Talk Back To The Police? It’s Your Right To Not Be Polite With The Cops

Written by Ted Rall

Go ahead. Cop some tude. It’s your right not to be polite to the police. Be compliant, but you don’t need to be subservient, too. That would be fascism. Here’s Ted Rall’s commentary on the continuing controversy around the late Sandra Bland …

 You have the right to be sassy.

You have the right to get sassy with a law enforcement officer.

Congress shall make no law, and no state shall infringe upon, your God-given constitutional right to be as sassy as the spirit leads you, even if such sassiness offends a particular law enforcement officer.

aNewDomain — Judging from many of the comments I’ve heard, seen and read following the release of the dashcam video of rookie Texas state trooper Brian Encinia stopping, haranguing and arresting Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old African-American woman found dead in her jail cell three days later, it may be time to propose the above language as an Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Nota bene: My proposed “Right to Sassiness” constitutional amendment would just be for clarity. You and me, us Americans, we already enjoy a God-given right to be as sassy as we want to be. We have the right to talk back to the police. The problem is, you wouldn’t know it from hearing much of the reaction, especially from whites and conservatives, to the Sandra Bland video.

I grabbed some comments from, whose readers skew more educated and thus, to the left, of American media readers in general. Many of the comments criticized the police, but many others urged not just compliance with law enforcement, but subservience, too. Really? Yes, really.

One commenter advised:

“I still say, when stopped or approached by an armed person of ‘authority,’ do not mouth off. You have no idea what experiences preceded this event. Try to diffuse the situation. You can always take mistreatment to court later.” 

Another said that what happened to Bland wasn’t specific to her being black:

“Having lived near Waller County for many years, I can assure you that a white person would be treated the same way. Getting stopped is dangerous. Turn on your inside lights if it is dark. Keep your hands on the steering wheel. Do not smoke, a lit cigarette could be considered a weapon. If you need to move, ask for permission. Do not offer information other than what is requested. Answer promptly. If you do all those things, you have a good chance at surviving, regardless of race.”

Here’s a third one:

“I am white and in my sixties, and when I was younger I was stopped by police in that part of the state for similar foolish reasons, but we were taught in high school and by our parents that the best way to deal with the police was to be polite and contrite — to hope to get off with a warning or take the ticket and say thank you. I generally left those situations relieved or angry, but I wasn’t about to give the cop a reason to shoot me or run me in. Of course, the patrolman lost control of himself and violated rules and I cannot help but think that dealing with an angry black woman was a problem for him. What followed is a tragedy and there is plenty of reason to ask what else happened to cause the suicide, if that is what it was. Pride and self-respect are important to all of us, but self-preservation sometimes means that, they should not always be paramount in a situation where it is only a matter of a traffic citation and the situation could easily go wrong.”

talk back to the policeFor the record, this is all excellent advice. And it’s exactly what I do when I come into contact with cops. Cops are dangerous animals, dangerous animals who have been known to maim and kill without warning, often without reason, and who get away with it because they have the power of the state behind them.

I would urge anyone who wants to come away alive from an unwanted interaction with a police officer – and, for the most part, they’re pretty much all unwanted – to just follow these words of wisdom to the letter.

As editorial comments, though, these totally miss the point.

Why are they blaming the victim?

Why aren’t they attacking the cop — the unprofessional, aggressive, brutal cop?

You hear the same kind of reactions to killings by police officers in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Staten Island: if only the victims had been more docile, if they’d been more polite, if they’d sucked up more, they’d be more alive.

The case of Sandra Bland, either driven to suicide or murdered by the police in Prairie View, Texas, is especially instructive about the difference between compliance and deference.

You are required to be compliant when a cop pulls you over.

But you don’t have to be deferential.

Watch the video. It’s below.

At the beginning, before Trooper Encinia escalated the situation, Bland was compliant. She didn’t speed away: She pulled over. She rolled down her window. She didn’t refuse to speak to the officer. She answered his questions, even those that were inappropriate. She offered him her driver’s license and registration.

