How students can stay safe and smart when interacting with police

In this file photo, two UConn Police vehicles are pictured. (File Photo/The Daily Campus)

University of Connecticut students, whether guilty or innocent, constantly interact with police. Here is how to be safe and smart during these exchanges.

Lucas Maley, a third-semester statistics major, is the president of the UConn Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU is a legal organization that deals with civil liberties cases. UConn’s ACLU focuses mostly on spreading awareness about student rights.

Maley said there was no legal absolute as to whether or not police could block non-residents from entering a residential area.

“It’s one of those things where it’s all about the interpretation,” Maley said. “It may technically be a violation but they’re still allowed to do it. A lot of times cops obviously do [expletive] they’re not supposed to, and because they’re a cop, and they’re in a position of authority, it’s really easy for them to come out and just do it unless you’re like ‘No, these are my rights. You can’t harass me.’”

The Deputy Chief of Police for the UCPD, Hans Rhynhart, also emphasized the contextual nature of the law. 

“Encounters with police officers are complex and always situationally based, there are many layers of review of these encounters and situations, going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court for guidance and rulings,” Rhynhart said in an email.

Maley suggested that if students entering a residential area are asked by a police officer if they live in that area, they could plead the 5th amendment, which is the right to remain silent, because they are not obligated to answer any questions.

“I’m not sure if they could arrest you, and in the end if they weren’t allowed to do that they could just release you, and that’d be the end of it unless you sued them,” Maley said. “It’s one of those tricky things. How committed are you to getting into Carriage?”

Jack Burke, a 5th-semester sociology major, is the treasurer of UConn’s Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), said this was an issue with the student body’s relationship with the UCPD and State Police itself.

“We think, while we are doing work on our side to give students the tools to assert their rights, there needs to be more accountability for police officers,” Burke said. “We would love to facilitate this conversation between the police department and the student body. As it stands, police interactions can be frightening, othering, and violating for everyone involved. If we were to know police officers more as community members and not just their titles - police officers - maybe some of the fearful power dynamic would be taken out of these interactions and be pacified.”

Rhynhart said there are three special circumstances in which police are able to restrict access to certain areas. These include property owner request, emergency and/or public safety hazard, or if the location is classified as a crime scene. These instances are up for legal interpretation as well.

Maley said the common occurrence of police officers asking students for their identification was a complex issue as well.

“It should be illegal, I’m pretty sure it is illegal, but cops get away with it,” Maley said. “I’m pretty sure it’s a no unless they have reasonable suspicion, but again that’s kind of a liberal term. Not to be cynical, but they can just make [expletive] up. Again, you could take them to court and prove them wrong, but most students aren’t willing to do that.”

Burke said this was another matter of student rights that require further clarification from the police department.

“I’m not sure the answer to that question, and that’s a huge part of the reason why this open, honest, respectful conversation with the police officers, and especially the UConn police, who are here to protect us, needs to happen, because we’re not even aware of basic, basic rights we may have,” Burke said.

If a student gets pulled over, Maley said he suggests they exercise their 4th amendment rights (privacy/search and seizure) and say the words “I do not consent to any searches,” as an officer may say something along the lines of “I’m going to need you to let me search the vehicle.” Maley said to beware of officers using their position of authority to make students do something they don’t legally have to do.

Burke said students can also take steps to prevent a police officer coming inside their home.

“What we recommend for students to do when approached with a police officer in their home, is to simply step outside the door and talk to the police officer in the hallway, or outside, because without a warrant a police officer cannot enter your home,” Burke said. “Or probable cause, which is a whole nother realm that needs to be defined for people.”

Rhynhart said that drivers are required to produce identification during motor vehicle stops. This is the only occurrence where showing a police officer your ID is absolutely necessary.

“There are other situations which people are required to show their ID, but are based on the situation and level of encounter the police officer has with the person,” Rhynhart said.

This is a contested stance, as ACLU lawyers have argued – and sometimes won – both in the courtroom and in scholarship, that a person is never bound to carry a form of identification, unless, of course, a person is driving a car.

Both Burke and Maley said they advised students to be polite and respectful in their dealings with the police. They also said that one should never physically interfere with a police officer, while imploring students to vocalize their rights.  

“If you’re walking around with a backpack on campus; the fact that you have a backpack isn’t reasonable suspicion to search your bag,” Maley said. “People think that just because a cop asked them to do something they have to do it, and they don’t.” 

Burke mentioned a specific police-student interaction from last year. 

“Two students got an audio recording of police trying to search their backpack,” Burke said. “They repeated the line ‘I do not consent to any searches’ and the police officers went ahead and did so anyways. We know that police officers are outright violating this right to refuse a search, even when students are claiming their rights to refuse a search and saying “I do not consent to any searches.” Students are claiming their rights, the time is to put the accountability on police officers to ensure that those rights are upheld.”

The national ACLU ‘Know Your Rights’ pamphlet touches upon a lot of the same subjects as Burke and Maley did. For example: “people do not have to answer questions asked by law enforcement (except in certain states one must provide their name if questioned for it). “

Rhynhart spoke to that end.

“Police can engage in consensual encounters, such as knocking on a residents door to investigate a noise complaint,” Rhynhart said. “Police officers can continue to engage in a consensual encounter by asking a person questions, much like any person can ask another person a question.”

Futher resources are on the ACLU’s website, and the SSDP is holding a “know your rights” event in October, open to all students. 

Before concluding his statement, Rhynhart said students who feel that “they were mistreated or their rights were violated” should “consider filing a complaint with the police department. We encourage these reports and will investigate them to determine what happened.”

Rhynhart also said that within the next year, the UCPD “will be implementing body worn cameras” in order to “give another view of the interactions between police and community members.” He said the UCPD “conducts several public talks each year on the role of the police” and that they have a “Citizens Police Academy” program which is open to all students and community members, encouraging people to know their rights.


Sten Spinella is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at sten.spinella@uconn.edu.