Ep 108: Prepare Your Teen for Police Encounters

Episode Summary

Jonathan Cristall, author of What They Don’t Teach Teens and a career prosecutor, gives Andy the insider scoop on what teens should know to stay calm and collected during any police or criminal encounter. Does your teen know their rights?

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

When it comes to raising teens, most of us know  how important it it to have conversations about things like safe sex, drugs, and alcohol…but what about police brutality? Cyberbullying? Sexual harassment? Topics like these might feel like they’re coming out of left field….and you may not know where to even start! It’s difficult to teach kids about their legal rights and street smarts when there’s no manual anywhere telling parents how to do so.

However, topics like these are vital to the health and safety of the modern teen. Especially in recent times, as society is uncovering just how common sexual assault and ploice brutality are, it can be so valuable to help your teen understand their rights and basic safety procedures in times of crises or coercion.

Our guest today is Jonathan Cristall, a prosecutor who’s years of experience in the legal profession has taught him just how much danger teens can find themselves in. As a father himself, he wanted to give his kids a book that taught them basic legal and self defense  information….but couldn’t find one! That’s why he published his new book What They Don’t Teach Teens: Life Safety Skills for Teens and the Adults Who Care for Them. It covers some important stuff your kids might not learn in school–but that they should definitely know.

Jonathan sat down with us today to discuss the rights your teen should be aware of during an interaction with law enforcement,  the basic street safety skills every teen should have, and how teens can protect themselves from predators online.

Having Positive Police Interactions

Overall, Jonathan emphasizes that when it comes to staying safe around police,  the most important thing is to respect law enforcement and follow the law…best to avoid having any issue with officers in the first place! Jonathan explains that he believes most members of the police force are just trying to do their job to the best of their ability and keep you safe.

But in recent times, conversations about police brutality have become more and more common as current events examine troubling trends in police behavior. Jonathan emphasizes that even though it’s always in your best interest to respect the police, there are some basic constitutional rights your teen should be privy to before they have a run-in with the cops, just in case.

In the episode, we get into how many teenagers are not aware of such basic information as their 4th and 5th amendment rights. There are plenty of interactions where teens might be searched unlawfully–even though they have the right to refuse a search! Jonathan and I talk about specific language teenagers can use to tell a police officer that they don’t consent to be searched.

Similarly, many teenagers (and even adults) are unaware of what to do when they receive a ticket for something they do not believe they are guilty of. Or if they are allowed to film a police officer while they’re working, if they suspect something’s off. Or even if they are legally able to be detained by an officer! Jonathan clears up all these situations in the episode.

Besides encounters with law enforcement, there are some other potential dangers your teen might need to be aware of on the street. Jonathan gets into some basic street safety techniques that can help your teen protect themselves when they’re out and about.

How to Help Your Teen Develop Street Smarts

Nowadays, teens are walking around without even looking up…half the time they’re looking at their phones! Jonathan emphasizes the importance of simple practices like situational awareness–how being cognisant of  your surroundings can save you in a crisis.

One example Jonathan gives is locating an emergency exit. When teens walk into a restaurant, movie theater, bar, or other place of business, it can be really valuable to make note of where they can exit during a potential emergency. If an emergency does occur and they are faced with pandemonium and panic, they’ll know where to go. In the episode, Jonathan gets into a specific situation he found himself in during his teenage years, and how situational awareness allowed him to get out safely.

Another potential danger to your teen Jonathan and I talk about is the possibility of armed kidnap or robbery. If someone pulls a gun on your teen and asks for their wallet, your teen would know to just give up the wallet…right?

Actually, in Jonathan’s experience, about a third of teens believe it’s better not to give their things up to an armed assailant–they don’t want to lose their stuff! While it’s understandable to want to keep your iphone, Jonathan emphasizes that  items are replaceable but people aren’t! It can be a good idea to remind your teen that in a situation like that, it’s best to just forfeit you belongings to save your life.

On top of the dangers they face in the outside world, teens are also at risk for certain dangers online. In the episode Jonathan dives into how teenagers may run into sexual predators or find themselves exploited–and how to prevent these situations from occurring.

The Dangers of Sextortion

Jonathan discusses the various ways people can be exploited sexually online–using the word “sextortion” as an umbrella term for things like the non-consensual screen recording of sexual videos or blackmail using nude photographs.  Alarmingly, the average age for a sextortion victim is fifteen, and it’s one of the fastest growing dangers teens face online, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. 