That is all, as a driver and as a citizen, that she was required to do.

She only turns noncompliant after the trooper demands that she put out her cigarette, and then that she get out of her car. Given that he told her he pulled her over for the minor moving violation of failing to use her turn signal, these were unusual requests, and probably made her worry that she was about to be assaulted.

The commenters and those who agree with them conflate compliance with deference. To them, compliance isn’t enough. To them, the police are owed deference. Say “Yes, sir.” Say “No, sir.” Don’t complain if you are being falsely charged. Don’t argue. Even if the cops are rude, be polite.

Again, it’s good advice. I follow it myself. I urge others to act this way, too.

But when we watch something like this video, our first reaction shouldn’t be to question the behavior of the victim when there is an attacker right there.

It’s human nature to watch a horror movie and yell at the screen: “Don’t look back! Keep running!” at the woman running away from the murderer, and then to blame the victim when the killer catches up. It’s not the victim’s fault! Don’t blame her. Without a murderer, you don’t have a murder.

Watching the Bland tape, I’m torn between admiration for Sandra’s gutsiness and awareness of her rights, and wanting her to tone it down so that, in some multi-verse, she’d come out of this alive with another annoying story about Driving While Black.

But let’s have some clarity here. Bland was sassy, yes, and she had every right to be sassy.

She argued with the cop, yes, but only when he asked her to do something that was totally unreasonable.

She did nothing illegal and she should never have been taken to jail.

It is time for the American people to exercise their constitutionally protected right to roll their eyes at cops. Let the sarcasm flow freely. Let us ridicule them and make fun of them when they do and say stupid things. Let’s argue with them when they’re wrong.

Seriously, I mean it when I say that the future of the Republic may depend upon us no longer being polite to cops.

People who argue that everyone should be excessively deferential to police, that they should all bite their tongues, that they should be slavish and wimpy and passive and submissive in the face of these public employees simply because they wear blue uniforms and a badge, should be aware that they are arguing in favor of something extremely disgusting and extremely dangerous, something that most of us thought was defeated in 1945: Fascism.

For aNewDomain, I’m Ted Rall.


  • I heard her say, “I’m not under arrest.” Then Encinia told her: “Yes, you are.” When she asked “For what?” he did not respond. He had an obligation at that point to inform her what the charge(s) might be. For failing to put out a cigarette? What the hell? This cop needs to be relieved of duty and forced into psychiatric analysis. I hope the family sues.

  • Instead of complaining about it spend a day or two riding with LAPD officers and see what they see. Your complaint falls on deaf ears and you look like a d-bag. Last thing a cop wants to hear is some white guy smarting off after he broke the law. If you had acted differently you probably would have got a warning. You broke the law and complain because a cop was doing his/her job. Why don’t you write an article about your decision to act like a donkey after you got busted for jaywalking?

  • No wonder the LA Times fired you, Ted. You say true things. You can’t work at a paper and say true things. You have to say things that back up the prevailing narrative – cops are heroes, Ted. Don’t you go to the movies?

    That’s right. Judge Dredd was not a comic book, it was a documentary. And not at all sarcastic or ironic, either. Cops are never antisocial personalities (MMPI results to the contrary), never sociopathic, and never, ever just regular guys who need work. They’re always of exemplary moral character, cherry-picked from a nation of exceptional moral characters because we’re a special country. God-blessed and star-spangled.

    The police are there to enforce our laws, up to and including summary judgment. There can’t possibly be any selection bias at play, maybe picking people for the job with an authoritarian approach to society that statistically intersects with racist attitudes.

    Never mind that the laws are inherently racist (we never took back the Judge Dred-Scot decision) or that they are written by rich lobbying firms on behalf of special interests, enacted by politicians who need the votes of ignorant savages, or that there is a second bill of rights just for law enforcement that protects them from prosecution for their illegal actions.

    Poor Ted, trying to tell us the truth about what’s going on. We just want our illusions, man.