I recently had to do an interview to get a security clearance (it’s not for something cool, unfortunately), and the guy interviewing me–having read my books–was shocked I had such a limited criminal history. He just assumed I’d been arrested countless times and indicted on at least a few of them. Not the case.
Don’t get me wrong, I had run-ins with A LOT of cops. I’ve been under threat of arrest and been taken into custody so many times I used to know arrest procedures as well as the guys slapping on the cuffs. Despite all that, I’ve never faced a serious felony charge, or really even a serious misdemeanor. So how did I accomplish that? There is a right way and a wrong way to deal with cops, I did it the right way, and I can teach you how to do that same.
Before I start on this, let me be very clear: This post is NOT intended as legal advice. The only person you should ever take legal advice from is a lawyer who is licensed to practice in your jurisdiction. Yes, I went to law school, but no, that doesn’t mean all my advice is legal advice. Nor does it even mean its good. This post is simply my opinion on the best way to think about the psychology of interactions with law enforcement, and has NOTHING to do with specific legal advice.
Part 1: Understanding Cops
The first step in dealing with cops is empathy. Seriously, it sounds like bullshit, but understanding them and relating with their position is critically important if you want them to let you skate on the stupid things you do.
The 3 Things You MUST Understand About How Cops Think:
1. Cops’ first and biggest concern is safety: I cannot over-emphasize this: The job of a police officer puts him in potentially dangerous situations every day, so everything he does starts with ensuring his personal safety. I’ve known and been friends with so many cops and all of them say the same thing: You’re always on guard because you never know what you’re walking into, and mistakes can get you killed. Every single cop knows other cops who have died in the line of duty. When an officer comes up to a car he’s pulled over or knocks on the door of a home that has reported a domestic disturbance, he has no idea who he’s going to be dealing with. You may understand that you are a perfectly nice, non-threatening person, but he doesn’t know that–he’s thinking about the guy who graduated with him at the police academy and got gunned down by a tweaker on a routine traffic stop last week. This concept—the primacy of personal safety—is drilled into them from the beginning of training onward, so understand that when a cop walks up to you he is–at the very minimum–suspicious and wary.
That is why the first minute of your interaction with a police officer—especially during a traffic stop or potentially dangerous situation–is so crucial. In this small window it is imperative you display the fact that you’re not a threat to him. This can mean hands up and open, a nice calm demeanor, a submissive tone, etc. Your specific actions depend on the situation, but everything you do upon initial contact with a cop should be about displaying the fact that you are not a threat. If you do that right, you will put yourself in a great position with the cop who has your immediate fate in his hands.
I have a Concealed Handgun License for this very reason, even though I never pack a gun. To get one of those in Texas you must have no felony record, go through a 12-hour course, demonstrate marksmanship, and pass a written test. As soon as a cop sees my CHL he relaxes because he knows I’m a responsible citizen. I like to drive fast, and that thing has gotten me out of numerous tickets.
2. Yes, most cops are on power trips: Look, I’m not going to sugarcoat this: most people who become cops do it because at some level they like having power over other people. This doesn’t necessarily make them bad people; for every loser who’s compensating for getting beat up in high school, there are 10 cops who are doing it for the right reasons (they care about their communities and they want to protect good people from criminals). But all cops are motivated, to some extent, by the desire to have power over others.
If you understand that fact, you can prepare for and accommodate it; which means never, under any circumstances, challenging them or their power. Doing that is a direct threat to their identity, and challenging someone’s identity—especially an insecure cop on a power trip–is the surest way to becoming the next Abner Louima.
Here’s the thing about power trips though: a power trip can work to your advantage, if, instead of fighting it, you submit to it. How? Forgiveness is the ultimate display of power. Giving a cop a reason to let you go lets him feel just as powerful as the act of arresting you would, but with none of the paperwork. [More on this later, in the example section]
3. Cops categorize all people into 3 groups: Almost every cop I’ve ever met views all people as belonging to one of three groups; 1. Citizens (i.e., people we protect from criminals), 2. Criminals (people we put in jail), 3. Other cops (one of us).
