Interacting with Law Enforcement: What Brits in America Should Know

NYPD cars. (Photo: Fotolia)

NYPD cars. (Photo: Fotolia)

Most of us are familiar with the regular American police officer from watching cop shows over the years. They wear the dark blue uniform, a peaked cap and pack a serious amount of heat around their often-expansive midriffs. (I would joke about their cars being a permanent fixture outside Dunkin’ Donuts, but that would be cheap.) Fortunately, I have found them to be very approachable, with none of the withering sarcasm your average British bobby metes out.

British nicknames for the police (bobbies, the Bill, the Filth, Plod, etc.) aren’t generally known in the U.S. where it’s “cops” for the most part.

Brits new to America might not know that there are several different kinds of police in the U.S. There are federal law enforcement officers who work at the national level in areas such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF); and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and there are state, county and municipal police officers everywhere you look. The types of police differ from state to state, but include Highway Patrol officers and County Sheriffs. Yes, folks, there are still sheriffs in the U.S. Most cities also have their own police departments (think NYPD or LAPD), and these can comprise of tens of thousands of officers or one man and a two-way radio.

Here’s one thing to note when you’re out and about: not all police cars look like police cars, and not all police look like, well, police. In Texas, you may see a number of different police vehicles on the road, and the state troopers look like this:

(Photo:  Eric Gay/AP)

(Photo: Eric Gay/AP)

In Chicago, we quite often see officers on dinky little segways like this:

(Photo: AP/Brian Kersey)

(Photo: AP/Brian Kersey)

While in more temperate climes, you see a more casual look:

(Photo: AP/Patrick Semansky)

(Photo: AP/Patrick Semansky)

Furthermore, there are a few important things to know should you ever be stopped by a police officer.

First, if you see a police car right behind you with flashing lights, it’s probably you they’re after, and you should immediately indicate that you intend to pull over. Once you’ve pulled over, DO NOT get out to greet the officer. This will make said officer extremely nervous, and you’ll probably find yourself spread-eagled over the car, arms wrenched painfully behind you and a gun perilously close to your head. There’s an urban myth about a British lady who, when stopped for speeding, got out of her car and fainted dead away on seeing a gun aimed at her.

You are advised to lower your window and remain seated in your car with your hands clearly visible on the steering wheel. Don’t make any false moves and whatever you do, don’t reach under the seat or in the glove compartment until told to do so. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) outlines what else you should know on their web site.

Although it varies around the country, you are usually required to have your driving license and insurance documents with you when driving, and police officers typically ask for them first when they stop you. The ACLU also states, “If you are over 18, carry your immigration documents with you at all times … Do not lie about your citizenship status or provide fake documents.”

There is all sorts of advice out there for what not to do when stopped by police. As a general rule, don’t play silly buggers, and don’t argue as this typically escalates an already tense situation. It is generally accepted these days that if you are being followed by what looks like an unmarked police car, you should drive (slowly) to a well-lit area and never stop by the side of an unlit road. Real cops will understand this reaction; fake cops are hoping you’ll be their next victim.

On the whole though, the more respect you show the police, the more likely it is to be reciprocated. And this is what happens when you play nice with them.

(Love how the Scouser has subtitles, but, my, is he polite.)

And finally, for some very interesting police insights check out the website On Being a Cop.

What are your tips when interacting with law enforcement? Tell us below:

See more:
Tippling Teens: What British Parents in America Need to Know
A British Hitchhiker’s Guide to Understanding America’s Driving Lingo
Sales Taxes, Speed Limits, and Bra Sizes: Differences Between Britain and America

Toni Hargis

Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a Brit who has lived in the USA since 1990. She currently lives in Chicago with her husband and children and writes about US/UK matters when not putting out domestic fires. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom, (St. Martin's Press). She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV explaining British things to Americans.

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