There is no magic formula on how to avoid a police shooting, but you stand your best chances of a safe encounter with the police if you:
Mentally prepare for it beforehand;
Relax and take a deep breath;
Always be polite;
Ask permission to move;
Move slowly, AND MOST IMPORTANTLY;
Tell the police if you have a weapon immediately and then ask how the officer would like to move forward.
Loss of Life is Always Something to Mourn
Let me first note that the loss of human life is always tragic; whether or not there was a legal justification for it. Please do not read into the statement that we should all be pacifists. I can appreciate that there can be a legitimate reason to use lethal force. The loss of human life, however, radiates and hurts all connected to the decedent. My heart goes out to anyone affected.
There is a lot that can be said here, obviously. Also, there are different theories on how to avoid these situations. Ultimately, my theory revolves around what you can control, yourself, rather than retraining police. Clearly, more training for our police is good - they have a tough job and knowledge is power - but in the heat of the moment demanding more training is like lighting a candle in the wind.
Your Rights and the Pyrrhic Victory
You have a series of rights that are listed in our Constitution, rights a judge found that are not in the Constitution (like the right to an attorney during police interrogations), and rights that are not yet found or that are so basic nobody needs to write them down. These various rights should not be violated, but they, at the end of the day, are rules for the government that the government breaks from time to time, as any system run by people breaks sometimes.
The bottom line is that you have these rights and nobody is questioning that. The conversation today is not how to enforce those rights. That is a totally different conversation. What are your priorities? When dealing with police they should be 1) stay alive; 2) preserve rights; 3) don’t go to jail. It’s always the same 3 priorities, but how you order those priorities can make a big difference. If you want to know more about your rights, please feel free to read my post on “what are my rights?”
Lastly, for this paragraph, you should know what a Pyrrhic Victory is. Long story short, Pyrrhus was an ancient Greek leader who won a war but lost so many men that his people executed him when he came home victorious. He did win! But he won at too great of a cost. To put it another way, picture being given the signal to use a crosswalk, but there is a semi-truck approaching that clearly isn't going to stop. You can assert your right to cross, but the moral victory may not be worth the physical cost. When put in the situation, what are your priorities; to be right, or to be alive?
You practice before your driving exam. You study before you take a test at school or professional exam. At work, if you are in sales, you study your product. Once upon a time I also taught the law-portion of a concealed weapons class, and likewise, training, study, thought experiments (thinking through in vivid detail what could happen), and practice were all essential. Interacting with law enforcement is very important. It is something we should all practice for.
Why is training so important? So that when you are put under pressure you remember how to act, what to say, and stay calm when under pressure. We will all probably have at least one encounter with the police. Odds are good that encounter will run you 30 minutes of your time by getting pulled over for speeding or dark window tint. What will you do? Do you feel enraged when you see the red-and-blues reflected in your mirror? Do you get shaky? Do you freeze up? You should really think about it beforehand. Maybe even practice with a friend. It seems basic, or even a little silly, but you will appreciate this. Have a plan.
The FBI tracks a lot of statistics across the United States. One statistic they do not track, but probably will in the future, is fatal encounters with police. Thanks to modern connectivity, however, the good folks over at the Washington Post were able to compile a list of all the people who died at the hands of the police from January 01, 2015 through January 01, 2018. That list compiles the year, the decedent’s name, location, age, race, gender (limited to male or female), whether/what kind of weapon the decedent had, and how the decedent died. In that time, according to the report, just under 1,000 people lost their lives (not counting any police themselves who were killed in the line of duty) per year.
According to the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting data, there were 1,197,704 arrests for violent crimes in 2015. Those crimes include murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault but do not include lesser crimes like drug crimes or arson. Of the nearly 1.2 million arrests for violent crimes (a mere fraction of all arrests in total), there were about 1,000 deaths at the hands of the police. When you read the list, which I will make available by a link, you will notice that the overwhelming majority of the people who were shot by police were armed by a gun, knife, machete (seriously), car, toy-gun (whatever happened to orange caps?), or other weapons.
The report DOES note if the decedent was totally unarmed. As I said before, the loss of human life is always something to mourn, and that there were relatively few unarmed decedents of police shootings is in no way meant to demean their passing. I am, however, trying to highlight that it is not likely to happen to you; and when you have an encounter with the police the first thing you should do is take a breath and think of something to relax. If you are relaxed the police will be more relaxed. Treat the police like you would treat a dangerous wild animal like a grizzly bear. When you are being mauled by a bear, does it really matter why the bear is mauling you? Odds are, you only want it to stop. Rule number one: stay calm. It will benefit you and help keep the situation from escalating.