Why does this matter? Because if you have done something stupid the surest way to get a cop to let you off is to convince him you are a Citizen, NOT a Criminal. Assuming what you’ve done is not a major felony, the cop’s decision to let you go rests mainly on that distinction: Are you a Citizen who made a stupid mistake, or are you a Criminal continuing a pattern of malicious law-breaking? [More on this below, when I give examples of scenarios.] Cops are very lenient with people they think are Citizens, because that’s who they signed up to protect, but they are dicks to Criminals, because in their minds, those are the bad guys. Up to a certain point, what you do is way less important to the cop than who he thinks you are.
You can be sure those three behavioral traits apply, at least in basic terms, to all cops. There is another way you need to think about them, though, that will help you understand what to do once you’ve made initial contact. I’ll call it Personality Type. The vast majority of cops fall into three broad Personality Types:
The 3 Types of Cops
1. Blue Collar Pros: This is most cops. These are people who value discipline and order, who aren’t happy behind a desk or in a cubicle, and just want to make decent money while helping good people. They skew toward the athletic and adventurous, with a taste for adrenaline, but they possess the ability to manage and direct those impulses (if you’ve ever wondered why a significant percentage of police are ex-military and why ex-military are so highly sought after by police recruiters, this is why—they’ve already been trained to use violence while subjecting their violent impulses to a system of rules).
These are the cops you don’t want to fuck with because they are the ones most likely to let you off with a warning if you play it cool and act like an adult. All they really want out of people is basic respect and common decency. Of all cops, they are most like you and me, insomuch as we can’t stand a hassle or things being made harder than necessary. And that’s exactly what most small time arrests and tickets are: hassles made harder by idiots who don’t get it. These are the cops who are looking for you to give them a reason not to do a bunch of paperwork. These are the guys who care more about justice in the moral sense than the kind of justice prescribed by the letter of the law. As one former Deputy Sheriff friend of mine put it, there is great satisfaction in “teaching people positive lessons…giving someone a break and them truly being thankful and fixing their mistakes.” As far as cops go, these are the good guys.
Basic Blue Collar Pro Personality Profile:
-Believes in law and order
-Ex-military and/or patriotic
-Average or slightly above average intelligence.
-Prefers dominance/submission displays in human interactions. Both for safety reasons and personal reasons, they like to feel in charge
-Believes at some level he has moral authority and is doing the right thing
General Rules on How to Deal with Basic Blue Collar Pro:
-Be calm and respectful
-Show you aren’t a threat
-Tell the truth
-Don’t bullshit them
2. High School Napoleons: These are the guys (and they are almost exclusively guys) to be most cautious with. These are the small, petty, insecure dickheads on power trips who are looking for you to give them a reason to ticket or arrest you. If the Blue Collar Pros are the good guys, these are most definitely the bad guys. Every one of us has either encountered one of these cops or knows someone from our high schools who became one of them.
The High School Napoleons became cops because they see law enforcement as their chance to level the playing field and show all those entitled pricks from high school that everyone has to play by the same rules. They operate with this massive chip on their shoulders on a daily basis and they take every opportunity to exorcise it on you if you show yourself to be the kind of person who ignored them or kept them in social purgatory or unfairly took what they thought should have been theirs. They will profile you immediately by your car, your clothes, your name, your hair, your alleged transgression, any meaningful class indicator or signal. [If you need an example of a classic High School Napoleon, look no further than George Zimmerman: the guy who killed Trayvon Martin. His history—from high school to present day—is a textbook case. The dude was enrolled in a criminal justice program in hopes of becoming a police officer when he shot the kid.]
High School Napoleon Personality Profile:
-Uses law and order to justify his envy and rage
-Rarely ex-military, expresses patriotism as hate towards immigrants, other marginalized groups
-Below average intelligence (for cops, but still not stupid).
