Originally published August 17, 2009
The recent arrest and release of a Harvard professor by a Cambridge, Massachusetts police officer is a textbook example of what not to do when questioned by the police. The professor, who should have known better, displayed an unusually bad attitude when speaking to the officer. His attitude was the primary reason for his arrest.
President Obama called it a teachable moment. Perhaps all of us, and especially our younger generation, can learn a few things from someone else’s experience. No one likes getting stopped or questioned by the police. But if it happens, will you know what to do?
First, remember that you are not alone. The police stop and question many thousands of people every year. Don’t make it a bigger deal than it is.
Be polite. The police deal with enough jerks. However, you do not need to be overly congenial either.
Don’t argue. You won’t win the argument, and anything you say can be used against you.
Don’t tell the officer who you know, or that she will be sorry, or that you will have his badge. They have heard it before. It did not work then, and it won’t work now.
Follow directions. Keep your hands where the police can see them, and think carefully about your words, movements, body language, and emotions. The police do not know you, and they do not know what you will do. Don’t make them guess.
Do not resist arrest or interfere with an officer arresting someone else. Even if you believe you are innocent, you do not have the right to resist arrest, so do not run, touch an officer, or do anything else that could be used against you.
When approached by an officer, you must identify yourself, but you may politely refuse to answer other questions. If you are stopped in a car, you must produce your driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance upon request.
You do not have to consent to a search of your person, car, or house. However, under some circumstances, the police may do a “pat down” search of your person. If you are arrested, you will be searched, and if you are driving a car at the time, the car will be searched.
If you are stopped for suspicion of driving under the influence, the police may ask, but you are not required, to take a preliminary alcohol test, or to answer questions about where you have been or how much you have had to drink. However, if you are arrested, then you must submit to a blood or breath test or lose your license.
If you receive an ordinary driving ticket you will be asked to sign it. Sign it. If you refuse to sign it, you will be arrested.
In summary, stay calm, be polite, follow directions, and do not say or do anything that will make the situation worse or be used against you later. Had the professor followed the above guidelines, his arrest would have been unlikely. While the officer could have used a little more restraint also, ultimately it was his discretionary call whether to arrest or not.
The professor is not the first and certainly will not be the last person arrested for insulting an officer or having a bad attitude. Police officers are human, so if you tick them off, they may respond in kind, regardless of their training.
Hopefully, we have all learned something from the professor’s arrest. What I’ve learned is that if you get arrested for attitude, do not expect that you and the officer will be sharing a beer at the White House. Unless, of course, you happen to be a Harvard professor who is a personal friend of the President!