Sextortion perpetrators can be fellow teenagers as well as adults. Sometimes, these adults pose as teenagers, in a process called “catfishing” in which they fake their identity. Sometimes teenagers are lured into disrobing on camera, and then later told that the video will be released to the public if they don’t pay money or perform other services. Other times, teenagers may send nudes to someone they’re in a sexual or romantic relationship with, only to find those nudes passed around to strangers without their consent.

In the episode, Jonathan shares ways you can talk with your teen about these potential dangers. He explains how important it is for teens to think critically about their virtual sexual behavior, and consider all possible outcomes of the situation. Being extorted could cause serious damage to their reputation, not to mention they’re social and emotional health.

Saying “no” to a request for nudes or other sexually explicit material is not always the easiest thing to do. Jonathan suggests reminding your teenager that if somebody is pressuring them to do something they don’t want to do, then that person likely doesn’t have their best interest at heart. Similarly, Jonathan recommends letting your teenager know that they can talk to you if they find themselves in a dangerous or exploitative situation with someone online, even if they might be scared or ashamed.

In the Episode…

In addition to these topics, Jonathan and I talk about:

  • When the police can legally  search a teen without a warrant
  • What to do when an officer is giving a teen a hard time
  • Why teenagers should NEVER go with an assailant to a second location
  • What to say to your kids about sending nudes–others’ or their own!

My talk with Jonathan was extremely informative and a great way to get some basic knowledge on personal  safety–I even learned some things I didn’t know! If you enjoyed the interview, you might enjoy reading What They Don’t Teach Teens where he goes further in-depth on each of the topics we’ve covered. Thanks for listening, and don’t forget to subscribe!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Warn your teen to separate their opinions about the police with how they behave around one:

“Look, I’m not sure how much you respect the police or if you respect the police, but it’s in your best interest to treat them with respect. It’s not going to hurt you if you’re respectful.”

-Jonathan Cristall

2. Put the emphasis on long-term consequences of sending nudes:

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3. Remind your teen of where that nude could end up:

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4. If you sense your teen might not listen to your advice about sending nudes:

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5. Sympathize with your teen when they are dealing with an ex-gone-wild:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: We’ve got an interesting topic today and I’ve been reading your book here the last couple of days, What They Don’t Teach Teens, Life Safety Skills for Teens and the Adults Who Care for Them. I’ve been learning some stuff in this book that I may need to apply to my own life, especially next time I have any run-ins with police officers, law enforcement, the judicial system. There are a few things in this book making me think about my digital life as well, so really interested to talk about all that and more. Can you just walk me through what led you to putting all of these things together and writing this book?

Jonathan: Yeah, I’d be happy to Andy. Basically, this journey of mine started over five years ago. I’ve been married for 20 years to my wonderful wife, Lisa. We have three sons. About five years ago, we were watching TV. Really, almost out of the blue, she says to me, “We got to teach our older sons about sexual consent.” I agreed it was time and I reflected on what my mom taught me. I’m 49, so when I was a young person, no means no, and that’s not even close to what the standard is today. It’s woefully inadequate.

Jonathan: There are lots of reasons why someone may not say no, but not want the sexual activity. It got me thinking, okay, what else do I need to teach my sons? What else is their school very unlikely to teach them either because they don’t know it or they don’t have the time? I wrote down a list and it was really long. Police interactions, their rights, digital footprint. What is sexual harassment? What does that mean? What acts constitute sexual harassment? Street safety, sextortion, cyber bullying.

Jonathan: The list was long and so I started searching for a book. I thought, I’m not the only parent who wants their kids to learn this information. There has to be a single source that has the information that so many of us want to have at our fingertips. I looked everywhere and I found nothing. As my background is as a veteran prosecutor for the City of LA, I teach sexual violence prevention, I was a troubled teen. My wife said to me, she said, “Hey, bud, you’re up. Why don’t you write the book that you’re looking for?” I said, “Yes.” Five years later, really, it took me five years because I’m a very involved father.

Andy: Wow.

Jonathan: I’m an involved husband and I have a career as a prosecutor. October 6th, yesterday, the book was published and it’s gotten great reviews and I’m hearing great things from people and so it’s very exciting.

Andy: It’s got some nice illustrations. It’s really nicely put together with everything in really a nice way I think.

Jonathan: You know what’s interesting? Thank you for saying that because I wanted to write the book in a way that any person of any age could pick up because although what’s called What They Don’t Teach Teens, it’s really for tweens, teens, young adults, and in some situations, like you said, adults who want to know their rights and other information. One of the ways I did that was to add some ink drawings by an artist I had found just to break up the material and make it more reader accessible.

Andy: There’s a number of different topics in here that I thought were really, really important and are stuff that we haven’t really talked about on the show before. One big one is about interactions with the police.

Jonathan: Yep. That’s a huge one.