-Keenly aware of dominance/submission displays in interactions, but exclusively for personal reasons
General Rules on How to Deal with High School Napoleons:
-Be obsequious, almost to a fault
-Never do anything that they will perceive as a threat to their power or status as a cop, they overreact to any perceived resistance
-If you REALLY know the law, then you can engage them in procedural discussions. Otherwise, avoid subject entirely
-Understand that most often they aren’t letting you out of what they caught you for, so just swallow it and don’t make it worse by giving them an excuse to increase the charges
3. Legacy Kids: You find these cops in big cities more than anywhere else, but they exist in departments both big and small. They are the people who come from generations of law enforcement, often within that same city or state. They come into the profession already aware of all the little idiosyncrasies of their job and jurisdiction. They know which rules and regulations are just suggestions and which are black letter laws. They know the history and the inner workings of their departments, and because of this, they can be your best friend or your worst enemy—and sometimes both. Depending on their mood and your behavior, they can just as easily let you walk on some pretty serious shit as they can throw every book in the penal code at you for the smallest and pettiest of violations. It’s what you get when you combine the tools of institutional power with the flexibility of discretion and the leverage of knowledge asymmetries. These cops are much harder to identify until you are in the throes of dealing with them. If things are going well, you’ll feel a much more casual, common sense approach. If they aren’t, well then buckle up, because you are about to get it.
Legacy Kids Personality Profile:
-Understand that law and order are very fluid concepts
-Has jaded view of American criminal process. Knows where the “skeletons are buried”
-Above average intelligence. Tend to be smartest of all cop types.
-Also the laziest of cops, is the most likely to let you off if you give them a reason or they think you are a good person
General Rules on How to Deal with Legacy Kids:
-Befriend them as much as possible
-Subtly display that you “get it”
-Talk to them like normal people, but don’t get too familiar or forget that they are cops
Part 2: Dealing With Specific Situations
I’m about to explain precisely how this information applies to you, and how you can use it to avoid trouble when dealing with cops, but first you need to understand the unifying concept of all the advice that will follow:
Everything you do when dealing with law enforcement should be about avoiding or limiting your exposure to the criminal justice system.
I’m not here to argue or debate the pros and cons of the American criminal justice system; that’s a different discussion for a different place, and to be honest, the morality of the system doesn’t matter. What matters is that you recognize the justice system for what it is in fact, not what you think it should be in theory. The fact is, the legal system is great in theory, but in practice, it is neither fair nor just. Sometimes good people get fucked and bad people go free. Don’t let the appearance of objective laws deceive you; once you get into the system, anything can happen, and there are no guarantees, ever.
I’m not telling you to not have fun or be crazy, I’m not even telling you not to break laws. I’m telling you that no matter what you do, you don’t want the lumbering machinations of the criminal justice system deciding your fate. Trust me on this, even in the best cases it’s an awful experience. Don’t trust me? Just Google any phrase similar to “screwed up justice system” and read any of the millions of articles that come up.
Keeping this concept in mind, there are two legal concepts you need to understand:
The 2 Legal Concepts You Need to Understand To Properly Deal With Cops
[LEGAL DISCLAIMER (yes, this is the second one): Although Tucker went to law school, he never took the bar and is not licensed to practice law in any jurisdiction. Any advice in this post should be considered for general purposes and is not specific legal advice applicable to your location or situation. And as a side note, if you take legal advice from someone you don't know off the Internet without making sure it's legit where you live and in your specific circumstances, you are stupid and probably deserve to go to jail.]
1. On the scene, cops can do anything they want: At the scene of the crime, cops are god, they are Shiva Destroyer of Worlds; they can do anything they want, and they know it. They can arrest you for ANYTHING, they can jack you around for hours, they can ruin your entire day in numerous ways, all of them legal.
People have this notion that cops have a strict, iron-clad set of legal guidelines they must follow in every circumstance; that’s preposterous. They have a HUGE amount of discretion at the scene. If you didn’t do anything serious and the cop thinks you are a Citizen because you treated him with respect and defered to his power, he has the ability to give you every benefit of the doubt (and most times he will, if for no other reason than to avoid all the monotonous paperwork).
Conversely, if you are a dick to the cop, or the cop wants to jack you up and take you in for any reason, he can, and there’s nothing you can do about it, even if he’s wrong. He’s going to find a reason to arrest you and if one doesn’t exist he’ll manufacture a tenuous one that will work to justify the arrest.
Granted, if a cop is just jacking you around on bullshit, then in the long run nothing will stick or he won’t end up charging you and you’ll get released…but only after hours or days spent in a holding cell.
But that doesn’t mean anything at the scene. Take this as gospel: if you fuck with a cop, he CAN AND WILL fuck you up. He will do it legally and he will do it gleefully and it will be awful, even if it gets resolved in your favor in the end.
