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 Summers Hargis is a British author who has lived in the USA since 1990. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom and The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students. She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV discussing US/UK matters.
View all posts by Toni Hargis.
  • Jack Cooke

    This Chris Rock video is also pretty helpful
    “How Not To Get Your A** Kicked By The Police”

  • Andi

    I think it’s important to keep in mind that no matter if the police officer is in a patrol car, an unmarked car or on a bike and wearing shorts, on a motorcycle (usually a Harley), atop a horse or simply walking, you had better treat them respectfully as they ALL have the ability to arrest you!

  • ukhousewifeusa

    Squire! hahahaha! :) Love him!

  • Gargoyle

    When dealing with law enforcement, I think it is important to remember that, for them, a good shift is any where you end up with the same number of officers as when you started. Most of us never have to deal with violence, or life-and-death situations in our jobs, but such is routine for them. Moreover, most probably know someone who ended up seriously injured, or dead, when something that should have been routine escalated in a hurry (such as walking up to a car you stopped for a traffic violation to find some gang member with a gun drawn, to say nothing of a domestic dispute).

    • expatmum

      I remember watching some real-life cop show a few years ago and one officer said “There’s no such thing as a routine traffic stop” and boy, was he right. Things can get very strange very quickly.

  • john

    Most cops that I have seen look more like they are on steroids than are fat.

  • Guest

    They’re probably wearing a bulletproof vest, which adds bulk. Douche.

    • Toni Hargis

      Douche – thanks for commenting!

      • Guest

        Oh, you’ve bested me again with your world class British wit. God save the Queen.

        • Toni Hargis

          Oh, thank you – it was nothing. You should have seen the reply I drafted and then decided against.One hates to take advantage of obvious inadequacy.

          • Guest

            I’m glad you haven’t stooped to the level of assuming all Americans are fat and dumb. And to think other nations assume the English are condescending.

          • Toni Hargis

            I don’t know about ALL Americans being dumb (or fat)…

  • Starle

    I was sitting in a children’s park with some other lovely British mothers, when i commented on the lack of benches. They explained that there was only one bench because of ‘Anti-social night-time behaviour’ (so…drunks at night, i assume). I said that it would make more senses to have benches for parents and simply have the police keep an eye on the park at night. They just stared at me silently, and eventually opted to picnic on the ground.

    • BlueCanaryInTheOutlet

      Probably not so much drunks as homeless people the city was attempting to deter. And no, cops don’t appreciate that kind of suggestion.

  • mamagiglio

    A British acquaintance once told me about a time he was waiting at JFK on his first trip to the US. He asked a police officer where he could find a doughnut shop in the airport. He wondered about the chilly response the policeman gave him as I struggled for breath from laughter. He had never heard of the stereotype of cops hanging out at doughnut shops instead of being on patrol. I’d advise travelers to the US NEVER to ask a police officer where one might find a good doughnut.

    • frozen01

      Well, at least not without saying “this is NOT a joke, I am GENUINELY asking this because I want to know” first. Most cops I’ve known have had quite a sense of humor. I stopped at a gas station in Milwaukee once on my way up to Green Bay and, while I was using the restroom, one of my (very stupid) passengers attracted the attention of a pair of officers who were parked nearby. When I came out of the bathroom to find them waiting by my car, one of the officers opened up the conversation by saying “well, ma’am, we were parked over there eating our power rings…”

    • Mark Smith

      Ha, classic :-)

  • i woz ere

    Respect ma orforatar!