Everyone is talking about police violence against African-Americans, but I haven’t seen much discussion about practical solutions. In the short term, the most productive approach probably involves teaching citizens how to surrender better.
You’ve probably seen tutorials on the correct way to handle a traffic stop by police. You should put both hands on the top of the steering wheel, fingers open and outstretched, and wait for the police officer to give you permission to reach for your wallet. If you have time before the officer gets out his car, your wallet should already be out and on the dashboard so you don’t have to reach for it in a suspicious-looking way. That’s good surrender technique, and I think it would work for many situations.
But I think we can simplify it even more. And simplification is important. People aren’t thinking clearly during police encounters, so simplicity is the key. Here’s how I would use the science of persuasion to simplify the surrender process even further.
1. Roll down your window upon stopping and stick both hands out the window, palms up, waiting for the police officer. That’s as clear a surrender as you can get. And importantly, it is easier to remember this move than the steering wheel hand-placement mentioned above. You have a different visual memory for sticking both hands out the window (which is unusual) compared to putting both hands on the steering wheel, which is closer to normal behavior.
2. Your first utterances to the police officer should include the words “officer” and “safety.” Example: Good morning, Officer. Let’s be safe today. Tell me what you need me to do.
If you have a legal firearm in the car, you might want to try this: “Good morning, Officer. I have a legal firearm in the glove compartment. What is the safest way for you to disarm me?
When you call the police officer “officer,” it signals your acceptance of the authority of the badge and conveys respect. That persuasion move probably reduces risk by half.
When you put “safety” in your message up front, it sends a message that your top priority is safety, for all concerned. And it shows an understanding for the officer’s risk. Persuasion-wise, that eliminates nearly all of your remaining risk as long as you cooperate from that point on.
Communication experts will tell you that a message is only as credible as the sender. Your first interaction with a police officer will tell him – accurately or not – who you are. So if the first impression looks like rebellion, the officer will interpret everything that follows according to that model. If the first impression is obvious concern for mutual safety, you put the officer on your side from the start. Once you have established yourself as a respectful citizen who is primarily interested in safety, any ambiguous communication on your part will be seen through that filter.
1. Stick hands out the window, palms up.
2. Say Officer and Safety right away.
The best way to test a new surrender technique is one city at a time, so you can see if it makes a difference. Perhaps other cities could try modified approaches to see what works best. In each case you would do a general publicity push to teach people how to surrender, much the way our laws about seat belts were publicized with the successful “Click it or ticket” campaign.
My best guess is that my surrender technique – or something like it – would nearly eliminate the risk of violence for anyone who used it. The hard part is persuading people to use this method. That’s where simplicity, A-B testing for best methods, and a good PR campaign come in.
Obviously this method doesn’t get at the root causes of the problem, but it might keep some folks alive until we figure out better solutions.
Speaking of surrendering, my book has no hands.