Moving on with the grizzly bear theme, how do you actually act around a grizzly bear if you accidentally stumble upon one up-close? Unless it is clearly attacking you, you want to talk to it. Bears don’t want to be around people. They don’t want to hurt people, bears just don’t want you around their dinner, their cubs, or surprise visits (if they didn’t hear or smell you approach). Calmly and politely tell the bear you are a person; I’m not suggesting I think it can understand you, but speech is uniquely human and calming tones can convey a message the critter can understand.
Shouting at the bear, swinging your arms, or making sudden movements are clearly things to avoid. Do likewise with the police. When speaking with them (keeping in mind your right to silence), if you are aggressive you increase the odds of the police getting aggressive with you. I’m not making a judgment call on whether the police should reciprocate aggressive behavior, I’m just saying you are taking an unnecessary risk.
Specific things to avoid:
Cursing, swearing, or other “foul” language. Yes, we have the freedom of speech, but remember, what are your priorities, here? If “surviving” is your priority, then don’t curse.
If you are a victim, then obviously just do the best you can, the police are usually understanding with victims and treat them with a certain consideration.
This one should speak for itself. Do not move at all unless you ask permission first, and even then, move slowly.
Make normal eye contact with the police. Trying to laser through their eyes with your own can be interpreted as aggressive. Glaring at the police will produce a similar result as laser-staring. Avoiding looking them in the eyes may send up a red flag, also. Try to notice how you speak with someone you are comfortable with (friend, parent, neighbor, coworker, someone you strike up a conversation with at the post office…) once in a while and when you take 5 minutes to practice getting pulled over or stopped by the police try to mimic that kind of eye contact.
Just don’t do it. Be as clear as possible.
Whether you are English is your second language or not; if you know any English, use your best English. You know that way you talk with your friends? Don’t do it with the police. Have you ever listened to how a news reporter talks, or even a radio DJ? Talk more like that when you interact with the police. Don’t use curse words (see 1, above), don’t use the “N-word,” “Red-neck,” or any other insulting language. Just try to be straightforward.
Remember YOU ARE NOT UNDER AN OBLIGATION TO SPEAK. Although, if you are stopped while driving your car you are required to show them your identification. It is customary to also ask the officer, politely, why you were pulled over. I would even throw an “Oh, was I speeding? I’m sorry officer. It won’t happen again” in there.
Requests To Search
You are not under any obligation to let them search your car, person, home, or anywhere else. If the police ask to search your car, house, jacket, or purse, or anything else remember you should say “No.” You never know if one of your friends dropped “something” in your car and forgot it. When you say “no” do it politely. Something like “Officer, I do not give you permission to search;” or “no ma’am/sir” if you have trouble remembering, or can’t stomach, the longer suggestion. Practice that statement when you practice for your 5 minutes. Do not vary from that phrase by much. If the officer searches anyway, say something like “I do not give you permission, but if you are going to search anyway, please tell me where to stand so I am out of the way.” That last quote is very important. It could actually save your life.
Lastly, you can use my personal philosophy about the topic: I don’t care whether the person is a gangbanger, a redneck, or a cop. If I know the person has a gun, I will always be polite. Why poke the bear?
If you have a weapon be very careful. When I carry a weapon I always have that small voice in the back of my head that reminds me that in that list of folks who met their end with the police, most did so with a gun in their possession. If you do have a legal weapon on you, or even close to you (like someplace in the passenger compartment of the car), tell the police immediately. If the gun is not legal, then, remember your priority with the police is still staying alive.
I cannot give you advice on how to break the law, but I can tell you that anyone with a gun on or near them, legal or not legal, should not go near the gun, don’t move toward it, carefully follow police instructions with how and where to move, move slowly and only when police direct you to move or when you have asked permission first. If the gun is not legal and the police find it, remember, you do not have to answer their questions, but do it politely - “Officer I invoke my right to remain silent and I want a lawyer.” It might sound clunky but practice it. That exact phrase is like magic words and can help your case later.
What To Say
This is mostly copied from “you have a weapon” above. The police are investigating you; remember, you do not have to answer their questions, but do it politely - “Officer I invoke my right to remain silent and I want a lawyer.” (don’t shout it, say it slowly). It might sound clunky but practice it. That exact phrase is like magic words and can help your case later.
So, hopefully, this tutorial will help you with your next stop. The key here is to take 5 minutes to figure out how you will handle the situation before it happens. Spend a few minutes with a friend and have him or her pretend to pull you over (roleplay). This exercise should not take more than 5 minutes.