2. Cops don’t judge cases, they only decide if you get arrested: I cannot tell you how many people don’t understand this basic concept, so let me say it very clearly: Cops can only initiate the criminal process (via arrest), they do not make the final judgment or hold any power beyond the arrest. They can’t convict you, they can’t even indict you. They can only arrest you, collect evidence against you and recommend to the prosecutor that the State charge you with a crime.
I know, I know, I just said that cops are god at the scene. And they are. But his power drops dramatically the minute he brings you in and books you into custody. At that point, the power moves to the cop’s superiors at the station and, ultimately, to the prosecutor. The cop goes from major decision maker to small cog once the arrest is made and you’re passed to booking.
This is a critical point, because it determines at what level of discourse you engage the cop at the scene. If you’ve done something wrong, even if it’s small, it is counterproductive to argue guilt/innocence with him. When you do, it codes to a cop brain as something a prosecutor/judge must rule on, not him, so he mentally checks out. You need to engage cops on the level of their discretion–whether or not to even bring you in and initiate the legal process at all–not on the level of your relative guilt or innocence, which is NOT at their discretion.
When you engage a cop on the level of “is this even a crime worth bringing him in???” then you are engaging him at a point where he DOES have the power to decide. This is such an important distinction, and very few people make it.
Now, let’s talk about specific situations. It’s impossible to explain every possible situation you may find yourself in with a cop, but as a general rule most police encounters can be divided into four distinct categories, and there is a specific range of actions for each one:
The 4 Basic Cop Scenarios You Will Deal With:
1. You’re totally innocent: I know this may sound counter-intuitive to some of you, especially the crazy libertarians who make the smallest issue into a referendum on the Constitution, but if you have nothing to hide, then don’t hide anything. Law enforcement officers tend to have pretty good bullshit detectors. They may not know what you are hiding, but they know if you are hiding something. And if they think you are hiding something from them, then they’ll move heaven and earth to figure out what it is, especially if they think it could be something big.
If you are truly innocent, let everything out. No matter how absurd the story is, give them every detail, tell them every truth, agree to any test. Be honest, tell the WHOLE story, and 99.9% of the time you will be fine (the only time you won’t is if the cop is trying to jack you up; that situation is covered below).
I cannot tell you how many times when I was younger that cops rolled up on me doing something that looked awful but wasn’t even really a crime, yet the explanation was so fucking ridiculous, I thought no cop would ever believe it. I’d lie, trying to come up with a plausible story, and it never worked. You know why? Because cops are trained to detect lies.
The first thing they’ll do is calm the situation down–get everyone’s heart rate and adrenaline back to normal levels–and ask you what happened or what’s going on. They’ll listen to every word patiently, respectfully, intently. And then, when you’re done, that’s when the questions start coming. They’ll ask you the same questions over and over, from different angles, in different ways, probing for inconsistencies. They aren’t judging the truth of the facts of your story as much as they are judging whether you are lying to them. Unless you are a world class liar, they’re going to trip you, and when they do they are going to think you’re a liar, which to them codes as “Criminal.” Then you’re fucked, even if you haven’t done anything wrong.
You know what does work? Telling the whole fucking truth, even if it sounds ridiculous. If you do, no matter how many times the cops ask you the same questions, your answers are going to be consistent because you’re telling the truth. And, if you actually are innocent, everything will be OK. This isn’t about “trusting the system,” this is about fixing where you code in the cops brain, either as “Citizen” or “Criminal.” Citizens tell the truth; Criminals lie. You want the cop to see you as a Citizen.
These situations happen most often when you are pulled over on a ‘pretense stop’ by cops looking to catch bigger fish (cops often use expired tags, a broken windshield, etc as an excuse to pull people over to check for warrants or drugs) or when you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time for reasons entirely out of your control (bar fights, car accidents, locked out and setting off the home burglar alarm, etc). Just remember: Cops, even the asshole High School Napoleons, aren’t interested in wasting their time jacking up innocent Citizens. If you are truly innocent, just lay everything out and be straight with them, and they’ll move on to the Criminals.
One caveat: Don’t play the innocent card unless you are actually innocent. If you’ve seen Cops, you know A LOT of people think that if they act innocent, the cop won’t actually search them. Bullshit. He will, and he’ll catch you. Innocence is not something to toy with. It’s like bluffing top pair with the short stack and the chip leader is on the button. Only play the card if you have it.
