Preventive Medicine: Police stops and other law enforcement encounters

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A discussion for the times

Preventive Medicine is a board-certified specialty of medical practice that focuses on the health of individuals, communities, and defined populations. Its goal is to protect, promote and maintain health and well-being and prevent disease, disability and death.

With that in mind, and considering recent and past events, I’d like to present some preventive medicine guidelines and practical information covering safe and effective ways of dealing with police-citizen encounters. In the Black community, the information here is often covered by “The Talk,” a common phrase used to describe the practice of what Black parents (and other Parents of Color) tell children on how to interact with police when (not if) the situation occurs.

In fact, much of the information here I learned in “The Talk” I received from my parents. I have updated it and added additional information that I have learned over the years and incorporated information from my brothers (both attorneys) and friends in law enforcement. This information is something everyone needs to review personally with all family members and friends.

Preventing the police stop in the first place 

Every time you change your oil (or on a monthly or quarterly basis), make sure to check that your license tabs are up to date and be sure to check that all exterior lights are functioning correctly. This includes taillights, brake lights, headlights, turn signal lights, sidelights, and license plate lights. Check them all, and be sure to check them in the dark.

Expired license tabs and malfunctioning exterior lights are common reasons for being pulled over, which can easily be prevented. You should do this check at least quarterly, and there are excellent apps that can be set up to remind you, including one called “OhDontForget.com.” 

Also, make sure nothing is obstructing your view as a driver. As silly as it seems, you can get pulled over if the officer observes any object that could be an obstruction to the driver’s view.

This includes any object hanging from the rear-view mirror (including air fresheners) and anything affixed to the windshield, like radar detectors or cell phone holders. Also, check your local laws — even clear plastic license plate covers can be illegal and used as a reason for a traffic stop.

Suppose you plan on going to an event where you will be consuming alcohol. In that case, either have a prearranged designated driver or use an alcohol monitoring device readily available on the Internet. For example, Amazon.com carries a detection device named “Alcohawk” for about $30 that you can keep in your car. Use it before driving EVERY TIME you consume alcohol.

If you are close to the legal limit or over the limit, ABSOLUTELY DO NOT DRIVE. Call a friend, family member, or a taxi (e.g., sober cab). Some cab services will even have a separate driver follow you in your own car, so it is there waiting for you the next day.

Always wear your seatbelt. In Minnesota, you can get pulled over for not wearing a seat belt. Still, the most important consideration is that seat belts save over 10,000 lives every year in the U.S. (according to the National Highway Safety Traffic Safety Administration).

If you see a police car with sirens and lights on

Using your turn signal, pull over to the right side of the road quickly and safely, slowing down in a reasonable manner, not braking so hard that the police car has to avoid hitting you. 

Pull over as far to the right as possible, so you give the officer plenty of room to approach your car on foot without fear of being hit by passing traffic. If you are in a dark area, put on your hazard lights and drive slowly (five mph) to the closest lighted area.

Your movements are now being watched very carefully. Sometimes they will even shine a bright light on you as they approach the car. This is to see if you are making any movements to hide something (below the seat or in a pocket) or throw something out of the window. Such movements may give the officer reason to search you or your car, so remain calm and relatively still.

Right after you stop 

 When interacting with anyone, courtesy is appreciated. This is not the time to be angry or argumentative. A dispute can be handled later by you and your attorney if necessary, but the moment of being pulled over is not the time to be angry, belligerent, or argumentative. At this point, COURTESY IS KING.