Andy: Yeah, you’re talking here about searches and about consensual searches and how you can tell the difference I guess, whether a search is consensual or not and how sometimes it’s really hard to tell.

Jonathan: Well, police interactions shouldn’t be complicated, but they are. Obviously, they can become a heck of a lot more complicated in some situations based on someone’s race, disability, and other factors. There are a lot of moving parts to police interactions. I’ve covered those in two chapters. One chapter is about your rights under the Fourth and Fifth Amendment, including what you just mentioned about searches.

Jonathan: The second chapter is about the interaction itself, how to have the safest police interaction possible. That’s when you get stopped, when you’re driving in a vehicle, or on foot. Before getting into the heart of your question, I will say as a prosecutor, I was concerned that I would get pushback from people in law enforcement because essentially I’m stripping away the veneer. I’m laying this out for people, so they can understand what’s going on here and where do the police try to find your weak spot or what might the police officer say to trick you?

Andy: Yeah. You’re taking away their Jedi mind tricks a little bit here with this.

Jonathan: Well, a little bit. I did that for two reasons. Well, I did that because this is what I taught my own sons and why, if a prosecutor is teaching his sons this information, well why shouldn’t other people be able to teach it as well?

Andy: Exactly.

Jonathan: But I asked my law enforcement friends, I said to them who had teenagers, I said, “Hey, how do you feel about me laying bare all this inside information to my readers?” They all said the exact same thing. They said, “Jonathan, what do you think I taught my son or my daughter?” I found that fascinating that they’re teaching their kids the same information. When it comes to searches, searches are tricky because lawfully, the police can only perform under the Fourth Amendment reasonable searches. Case law has really narrowed down what categories are reasonable and unreasonable.

Jonathan: I try not … Like I said, I want this book to be accessible, so I’m not there writing this as a legal scholar. I want to distill this information to its essence, what you just got to know and how you can implement these techniques and information in real time. Most searches are done, and here’s the bottom line, most searches are done and performed lawfully by getting consent from the person to be searched. The officer might have a search warrant, but most likely they won’t.

Jonathan: The officer, there’s exigency. Police can perform certain searches if there’s an emergency. There may be an emergency, but most of the time there isn’t. There are other exceptions that the police can use to do a search without a search warrant. But most of the time, the vast majority of the time, the police are able to perform a search because you say they can. Now, when they’re “asking” you, it may not seem like they’re asking, it may seem like they’re telling you.

Andy: Right. They don’t phrase it like, “Oh hey, pardon me, would it be all right with you if I took a quick look in your trunk ma’am?”

Jonathan: Exactly. They’re never going to say it like that. It’s going to be something like, “Hey, anything in your pockets I need to worry about? Oh, you got nothing? Okay. You don’t mind if I search you then?” Then the next thing you know, they’re patting you down. Look, I’m not criticizing what police do because by and large, at least in my opinion, the overwhelming majority of police officers wear the badge with honor, do their job with dignity.

Jonathan: But we all know, we all see examples, particularly involving racial injustice, where police brutality is real and sometimes an entire community. I do talk about, how you could tell an officer you’re not consenting to a search. If the officer’s trying to get your consent, there’s language I include in the book that I suggest. It’s what I’ve suggested to my own sons.

Jonathan: No, it will not work every time. Certainly, there are people who believe that no matter what they say, the police are going to do what they’re going to do and I’m not telling them otherwise. I’m simply saying that it can work in some situations if the young person or any person says, “Sorry, officer, but I don’t consent to searches.” Now, you could use that, I could use that. But what I suggest my readers use, who are in their teens, you can probably push this into your early 20s. I don’t think it will work much after that. “Sorry, officer. My parents told me that I cannot consent to searches.”

Jonathan: Now, what does that do? Again, in some instances it may not do anything, but in others, it’s going to change how that officer may perceive you. If you say, “I’m not consenting to a search,” well now they got to wise ass.

Andy: “No, you can’t search me.”

Jonathan: Exactly. “Get away from me copper,” right? That’s never going to go well.

Andy: That is going to escalate. Yeah.

Jonathan: Exactly. You’re blaming it on your parents.

Andy: Yeah, right.

Jonathan: Now, if you blame it on your parents, “Officer, no disrespect. My parents told me not to consent to searches.” Is the officer just going to say, “Okay, no problem. Have a nice day?” Of course not. The officer is going to say, “What, are your parents lawyers? What’s your problem? I’m just trying to talk with you. Why are you giving me a hard time?” As I inform the readers, if you don’t want to consent to searches, you have to repeat it.

Andy: Just keep saying it.