2.You’re guilty and caught, but it’s something small and stupid: This is the most common situation: you did something stupid and juvenile that technically makes you guilty of a crime, but the crime itself isn’t really that bad. That describes pretty much every night I went out in my twenties. There are numerous examples; being overly obnoxious at a bar, driving with an expired license, walking around with an open container, constantly honking at some old woman who won’t drive the fucking speed limit, etc, etc.
After much trial and error, I figured out the best way to handle this situation: I admit to the least bad crime the cop knows about, apologize profusely, tell them that I’m an idiot and just made a stupid mistake and won’t do it again, and then put myself at their mercy. I spent a decade in legally tenuous situations, getting out of one after the other (or suffering the minimum possible consequence) because each time I was honest, apologetic and cooperative.
This works because you’re doing three things that incentivize the cop to let you go: 1. You’re signaling to them that you’re a Citizen who made a mistake, NOT a Criminal who’s acting out a pattern (remember, cops want to arrest “Criminals” not “Citizens”) 2. you are appealing to their psychological needs by giving them a chance to forgive you, and thus demonstrate the fullest form of their power (which is the main reason they became cops), and 3. you are saving them from the paperwork and bureaucratic bullshit that comes with every arrest (which appeals to their selfishness and laziness).
This approach covers nearly every form of stupid juvenile idiocy a 20-year old might commit. It is simple and effective, yet so many people do not follow it someone decided to make a show about them: it’s called “JAIL.”
3. You’re guilty, caught, and it’s a big deal: If you are truly guilty–like for real did some serious felony shit and you’re just flat out caught–accept that you’re getting arrested and shut up so you don’t make things worse. Cooperate, be polite and do what the cop says, but shut your mouth and ask for your lawyer and don’t do or say anything else.
For example, say you run a red light and cause a major accident because you were texting and not paying attention. You’re an idiot, the accident is your fault, and you’re fucked. Accept these facts, and operate with them as given assumptions, instead of trying to argue the accident away. You’re going to lose that argument, get arrested anyway, and now you’ve set up the prosecutor’s case. The cop is going to ask you if you were paying attention. He’s going to ask you if you were texting while you were driving. Anything you say at this point can potentially be evidence against you at a criminal trial. SHUT THE FUCK UP. If you did it and you know it and the cop knows it, there is NOTHING you can do at the scene that will either get you off or make it better. You can ONLY make it worse by talking. [Note: this applies doubly so for serious intentional crimes, like robbery or arson].
Cops are not dumb. They are especially good at understanding the application of the law and how to get people to talk in ways that produce the evidence they need to make a case. They don’t have to tell you the truth, either. If they think you’re guilty, they’re going to say anything they think will get you to incriminate yourself or tell a version of events they can pin to you and compare to later testimony. If you know you’re guilty too, understand that there is NO WAY to resolve the situation at the scene. Accept that you’re going to get arrested, and give yourself the chance to unfuck the situation later on by shutting up now and not giving them anything to use against you. Most criminals are convicted, in part or in whole, on evidence they willingly gave to the police. If you are caught and clearly going to be arrested, and they’re still talking to you about things pertinent to your situation, not just shooting the shit, it’s because they are trying to get evidence to use against you. SO SHUT UP.
Still, some people think they HAVE to talk. If you must say something, politely ask for your lawyer. For example: “Officer, I’d love to talk to you about this, but my friend always makes me promise to call a lawyer before I talk to police. I know, it makes your job a little harder, but I just don’t feel comfortable unless I take his advice and talk to my lawyer. When she gets here, I’ll be happy to discuss this with you, but until then, I’d like to not say anything.” Or you can be a dick and yell “LAWYER!” over and over; fuck it, you’re already busted, why not?
[Want to watch a great example of how this situation plays out in real life? Go watch a few episodes of the TV show “The First 48.” It’s an amazing show with real cops doing real police work. I would say that over half the cases are made by cops getting people to incriminate themselves when they don’t have to even talk to the police! You can watch it happen in real time on that show. Or, read this (general advice for criminals and idiots) or watch this video (about why to never talk to police if you're guilty or appear to be guilty).]
