One does not need to survive a police encounter

A week or two ago, in light of shootings of officers by civilians and civilians by officers, the Waterbury Police Department held an informational community meeting. The goal was laudable; the talk anything but. The session was titled “how to survive an encounter with the police” and the tips from the Waterbury police chief included:

If an officer stops your car, if they ask to search your person or vehicle, if they demand entry into your home, comply and then complain later to the department’s internal affairs office and police chief’s office if you feel your rights have been violated, Riddick said.

This story was picked up by Radley Balko of the Washington Post, who roundly criticized the fatalistic tone of the advice. While others (criminal defense lawyers even) agreed with the Chief and suggested total compliance in order to avoid getting shot, subsequent events showed that even that was not a foolproof tactic.

As a citizen, I take a rather dim view of violence in general, especially violence against police officers whose job it is to protect each one of us. It’s a difficult job and we need someone to do it. As a public defender and criminal defense lawyer, I take offense to the idea that in order for me, as a citizen, to “survive” an encounter with police, I must totally submit and comply with every order they give. With that in mind, the following letter to the editor was submitted to the local Waterbury newspaper and published today. It’s behind a paywall on their site, so I’m reproducing it here:

Letter to the Editor – Response to “Surviving a Police Encounter” Presentation

Last week the Waterbury Police Department held an informational session with members of the community regarding how to survive a police encounter. Undoubtedly tensions between police and the communities they serve – particularly minorities – are at the forefront of our national conversation after the tragic deaths of so many – officers and civilians – in recent weeks. Yet it is extremely irresponsible of the Police Department to frame this issue as “surviving an encounter” with the police, as if every interaction is, if nothing else, presumed hostile and that the police’s natural state is that of aggression and violence and it is the civilian’s fault if police utilize force.

The Department would be well served to remember that they have been hired to protect and serve all civilians, not threaten them into giving up their Constitutional rights in the name of safety. Chief Riddick’s advice to members of the community to consent to a search if requested to do so by an officer is incorrect and dangerous. Chief Riddick is suggesting that asserting one’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures can reasonably lead to police force being used against a civilian. There is nothing more contrary to the values of the American democracy than the suggestion that to obtain some temporary safety, we have to give up our liberties.

It is also contrary to the realities of our modern day institutions: the idea that there is meaningful redress for a grievance or complaint later is simply laughable. The reality is that if an individual consents to a police officer’s request to search they have waived their ability to challenge that search in court at a later time. Once certain rights are given up they cannot be taken back. Grievances filed with police departments are notoriously ineffectual. The current system of investigating police misconduct does not work and lacks the faith and support of the community.

Chief Riddick’s comments also highlight the fundamental divide in our communities: there is a lack of trust and faith between the police and civilians. Our police policies and practices have been for so long skewed against citizens of color that the communities are finding it hard to breathe. Police, having suffered senseless violence at the hands of civilians, are understandably afraid and cautious in their interactions. This leads to heightened tensions from both sides and itchy trigger fingers. In order for us to have a way forward, we need to put aside the mindset that police are against the community and vice-versa and instead start to look at this as a collective problem and start rebuilding trust and faith in our police institution by fostering mutual respect. Admonishing citizens that in order for them to “survive” a police encounter, they must surrender their Constitutional rights is a non-starter.


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