When Eric Broyles was nine years old, recklessly riding a bike through his Hamilton, Ohio, neighborhood, he had a tense encounter with a police officer: he fell off his bike, sending it rolling into the street, nearly hitting a passing police car. In response, the officer chastised him, using a racial slur.
Broyles, now an attorney, wrote about the incident — one of two unpleasant police encounters that he details — in his new book, “Encounters With Police: A Black Man’s Guide to Survival.” “I was stunned,” he wrote. “I was so terrified because I did realize that I could have been run over and then I was mortified by the police officer’s racial slur.”
Those experiences, as well as the recent spate of high-profile police shootings, inspired Broyles — who co-authored the book with his friend, Adrian Jackson, a 25-year veteran of an Ohio police department — to provide African-American men a guide for handling their own interactions with police. Below, he reflects on recent shootings, the reasons why police encounters escalate, and why his book’s message, “comply now and contest later,” couldn’t be more relevant.
What made you want to write this book?
There were three incidents that motivated me to write the book. The Eric Garner and Michael Brown killings, and John Crawford, the young man who was shot [by police] in the Wal-Mart in Ohio. My college classmate is the family’s lawyer in the Crawford case, and by talking to him and hearing the frustration from the family and community, I wanted to put together some information to help young people, of color in particular.
The book is subtitled, “A Black Man’s Guide to Survival.” Why focus on men?
The tools in this book can be used by anyone, but it’s geared toward men of color, and the reasons why are obvious. I don’t think I need to list the names of all the black men that have died in confrontations with police recently.
With the release of the Sandra Bland video, there has been a lot of confusion about a police officer’s authority during a traffic stop. What are some of the things a police officer can and can’t order you to do?
It really depends on the nature of the stop. Police officers are entitled to give certain commands to create a safe environment for themselves. If they feel there is a threat of some sort by a person they pulled over, they have the right to make certain requests to reduce their risk of being harmed. In terms of telling her to put her cigarette out, the only justification would be if the officer thought it posed some sort of threat, like if she were to flick it in his eye.
What, if anything, could Sandra Bland have done differently during that traffic stop?
Because you don’t know what a police officer is doing at the time of the stop, whether they’re investigating a homicide or looking for a suspect whose description you fit, we suggest you err on the side of complying with police demands. I don’t know that I saw anything in her behavior that would raise the threat level to the officer. But as a general matter, citizens should comply with police requests. Even if the citizen is correct, they have a forum to address wrong behavior by police officers, and that’s through the complaint process or litigation. It’s certainly not something that you do at the time of the encounter.
Many people make it a point to know and express their rights when dealing with police. In the Bland tape, she tells the officer twice that he does not have the right to order her out of her car. Does familiarity with the law sometimes become a double-edged sword during police encounters?
I think that when [someone] knows his rights and encounters a police officer who is a true professional, I don’t think you’ll have any incident.
So would you say that knowing your rights helps more than hurts?
Yes. But I understand the frustration that African Americans, in particular, may feel at the notion that they have to subjugate their constitutional rights in order to survive a police encounter. But until we work through some of the cultural issues and training issues in police departments, my objective is to get people home safely. That’s why the theme is “comply now, contest later.” It’s not about leaving an encounter with police without your dignity in place.
Should police also be responsible for adjusting their behavior during these encounters?
It’s always the police department’s responsibility to act without bias, so I’m not giving a wink and a nod to bias or prejudicial behavior. I’m recognizing the reality that it’s going to take time to change that. It’s absolutely the police department and the police system’s responsibility to root out bias, racism, and profiling, 100 percent. But during the time it takes to root that out, over the next 10, 20, 50 years, how many lives are you willing to sacrifice?
You wrote about an incident in which you were pulled over and surrounded by several cops. Eventually you found out they were looking for a murder suspect with a similar vehicle. There was a communication disconnect throughout the incident.
I was a black male in a two-door silver coupe. The officers were looking for a murder suspect who was a black male in a silver two-door coupe, but I didn’t know that. So, if they would have told me that at the time of the encounter, I would have been upset but I would have understood.
Have you received feedback about the non-confrontational message of the book?
Some people take this as I’m asking them to be a coward or swallow their pride, and I tell them that it’s a false equivalency. This book is about teaching young people how to position themselves to fight this battle.
Have people expressed a desire for more confrontational methods of dealing with police?
Sure. But what do you get from trying to beat up a police officer? You have no bragging rights for beating up a police officer. There are two types of people who beat up a police officer: number one, the person’s dead. Or, number two, they’re talking about it in a prison yard.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.