“I’m Being ‘Harassed’ by the Police. How Do I Handle it Without Making it Worse?”
By Ken K. Gourdin
On Quora, a reader asks, “How can I confront a cop for harassment without making it worse?”
A couple of threshold questions spring immediately to mind which might affect the advice I would give to someone who reports that s/he’s being “harassed” by the police:
What do you mean when you say you were “harassed” by the police? If no reasonable officer who finds himself in the same or similar circumstances would behave as this officer is behaving (or did behave), then yes, the officer might be “harassing” you.
Are you doing anything which might cause a reasonable officer who finds himself in the same or similar circumstances to wonder whether some kind of criminal activity might be afoot? If so, then I would consider those circumstances and/or cease that activity.
If the answer to the first question is “yes” (that is to say, no reasonable officer in similar circumstances would behave as this officer is behaving) and the answer to the second question is “no” (that is, you are not doing anything which might cause a reasonable officer in similar circumstances to wonder whether criminal activity might be afoot), now, we’ve finally reached the point where we can talk about what might be advisable for you to do in such a situation.
You have two choices. You can either: (1) Do something that may well make the situation worse (or at best, something which will not make it better); or (2) Do something which will not make the situation worse. For better or for worse, police officers are accustomed to people following the orders they issue. If people do not follow those orders, they tend (again, rightly or wrongly) to escalate their demands. The more resistant someone is to doing what police tell him to do, the greater the likelihood that the interaction will not end well for the person offering such resistance.
So you need to ask yourself, even if you’re right, what are the chances that you will win? Given the facts that officers are accustomed to people following the orders they give and that they tend to escalate their demands when their orders are not followed immediately, the odds that you will win (at least, in the heat of whatever confrontation likely is taking place) aren’t very good. Three things could happen in such a situation, and two of them are bad: (1) You could end up being arrested; (2) You could end up, heaven forbid, being shot; or (3) (and this is the least likely of the three) the officer could decide, or he could be persuaded by a fellow officer or directed by a superior, to deescalate the situation.
So the short answer is, you don’t confront the officer; at least, not then and there. Even if you think an officer is being unreasonable, the best way to avoid being arrested, being shot, or having anything else which is worse than the encounter itself happen, is to comply. As long as you do that, chances are pretty good (in fact, they’re better than pretty good) that you’ll live to fight another day.
Now, suppose an officer is being unreasonable. It’s simply not realistic to think that you’ll be able to talk him out of being unreasonable even if you’re right. Well, you can always talk to the officer’s supervisor or commander and/or file a complaint with his agency later on, after the heat has died down.
What if you don’t get any satisfaction after speaking with the officer’s supervisor or with his commander? Most states have a certifying body for sworn law enforcement officers. In my state, it’s known as Police Officer Standards and Training, or POST. If the misconduct is serious enough and if sufficient credible evidence exists to support it, it may have an effect on the officer’s certification, and, hence, on his ability to continue to work in law enforcement.
Whether the agency (or anyone else) will do anything about a particular allegation of inappropriate interaction probably hinges on what evidence exists that supports your claim. Were there any other witnesses? How believable are the witnesses? If your only witness is a six-foot-tall, 250-pound tattoed, jeans-and-t-shirt-wearing biker dude who just got out of prison after doing a five-year rip for felony drug possession with intent to distribute, good luck.
It also probably helps if the witnesses aren’t related to you, and/or if you have only an arm’s-length acquaintance with them. It increases their believability because it decreases the chance that someone will think they’re lying simply because they have a prior, close relationship with you. Your mom might make an excellent character witness, and everything she says about you (and/or about the incident) might be absolutely true, but the immediate response will be, “Of course his mom’s going to say that! What mother doesn’t love her son?”
What if you don’t get any satisfaction from the officer’s supervisor, from his commander, from his agency, or from the certifying body? Well, the media love “bad cop” stories, and they especially love “bad cop” stories when a “bad cop” story happens, a citizen tries to do something about it, and nothing happens in response to the citizen’s attempt to fix it. I would consider how frequently you interact with the agency involved and with its officers before taking this step, but you can always go to the media. If you decide that’s “a bridge too far,” there is no shortage of places in Cyberspace where visitors love to bandy about complaints about law enforcement. That might not do much for you, but if you’re simply looking to blow off steam, there is that. In any case, provided you comply with law enforcement during the interaction (even when an officer is being unreasonable), if nothing else, you’re free to complain later on to anyone who will listen about how unfair and unreasonable Officer [X] from Agency [Y] is.
And if all else fails? You can always sue, but litigation can be long, expensive, and exhausting. (And again, it depends on what evidence you have to support your claim.) Believing something, or even knowing something for absolute certain, is a far cry from being able to prove it according to the relevant legal standard in a court of law (in civil cases, usually “by a preponderance of the evidence”—think “50%, plus the tiniest bit more.”
I wish you well.