Thunder Bay·Audio

Police power: 5 ways to avoid altercations

CBC News asked some legal experts for advice on asserting your rights when interacting with police.

You have the right to say no to police, but should you?

Be polite, don't run, ask if you're free to go and take notes of your interactions with police, legal experts say. (CBC)
You have the right to say no, but should you? One Thunder Bay man's alleged altercation with police has us asking the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

CBC News asked some legal experts for advice on asserting your rights when interacting with police.

It comes on the heels of a First Nations man saying he was "roughed up" by Thunder Bay police after refusing to stop when they asked him.

Generally, police in Canada have the right to stop you and ask you questions:

  • if police suspect you have committed a crime
  • if police see you committing a crime
  • if you're driving

Here are five ways to avoid an altercation if you are on foot and stopped by police:

1. Be polite

A well-known history of tension between certain communities, especially blacks and aboriginals, can lead police to expect a hostile reaction from people from those groups, according to criminologist Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, who specializes in race, inequality and policing.

"If both sides, but especially the citizens, can open the interaction in a more positive manner, that might help get the guard down on the part of the police," he said.

2. Ask if you are being detained

Your rights change if you are under arrest or being detained, according to lawyer Laura Berger, a program director with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

"Something we counsel is that if you want to know whether you're free to go, you can simply ask," she said. 

If you're under arrest or are being detained for an investigative detention, then the police should explain why and at that point you can exercise your right to call a lawyer, she said.

3. Be co-operative ... at least a little

Police may tell you that you're not being detained, but continue to ask you questions.

Owusu-Bempah said even though the law doesn't require it, you should answer questions to the extent you're comfortable.

"If you don't want to give your full name, maybe just give your first name or just where you're going, but always to be polite to police officers because they ultimately have the power," he said.

4. Resist the urge to flee

People commonly run from police out of fear they are being stereotyped as a criminal, but the flight itself can be seen as criminal behaviour by police, Owusu-Bempah said.

"That's where the onus is on the police to be sensitive to these stereotypes and sensitive to the position of citizens they're dealing with," he said.

5. Know when to back down

Just because you have certain rights under the Charter, doesn't mean they'll be respected, Berger said, but it's not always wise to continue asserting them.

"The best time to seriously address rights violations is after they happen, not in the moment when the situation could escalate," she said.

Berger said you should take note of the police officer's name or badge number and write down details about the incident after over so you'll have the information you need to file a formal complaint.

She said you are also entitled to photograph or record your interactions with police.

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