prior to the events of 2020, law enforcement has already carried a stigma that raised the anxiety of those they approached. For some individuals, that anxiety has turned to fear as the year has progressed.

Police work is a harrowing and challenging profession, and current events have only made it tougher for police to act accordingly and for citizens to trust their motivations. 

Due to the current tension between law enforcement officers and private citizens, it’s critical to remain calm (at least outwardly) when interacting with law enforcement. Even during questioning, you can follow guidance to increase the likelihood of peaceful interaction.

First, you should know your rights.

  1. Your right to remain silent: In Pennsylvania, if stopped by a police officer, you must state your name if asked, but you do not have to provide your ID or any other information. If you decide to remain silent, state your name, and then express your desire to remain silent. If questions persist, continue to state your request.
  2. You right to deny a search: If the officer is suspicious, they may pat down your clothing to search for drugs or weapons. Refusing consent to a search may not stop the officer because they can claim suspicion, allowing them to act. You will have more legal precedent if you refuse a search, but courts may still side with law enforcement as stating that you have a lower “expectation of privacy” when standing on the street or in your car as you would in your home.
  3. Your right to an attorney: If you get arrested, a government-appointed attorney is available to you upon request if you cannot afford your own.
  4. Your right to not answer questions on citizenship: You are not required to answer any questions about your place of birth, citizenship status or how you got into the country unless you are in any of the following situations:
    • Law enforcement officers stopped you in an airport on at an international border
    • If you are a tourist or business traveler using a nonimmigrant visa

To better the chances of having a peaceful interaction with the police, practice the following habits:

  • Keep calm
  • Stay in place and don’t resist or obstruct the actions of the officers
  • Tell the truth
  • Do not verbally abuse or physically touch the officers
  • Always keep your hands where the officer can see them

If you must reach into your clothing for the identification or any other reason, make a request to the officers beforehand. This simple request makes the officers aware of your actions and calms their suspicions.

Officer violations

If you feel the law enforcement officer violated your rights, write down anything you can remember. Valuable information can include the officer’s badge number and cruiser number, in which agency and precinct they work, and anything else you can remember from the interaction. Witness provided pictures or video can also come in handy when defending your case. Jot down any witnesses’ contact information and ask if they took pictures or recorded video.

Lastly, locate your local internal affairs division or civilian complaint board to file your complaint, and don’t forget about the power of attorney representation.

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