Why Police Encounters Go Bad

How the Public and the Police Can Have More Positive Interactions

Police cameras and videos
A police officer on camera on a traffic stop. Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

Over the years, I’ve watched and reviewed hundreds of police videos. Some have come from in-car and body-worn cameras, some from people who record police in attempts to expose corruption and incompetence.

Most of the videos you see pop up on YouTube or go viral on social and news media feature police behaving badly – perhaps officers misunderstanding their authority, not knowing the law they’re trying to enforce, losing their temper or even resorting to uses of force.

Quite often, these videos lead to questions about police practices and training, and foster calls for reforms within police departments and accusations police states, racism and out-of-control officers.

The truth is that a great deal of the controversy centers around a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of the public as to how, when and why police are authorized to use force. Still, law enforcement agencies would do well to work with the public to educate them better on how to act during police encounters.

At the same time, they can better serve the public by returning the original principles of policing and doing their part to restore the public confidence in the police. To get the conversation started, it’s worth looking at how and why police encounters go bad – both on the part of the public and the police.

First Impressions

During any encounter with police, the first impressions can significantly impact the outcome.

For officers, taking the time to greet the individual, explain the reason for approaching or stopping the person, and politely asking if there’s a justifiable reason for their behavior will usually go over much more smoothly than simply demanding a driver license or I.D.

For an individual who is stopped by a police officer, a non-threatening greeting will likely invoke a more pleasant initial contact with the officer than will a standoffish attitude or angrily asking “what’s your problem, officer?”.

Failure to Comply, Failure to Communicate

Very often when you watch viral police videos, you’ll note that emotions and fear escalate when individuals fail to comply with requests and orders from police.

Often, this comes from a misplaced belief that an officer does not have the authority to make the given order or request. What they fail to understand is, authority or no, an officer’s danger meter goes way up when someone doesn't do what’s asked. And when an officer perceives a threat, his demeanor and reactions will be geared toward meeting that threat.

Civilians can mitigate an officer’s response simply by complying with the request from an officer, with the understanding that if the police exceed their authority, they will face repercussions later.

For officers, they often immediately perceive threats when faced with noncompliance, rather than taking a moment to analyze the situation and find out what’s really going on. Officer’s can fall back on their training and tactics to mitigate threats – by creating distance, making use of cover and using professional and controlled communication – and make better, more measured choices to control the situation.

Understanding the Time and Place

Too often, the videos you see about police allegedly overstepping their bounds feature individuals who choose to argue and demean the officer while he’s trying to do his job.

While it's certainly well within the person’s right to say whatever he pleases to the police, it’s rarely within his best interests.

Arguing with an officer usually accomplishes nothing; it likely won't change the outcome of the stop and it can potentially put the officer on the defensive. Understanding that the time and place to argue about an officer’s action is not on the side of the road but in the courtroom or with his supervisor will serve to reduce the chances of an antagonistic encounter.

Responsibility and Accountability for All

No doubt, police have a responsibility to uphold and defend the Constitutional rights of all and to adhere to the high ethical standards to which the public holds them. The public, too, though, must understand that they have a responsibility to respect the authority of both the police and of the criminal justice system.

Through courteous communication on the part of both the police and the public, better community relations be achieved.