  • Turn the ignition off.
  • Completely roll down your window.
  • Remain in your car, place your hands on top of the steering wheel (10 and two o’clock position) in plain sight, and do not move them until given permission by the officer.
  • If you are being pulled over in the dark, it is essential to immediately turn on your dome/interior lights as a courtesy so that the officer has a clear view into your car. Remember, a traffic stop can be threatening for both parties, so anything you can do to be cooperative and reduce any anxiety on the officer’s part will go a long way in helping you.
  • When the officer approaches your car, you should say one thing and only one thing: “Hello, officer.”
  • Wait for the officer to make the next comment while maintaining eye contact.
  • The officer may ask a question like, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” or “Do you know how fast you were going?” Because you are not a mind reader, the only answer you can and should provide, in a polite manner, is, “I am not sure, officer.”
  • You will be asked for your driver’s license, proof of insurance, and registration. Tell the officer where they are located and ask the officer for permission to remove your hands from the steering wheel and retrieve them. Do not remove your hands until permission is given by the officer. This is a tense situation, and you don’t want the officer to have any reason to believe that you are reaching for a weapon.
  • At this point, the officer may take the materials back into the squad car and check your documents. Remain calm and still with your hands on the steering wheel until the officer returns. If you are only given a warning, that is great. If you are given a ticket and disagree, you may protest it later, but not now.
  • Whatever the officer gives you, accept it and say two things and two things only: “Thank you, officer,” and “Will you please instruct me how to re-enter the road as I depart?”
  • If you have a permit to carry a concealed weapon and have the gun on you, you are not obligated to inform the officer unless you are directly asked. However, my brother Christopher Crutchfield, an attorney, says that one should consider volunteering the information.

In discussing the situation with law enforcement officers, they all said the encounter is tense for all involved. They want no surprises, so considering volunteering the information that you have a permit to carry a concealed weapon and doing so may be worthwhile. My brothers Christopher and Carleton Crutchfield (both attorneys) suggest that if you do have a permit to carry a concealed weapon, talk to your personal attorney and get a recommendation on whether to volunteer that information or not. If you do inform the officer, be sure to keep your hands on the wheel, do not move them without permission, and when you do so, move very slowly.

If the police stop is for suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol, there is one other thing to consider. If you are found to be over the limit for alcohol consumption, the charge is a misdemeanor. If you refuse a breathalyzer test in Minnesota, the charge automatically escalates to a gross misdemeanor.

The working recommendation in Minnesota is ALWAYS to take the breathalyzer. Be sure to check with your attorney to confirm this. 

Being ‘placed under arrest’

I recently had a conversation with Roger New, chief of police of Eagan, (one of four African American police chiefs in Minnesota). He emphasizes that understanding what it means to be “under arrest” is crucially important.

If you are told by law enforcement that you are “under arrest,” the whole encounter has escalated to a different and very serious level. At the point where you are notified that you are “under arrest,” the law allows the officer to use “any reasonable amount of force to effect and complete the arrest.”

That force may be as gentle as putting a hand on your back and guiding you to a police car, or it may be as strong as needed to assure you comply and are taken into custody. Citizens should be aware that once they are placed under arrest, that this is a formal notification that non-compliance will be met with force if needed.

The problem is that law enforcement has, too many times, crossed the line and used unreasonable (deadly) force. The point is not to give anyone the chance to use force at all. 

If you are placed “under arrest,” for the sake of survival this is not the time to argue or resist. As I said if you do not agree with a citation or how the officer treated you, follow the instructions on the back of the ticket to protest. You may also wish to consult an attorney to help defend your rights. The main objective is that you survive the encounter without incident or injury.

Other interactions with police or law enforcement

The police and other law enforcement officers are here to protect and serve the citizens. Most of the time they do, but like any profession, there can be bad apples.

There are also cultural considerations that need to be overcome. For example, if you survey non-African Americans if their parents have ever had a sit-down discussion with them on how to behave if ever approached by the police, the vast majority will say “no.” That is why it is hard for them to relate to past abuses against African Americans by the bad-apple police.

Blacks’ abusive treatment by law enforcement has gone on for decades across the entire country. It will take a concerted effort by the police and government officials to turn these fears and opinions around. In the meantime, we must take a practical and safe approach for survival and have “the talk” with them.