You just keep saying it. Again, I talk about racial injustice in the book. I talk about the reforms we need in the criminal justice system as a whole. I talk about police brutality. I want to be very clear that these situations don’t always work, but this is really important information for our young people to have because if you know your rights, one, they can be successful. If your rights are not respected, by knowing them, you’ll be better able after the fact to make a complaint and to know what they did wrong, to know how your rights were violated, and to hold the police accountable.

Andy: What about getting a ticket? A cop gives you a ticket for something that you feel like you didn’t do. Do you sign the ticket?

Jonathan: Yes. As you saw there, I have a section in my book that says exactly that. You sign the ticket. It’s not an admission of guilt. You’re simply saying you’ll appear in court and if you refuse to sign, you can get arrested on the spot. What’s interesting, one of the positive things of having five years to complete the book or at least from inception to publication, is that I was able to … I do a lot of teaching on these topics. I teach at schools, I teach in private events.

Jonathan: I was able to hear over and over some of the most common questions parents and young people ask me on police interactions and everything else in the book. That was one of the most common questions I got. Like, “Hey, do I sign the ticket or not?” Now for me again, as a 49 year old, as a prosecutor, and so on and so forth, to me it was obvious. You just sign the ticket. You’re not admitting anything. But of course, I realize having spoken to so many young people and their parents that it’s not obvious. Yeah, sign the ticket. It’s not admission of guilt.

Jonathan: I also get asked a lot about whether it’s lawful to record the police in public. Yes, it is lawful. But sometimes the officers themselves don’t know it’s lawful. Other times, even though it’s lawful for you to do so and they may be aware of it, they still may push back on you. We’ve seen those situations. “Don’t record me.” “Officer, I’m allowed to lawfully record you. I’m in a public place. I’m not interfering with your work.” “Turn off the camera.”

Jonathan: My suggestion to my own sons would be, if you’re afraid the officer’s going to hurt you because they want your camera off, I would want … Everyone feels differently I suppose. I would want my own sons to turn off the camera. Should the officer be allowed to do that? No, but everything in this book is about our children, my children, young people. When I say ‘my children,’ I don’t mean just as a parent. I’m talking about caregivers as well. Their children. The young people they care for in their lives.

Jonathan: It’s about them making it home safely. It’s about them making good choices. That’s the goal of the book is to give them information that they’re not getting elsewhere, so they can make informed decisions. Maybe they don’t make good decisions. We can’t control that, but at least they’re informed decisions, right? Because you could have the information and make a lousy decision. Well, that’s on you. But as your dad, if I give you the information and you choose not to make a wise decision, well, there’s nothing more I could have done.

Andy: Yeah, right. I did all I could.

Jonathan: Exactly.

Andy: Yep. Actually, maybe that’s not bad to make a couple of mistakes and learn from those and say, “Okay, actually, whoa, man, I should’ve listened to Dad.”

Jonathan: Well, absolutely. Well, it’s interesting because I talk in the police chapters about some of my own police interactions. Because as I mentioned, I was a troubled teen. I should not have lived through my teen years. I was a good kid who got pivoted off path and I just made countless mistakes. I talk about my own arrest. I was arrested for a nonviolent offense when I was 16. It was a property crime. The police had their guns on me. They thought I had done something more than I did.

Jonathan: I talk about in the book, that there are many, many people, particularly those of color, who I described the night of my arrest, if they were in that situation, they may have been shot. Who am I to tell them otherwise? You just don’t know what’s going to happen in real time in any of these situations.

Jonathan: When I talk about my own troubles as a teen, I also mention as it relates to your digital footprint and digital safety, smartphone cameras, that I got do overs because the stuff I did that I shouldn’t have been doing, there are no emails about it. There are no photos because we didn’t carry around digital cameras with us. We didn’t carry around cameras because they were Polaroids and they were giant and they were expensive.

Jonathan: It’s harder for young people to get do overs today. There’s a lot of accountability and it’s unfortunate because like you mentioned, teens, we all make mistakes, but this is the time in your life where you got to test the waters a little bit. You’re going to make perhaps more mistakes, more significant mistakes than at other times in your life. But unfortunately, some of those mistakes are harder to recover from than when I was coming out.

Andy: Here’s another question that I thought was really interesting. Can you walk away when the police are questioning you or talking to you? If they haven’t arrested you yet, could you just stop answering their questions, and just turn around and walk away?

Jonathan: That’s a great question. Before I answer it, let me just say that I understand why many, many people don’t know the answer to these questions, but it always astonishes me that we haven’t taught this to people in school. These are their rights.

Andy: Yeah. Shouldn’t you know all of this? This is kindergarten. You should be tested on this, so you know your fundamental rights as a citizen.

