Why You Should NOT Talk to Law Enforcement

Why You Should NOT Talk to Law Enforcement*

Austin People’s Legal Collective


Texas Rangers' press conference in Austin February, 2011

announcing their investigation of alleged activists on governor's mansion fire of 2008

In February, investigators with the Texas Rangers approached several Austin and Houston activists asking questions about the 2008 Texas Governor's Mansion fire. Folks were visited at their homes, work places, and at local organizations. Simultaneously, the authorities undertook a media campaign to vilify local activists and create connections where they did not exist.

During this latest round of law enforcement harassment, several folks in our communities decided it would be expedient to consent to informal little chats with law enforcement. There was a sense (not necessarily unfounded) that the Rangers were buffoons grasping at straws to solve a crime they didn’t actually have any real evidence about and were desperately seeking our help. No doubt it is nice to have an experience with law enforcement in which we do not feel as vulnerable, feel like we have the upper hand, or even insult and mock them to their faces. And there might be a strategic element in seeing what cards they are holding, learning what they know and what they are looking for and how they are looking for it. And, when you genuinely don't know anything about what they are asking, it feels risk free.

But talking with law enforcement is dangerous and should be avoided for four reasons:** 1) Talking to cops is bad practice, 2) Talking to cops is bad solidarity, 3) We don't actually know what they are looking for or what might be useful to them, and 4) ANYTHING you say CAN and WILL be used against you and others.

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First and foremost, talking to law enforcement is just bad practice. Remaining silent in the face of police questioning is not instinctual, and it is not something that we have been taught to do from an early age. Quite the opposite, most of us are socialized to be both friendly and obedient to law enforcement. Not talking to the cops takes practice, much the same way that consensus/collective process, anti-oppression organizing, non-monogamous relationships, and so many other pieces of our lives that run counter to what we were taught

To run with the collective process example for a minute, bad/lax process is often fine when organizing in small, intimate groups of people who have with a lot of experience working with each other, only to see that lax process break down when the group grows larger and more diverse. The situation changes, but our awareness of the change lags behind the change itself; and our accommodation of the change lags even behind our awareness. The same dynamic exists with law enforcement. So perhaps a particular investigation by a particular agency is relatively low risk because of their comparative lack of evidence or competence. But when the investigation shifts, we won't know about it until it's too late. And on whose expertise do we decide when it is or isn't safe to chat with law enforcement anyway?

When collective process breaks down, things can certainly get messy. When practices around not talking to the police break down, things can get dangerous. Just as it is always good to practice a culture of respect, consensus, and anti-oppression organizing, we owe it to ourselves, the people we organize with, and the people close to us who may look to us for guidance or inspiration at times to ALWAYS practice not talking to law enforcement. Practice makes perfect.

Second, talking to law enforcement is bad solidarity. Because of the above mentioned socialization around obedience to law enforcement, the cops are accustomed to cooperation, and their suspicions are inevitably raised when someone refuses to talk. If investigators are canvassing a community on a political fishing expedition (much like the Rangers were doing in February), and half the folks they approach agree to talk and the other half don't, who does that cast scrutiny on? The people who talk likely don't get crossed off the list completely, but that cop certainly gets back to his office and wonders, "Why didn't he talk to me when both of his friends did?"

When we refuse to talk to law enforcement, it not only protects us as individuals, but also protects the next person, both from what we might say and from any added suspicion or scrutiny the cops might draw from getting different responses. When the cops leave your house to knock on the next door, that next person deserves to feel empowered and confident that her reaction—refusing to talk—is the same reaction that cop has received from the previous three houses and will receive from the next three, and that no scrutiny or suspicion will be cast on her because of her refusal to talk that wasn't cast on the community evenly. When we stand together and respond together, all of us will feel, and will actually be safer. Solidarity, always and forever y'all.

Third, we don't actually know, nor can we know, what it is the cops are looking for, or how they are looking for it. The nature of investigations into political movements/communities is that law enforcement are never investigating just a single crime. They are also, at the very least, gathering intelligence. This information isn't just gathered through our verbal responses. Our non-verbal communication, facial expressions, attitude, etc. speak volumes, often in ways we don't realize and can't control.

The cops might be noting such things as: Who is talkative, cocky, impulsive? Who is belligerent and defensive? Who is scared, submissive or vulnerable? Who flinches or pauses when we say X? Who sweats and acts nervous when we talk about Y? Who will agree to chat with us and who won't? Who hires a lawyer and who doesn't? Why did his eyes focus on this picture longer than the others? Why didn't he correct us when we said Z? We weren't aware he was associated with x, y, and z, but he didn't ask who they were or seem confused when we mentioned their names.

A quick lesson on the history of political repression in the United States will quickly illustrate why it is dangerous to allow law enforcement to map our communities like this. Also, being identified as someone who is willing to chat with law enforcement greatly increases the likelihood that they will keep returning to talk to you. Nobody likes to revisit a dry well. We always iterate that everything you SAY can and will be used against you and others, but everything you DON'T SAY in the course of consensual questioning can and will be similarly used. It's hard to out-play a stacked deck.

Fourth and finally, ANYTHING you say CAN and WILL be used against you and others, and nothing you say can be used to help you. Tiny statements can be taken out of context, misquoted, blown out of proportion, and used in ways that are ridiculously absurd but no less dangerous. White lies that are the result of your poor memory or a slip of the tongue more than any intent to deceive can be used to incriminate you. Even if you are so overconfident in believing that nothing you say can harm you, what you say can still harm those around you. But really, how many people go to prison because they just couldn't shut the fuck up? Tons. For more information, we recommend this video of a lawyer and then a cop discussing why not to talk to the police: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wXkI4t7nuc. Don’t let your mouth throw your ass in prison.

Further Resources:

Know Your Rights booklet by the ACLU

Anarchist Survival Guide for Understanding Gestapo Swine Interrogation Mind Games: Staying Free by Shutting the Fuck Up! by Harold H. Thompson

War At Home: Covert Action Against U.S. Activists and What We Can Do About It by Brian Glickman


*Disclaimer: We are not lawyers and this is not legal advice. If you have a specific legal question, please contact an attorney.


**Note: the scope of this article is restricted to practical/pragmatic reasons why you shouldn’t talk to law enforcement when they are investigating political communities or political crimes. Many people have strong reasons of ideology and principal for not talking to law enforcement because of the role law enforcement plays in violently enforcing the status quo. We do not address those reasons here. Nor do we specifically address the question of whether complete silence/refusal to talk is a good idea in low-key, non-political contexts like a traffic stop. A good case can be made that many of the same reasons not to talk to law enforcement in political situations applies in non-political situations, but it is a question we will leave for another time.





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Anonymous wrote:

you do realize that the ip addresses of everyone even reading this crap is being logged right?


Austin Indymedia does not log any IP addresses of visitors to our site or anonymous contributors.


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