If the police approach your home, you are not required to let them in or even open the door if they do not have a warrant. You do not and should not have to exit the home. If they ask “just step outside for a moment” or “just let us come inside for a minute to ask a few questions,” do NOT exit your house unless they have a warrant for your arrest.

Ask them before opening the door if they have a warrant. Yell through the door, if possible, or crack the door a couple of inches, with the chain lock on if possible, if you have no window. If they don’t have a warrant, do not open the door and tell them to leave. Repeat, if they do not have a warrant, DO NOT OPEN THE DOOR OR EXIT YOUR HOME. 

If they do have a warrant, it should be very specific. If it is for your home, it does not include your automobile and vice-versa. Suppose you find yourself under arrest for any reason. In that case, the only thing you should say is, “I immediately and respectfully request an attorney before having any discussions or answering any questions.” Say not one word more until you talk to your attorney.

If you find yourself in a situation outside of your home—say surrounded by several hostile police officers—if there is anything you can do to affect the outcome of that encounter in a positive manner for yourself, it should be done.

Compliance is key

According to Malik Aziz, the chairman of the National Black Police Association, there are several things you can do to minimize any negative interaction outcome when you are approached and arrested by a police officer. First, politely ask, “Officer, am I free to go or am I under arrest?”

If you are not under arrest, politely tell them you would like to leave. If you are told that you are under arrest, remember, as mentioned above, you are now formally notified that force will be used to get you to comply with the arrest if needed. Follow these suggestions: 

  • Keep your hands where the police can see them.
  • Do not run.
  • Do not touch any police officer.
  • Do not touch the police weapon.
  • Do not resist.
  • Do not complain too strongly (right now).
  • Ask for a lawyer.
  • Record the officer’s name and badge number.
  • Locate any/all witnesses, and if possible, ask bystanders to record the encounter.
  • If you sense the situation is about to escalate to violence, put your hands behind your back and loudly proclaim, “I do not want any trouble, officers. I am not resisting.”

The goal is to survive the encounter by acting respectfully and courteously. The time to battle any perceived wrongdoing by the officers will come later when you consult an attorney, but not now. At this point, compliance is key to avoiding injury and surviving. Noncompliance, at this point, is a strategy that risks a bad or even deadly outcome. 

The most important thing you can do is review the information in this article with yourself, adult family members, any children and their friends nearing or at driving age, and your friends. Print this information out and practice by doing a live car test (maybe just in your driveway). Run through a mock traffic stop and have them follow the list entirely (even turning on the interior lights) as you play the role of the officer. This 10-minute investment may pay you, your loved ones and friends very beneficial rewards and save lives. Share this information with your friends, too. 

The information presented here may seem like a terrible double standard, and I understand that. It is behavior that we should not have to perform. Still, as a parent, it is a double standard that gives the best odds for my child to safely survive a police encounter. Then we can fight a good fight against bad behavior another day when we are fully prepared with the appropriate resources. I recommend the same steps for myself, my other family members, and my friends.  

I sincerely look forward to the day when all Americans don’t have to worry about these issues and can stand together and realize how far we have come.

About Charles Crutchfield III MD

Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD is a board-certified dermatologist and clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School and a Benedict Distinguished Visiting Professor of biology at Carleton College. He also has a private practice, Crutchfield Dermatology in Eagan, MN. He received his MD and Master’s Degree in molecular biology and genomics from the Mayo Clinic. He has been selected as one of the top 10 dermatologists in the United States by Black Enterprise magazine. Minnesota Medicine recognized Dr. Crutchfield as one of the 100 Most Influential Healthcare Leaders in Minnesota. Dr. Crutchfield specializes in skin-of-color and has been selected by physicians and nurses as one of the leading dermatologists in Minnesota for the past 18 years. He is the team dermatologist for the Minnesota Twins, Vikings, Timberwolves, Wild and Lynx. Dr. Crutchfield is an active member of both the American and National Medical Associations and president of the Minnesota Association of Black Physicians. He can be reached at CrutchfieldDermatology.com or by calling 651-209-3600.

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