Most adults are familiar with the routine of the occasional stop by police. But for your teenager, the first stop can be confusing or alarming.
Now that they’re driving, meeting friends for an afterschool activity or going to after-school jobs, this is the perfect time to start talking about how to act if an officer stops them.
"There's always a chance of police interaction, and it can be for many reasons" says Palm Beach Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Mike Gauger. "When a deputy walks up to your car, he's thinking just one thing: He just wants to go home tonight – and he wants you to go home tonight."
Here are nine Dos and Don'ts to share with your teens to help make sure that happens.
- Do emphasize the normality of a stop; it happens to everybody. Don’t make it seem scary or threatening. Approach your conversation as teaching. Remind your teen that police train regularly to make stops safely and they have a routine. Present your talk in the same way: It’s basic training for driver and passengers, common-sense routines they can follow to stay safe as well.
- Do tell them to stay calm. Don't panic or get upset. You don't know why you’ve been stopped, so don't assume you’re in big trouble. Pull over safely, in a lighted spot if you can, so each of you has a clear view of the other at night.
- Do be respectful and polite, just as police officers are trained to be. 'Yes sir' and 'no ma’am’ in a steady voice helps keep the conversation normal. Don't shout, mumble, or start questioning the officer’s authority or intention.
- Do focus your attention. Don't be annoyed or act like you don't care. Put your phone down and turn off the music. Look at the officer and make eye contact. Don't make sarcastic comments under your breath, heave deep sighs or curse. Pay attention – this is important.
- Do prepare yourself as the officer approaches the car. But don't do anything quickly. Open your window. If it’s dark and you can turn on the interior dome light easily, the deputy will be able to better evaluate the situation. But don't open your door to turn on the interior light; you shouldn’t look like you're getting out of the car unless you are told to. (Parent tip: Sit in your driveway in the dark tonight with your teen and make sure he or she can easily find the interior light switch at night.)
- Do put both hands on the wheel and leave them there. Tell your passengers to sit still, and put their hands on the dash or the seat in front of them. Don't hide your hands. Don't start digging for your license and registration until you're asked to. (Another tip: Make sure your teen knows what the “vehicle registration” looks like, and that they know where it is. The glove compartment is a logical place to keep it – near the top of the pile in an envelope by itself, with “REGISTRATION” written on it, so it’s easy to find.)
- Do answer questions completely. If asked, give your full name and complete address. When he or she asks for your license, look at the deputy and say where it is before you reach for it. "I'm going to reach into my seat divider or glove compartment or purse to get it now." Don't move around in the car. If the deputy tells you to get out, do it smoothly, keep your hands out and visible, not in your pockets or under your shirt. Stand where you are told and don't walk toward the officer.
- Do stay patient, and don’t fret over the time it takes. The officer will check your driver license and perhaps those of your passengers, as well as the car ownership. It may seem like forever, but it’s the normal routine. Of course, if something is suspicious to the officer, such as the smell of marijuana or alcohol, he or she has the right to search the car.
- Don't argue. The side of the road is not the place for that. Do remember that you’ll have a chance to tell your side later if you think the officer is wrong. (Also remember, almost all law enforcement cars have video devices now, so there will be a recording of your actions and the officer’s.) If you’re ask to, sign the paper where you're told, and get back in the car when you're told to. Then sit quietly, and calm yourself for a couple minutes before pulling away. Finally, be sure to check traffic behind you when you pull out.
Encourage your teens to call you afterward when they can. Stay calm yourself, and let them tell the story. If they want to vent, let them yell and cry to you, not the officer. Be ready to go get them if they are distraught or too scared to think clearly. Leave the car locked in a lot or on the street. You can always bring it back in the morning.
- Mike Gauger, chief deputy, Palm Beach Sheriff's Office