Teaching Kids How to Handle a Police Encounter

Fourth in this series of guest posts by ex-detective, Dave Williams, an expert on preventing school shootings, is today’s post on Teaching Kids How to Handle a Police Encounter.
Click to read the other posts in the series:
Making Schools Safer One Dad at a Time
5 Strategies to Prevent School Shootings
The Bullying – School Shooter Connection and What We Can Do About It

I grew up in Newtown, CT and I met Dave at a writer’s retreat in New Mexico (he’s now writing fiction) where this ex-detective and I talked a lot about his work and research on preventing school shootings. His book, Textbooks Not Targets: How to Prevent School Shootings in Your Community is available now for only .99 – he want to get this information out there. We can’t wait around for anyone else to take action, get one and pass it along to your parent-teacher groups, your school superintendent and administrators and read his post below on dad volunteerism at schools. Thanks for being on Mother’s Circle, Dave.

Teaching Kids How to Handle a Police Encounter | motherscircle.net
Teaching Kids How to Handle a Police Encounter

I am a strong proponent of having more school resource officers in schools. Such practice tends to make schools safer, while offering a positive role model for students to observe on a daily basis. However, one of the questions I’m asked most often when I speak to parent groups has to do with what they should teach their kids to do if a police officer ever speaks with them at school, pulls them over in a car, or questions them on the street.

I get it. It’s nerve-wracking to get pulled over by the cops, and for minorities in some jurisdictions it’s downright terrifying.

There’s not much I can do to help calm your nerves after you or your child encounters a police officer, but I can probably help you survive the encounter and conclude with a positive outcome.

First and foremost, be polite. He or she will likely be courteous as well, but there are plenty of unfortunate examples in which a police officer is less than professional. Don’t meet his rudeness with your own. Respect the badge and position, even if you don’t respect the person wearing the uniform. In other words, be the bigger person if the encounter is not going well.

Beyond being civil, I recommend a program I coined called Comply, Record, Complain, and Compliment. I developed and began teaching these principles to kids in an alternative high school where I spent the last year of my law enforcement career as a school resource officer. Kids (and adults, for that matter) who follow these steps will generally have a positive police encounter, while empowering every student to participate in improving their local police department.  Comply, Record, Complain, Compliment – it works.


Comply with the officer’s instructions. You may believe with all your heart that he didn’t have a legal reason to pull you over. Maybe you’re right about this, and maybe you’re flat-out wrong.  Regardless, that officer holds tremendous authority, and failing to comply with his instructions gives him increasing reason and authority to use force against you. I know that rankles many of you, especially if the officer is in the wrong. What matters is surviving and being free to leave that officer’s custody in the next few minutes. There are times when discretion truly is the better part of valor, and engagement with a police officer, even if he’s rude or wrong, is one of those times. 


Record the interaction.  If the officer does his job well, you can delete it. If, however, he is rude, abusive, or corrupt, you’ve gathered evidence that can be used to change his ways or remove him from the profession altogether. 

What if the officer tells you to turn off the recorder? First, understand that the officer is in the wrong for telling you to turn off your recording device. He or she is a public safety officer—emphasis on public—and they are presumably standing in a public area. Thus, they have no reasonable expectation of privacy, and you are constitutionally allowed to keep filming. 

However, if the officer is getting angry, I would recommend that you simply turn off the recording device in most cases. This is unfair, but it may be prudent. Again, comply with his or her instructions, and retain the partial recording for your follow-up complaint. Remember, the last thing the police supervisor (or judge, or jury, etc.) will hear is that officer issuing an unconstitutional order. It won’t go well for him after that. You win if you play it smart. 


Leave the scene, get to a safe place, and then make a formal complaint against the officer.  If an officer has violated policy, smeared the Constitution, or was rude, threatening or violent without reason, you owe it to every good officer out there to make a complaint. Nobody hates a bad cop like a good cop. They make us look bad and make it more dangerous to go about our business. The few rotten ones tarnish the reputation and pride of entire squads and departments, and we need them gone. One complaint may or may not change the course of a bad officer’s career, but a stack of them just might. 


This is perhaps the most important step in terms of making substantive change, yet it is by far the most overlooked. This one involves calling the officer’s supervisor or writing the police chief an e-mail letter to express what a great job the officer did during your encounter. Officers rarely get compliments. They’re so rare that they are memorable, and it’s that kind of memory that can help a jaded officer remember why he signed up for police work in the first place. It can also enlighten a young officer that good work can be recognized, or a veteran that what he’s done with his life mattered. 

Compliments, like complaints, end up in officers’ personnel files, and those commendations go a long way when officers are trying to promote or get into a specialized unit. All other things being equal, the officer with ten compliments from citizens is going to get the promotion over the guy with no such letters. And that is how it should be. Your compliment becomes an act of participatory government. In a single two-minute phone call you or your child take part in career development for good officers, and I assure you it is two minutes well spent. These are the guys you want to make sergeant, detective or lieutenant. Someday he or she may be a chief or a SWAT commander, and that officer will know somewhere in the back of their mind that some of the citizens out there have their back. That’s a big message, folks, and it’s an easy one to send. 

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