4. A cop is trying to jack you up, and you know it: Sometimes you run into the wrong High School Napoleon at the wrong time and he just has a hair up his ass about you. It happens. Or maybe a Blue Collar Pro has totally misread a situation and is convinced that you’re guilty, even though you really are innocent. This is the rarest situation thankfully, but it is also the worst. And unfortunately, you are not going to like my advice even though it is unquestionably the best thing you can do: If you are getting unjustly jacked up by a cop, the best thing to do is calm down, relax, stay polite and cooperative, accept what the cop does without fighting him on it, and then seize the first opportunity that presents itself to get out of the situation.
Take what happened to me recently: I was crossing the street, against a red light. I was in the crosswalk and there were no cars coming so it should have been no big deal. I was not even ten feet from the opposite curb when this cop–on a fucking bike–pulled up out of nowhere and commanded me to go back to the other side. I mean…are you kidding? You could not dream up a scenario where a cop could be more pathetic or petty. I could tell from one look at this dude that he was the archetype of the High School Napoleon, and he’d pegged me as a rich asshole who he was going to humiliate while looking for a reason to jack me up. In that moment–in those first 10 seconds–I had a decision to make: Do I argue with the cop and fuck with him right back, or do I just do what he says?
Most people here are going to tell you to fight back, to defend your rights, to go apeshit and tell the cop to fuck off or whatever other posturing nonsense they can think up. And you can do that…but that is a hard battle to fight, especially when the cop has the cuffs and the pepper spray and the law to back him up. That’s a fight you’re going to lose, one way or another.
What you do all depends on how you want to spend your time over the next few months. If you want to spend a night in jail, thousands of dollars on lawyers, hundreds of hours waiting around in court, and subjecting yourself to the random things that can happen in any system, then please, by all means, take the hard road and enjoy the consequences that come with it.
But if you’re like me, having fully identified the type of situation you are facing, you do nothing, you respond to no provocation, you calmly take all his verbal abuse–even though every fiber of your being wants to lash out at this fucking piece of shit small dick asshole cop abusing his power–and you move on with your life. It’s ultimately just better not to punch the tar baby, no matter how much you might want to.
The question you have to wrestle with when you’re getting unfairly jacked up isn’t what should happen in a just world? It’s what is the best way to extricate yourself from the situation at hand and avoid interacting with the justice system? If that isn’t possible at the scene, if the cop is going to arrest or ticket you, all you can do is cooperate and wait until you get to the next layer in the criminal justice system. There a prosecutor or a higher ranking officer can correct the mistake and the arresting officer’s power melts away. So, once you know the cop is out to get you, stop trying to fight him and move on to the battle you can win. Just getting arrested isn’t that big of a deal anyway.
Addendum: The Special Problem of DUI’s
I’ve left out any mention of drinking and driving for this reason: It is a very complicated legal issue that is changing rapidly, and there is not any specific advice that applies generally across all jurisdictions.
Of course, the best thing to do is NOT DRINK AND DRIVE. But I won’t sit here and lecture you about that. You know how stupid it is, and so do I; but I’ve done it in the past, and some of you will too.
If you’re going to drink and drive, the one piece of advice I can give you is to take the time now, sober, to figure out how to respond if you get pulled over. Some places it makes sense not to blow. Other places, you’re better off blowing even if you’re going to blow high. And yet in other places your best call is to demand a blood test. Wherever you live, if you’re going to be an idiot and drive drunk, figure out the options available to you and plan for the best response possible…BEFORE the inevitable happens, and you get pulled over.
Addendum: The Special Problem of Race
I am white. All my interactions with cops have been with me being white. The fact is, being white in America fundamentally changes the way cops deal with you (and often the way you see cops). If you’re white, cops are much more inclined to see you as a “Citizen.” If you are black (or in some places, any shade of brown) cops are much more inclined to see you as a “Criminal”, even black or hispanic cops. I am not trying to argue whether this is right or wrong, I am just telling you the way it is.
My best advice for black people who have to deal with cops: Be white.
Just kidding (sort of). I am reticent to give advice about dealing with cops from the perspective of a black or Hispanic person because there is nothing more condescending or inaccurate than thinking you know something you haven’t experienced personally. I do know that all my advice above works very well for middle-class white people acting like normal middle-class crazy white people. To the extent that it helps with other racial or ethnic groups, great, but I do not warranty that it will.