Jonathan: Exactly. It’s astonishing to me because math classes and like a hundred math tests every year and science and all those topics are important. But how about your rights? Yes, in some situations you can walk away from the police, but you should always ask. There are more nuances to this and readers who are really interested can dig into the book and get more of the meat. But essentially, if the officer reasonably suspects you’ve committed a crime, they can detain you for a certain amount of time while they figure out or conduct a criminal investigation.

Jonathan: But if you aren’t detained, so basically the officer’s just chit-chatting with you, they don’t have a reason objectively that they can stop and investigate you. What they’re going to do in some instances is they’re going to chat you up. It’s called a consensual encounter. Then that may evolve into a detention based on what you say, based on what you do, based on what they see or observe while they are …

Andy: Yeah. If they can get you to reveal anything. See anything in the back seat of your car as you’re being…

Jonathan: Exactly. Well, let me just say, you don’t know in most instances, whether you’re being detained for an investigation or not. Okay? You’re not going to know because the officer …

Andy: Presents in the same way to you.

Jonathan: Exactly, exactly. It presents in the same way to you. If you don’t want to carry on a conversation with a police officer, but you’re not sure if you’re being investigated, you’re not sure if this is consensual, you simply ask a question. “Officer, am I free to go or am I being detained?” Now, it is unlikely that you’re going to get, you might, but it’s unlikely you’re going to get a clear answer to your question the first time you ask.

Andy: Yeah, right.

Jonathan: If you say to an officer, “Officer, am I free to go or am I being detained,” you’re probably going to get, “Why do you want to go? What are you hiding? What’s your rush? I’m just having a conversation with you.” You’ll have to repeat again, “Officer, am I free to go or am I being detained?” You can go onto YouTube and watch videos of people recording their police interactions and sometimes on their first attempt, they get an answer, “You’re free to go.”

Jonathan: But more often, they’ve got to ask repeatedly until the officers will say, “Yes, you’re free to go or no you’re being detained. I’m investigating you for this crime.” But again, this is how it should go and I’m not saying it will always go this way. Again, when it comes to racial injustice, when we talk about people who are disabled, who suffer also greater police brutality, anything can happen in those situations and things aren’t always going to go as they should or how we want them to.

Andy: That strikes me as a lot of social pressure to be dealing with as a teenager, to have an intimidating police officer who’s questioning you and to assert yourself like that repeatedly is not easy. I guess, how do we prepare our kids for that pushback that you’re saying they’re going to get from the cops? How do we give them the strength to stand firm in the face of that?

Jonathan: Right. Well, it’s really hard. It’s hard for adults to do. It’s obviously even harder for young people. It’s even harder for young people of color. Young people who are LGBTQ, may also be of color as well. These things can overlap. It’s not always going to be easy. It’s intimidating. I think that the starting point for all of this is one, do the right thing. You are way less likely, not guaranteed, but you’re way less likely to come into the cross hairs of the police if you are following the law.

Jonathan: Of course, that’s not a guarantee, but it’s what I’ve told my own sons. If you don’t do stupid things, if you don’t do things that are illegal, it’s less likely you’re going to have to come face-to-face with the police. But what I’ve also explained to my sons is if you understand your rights, when you have that inevitable police interaction, you should be able to stay calmer. You know the rules of engagement. You know what they’re allowed to do. You know what they’re not allowed to do. Be respectful. They deserve your respect.

Jonathan: I honestly believe that. I think police do deserve your respect. But I say to one of my sons, because I’m not sure how much one of my sons does respect the police and so I said to him, I said, “I don’t know how much you respect the police or if you respect the police, but it’s in your best interest to treat them with respect. It’s not going to hurt you if you’re respectful. It shouldn’t hurt you if you’re disrespectful, but these things happen.”

Jonathan: It’s interesting because about a year ago, six months, nine months ago, time especially post-COVID, it all blends together and it’s like Groundhog Day in a lot of ways, but I was driving with one of my sons and I got pulled over and I have a confidential plate, so by the time the officer gets to my window, he or she is going to say, “Okay, are you a prosecutor or are you an officer? Because I ran your plates and nothing comes up.”

Jonathan: I get pulled over. It was a good stop. I violated a traffic law, no problem. I wait, I don’t reach for anything. No one should reach for anything until the officer gets to your window. You don’t want to be reaching for your license and registration when the officers approach. You keep your hands on the wheel. He approaches, I roll down the window. Before the officer can say anything to me, one of my sons starts yelling at him.

Jonathan: I just about died. It was terrifying for me because I thought, if I weren’t here, and you were driving and you mouthed off to this officer, I’m not saying the officer would do anything unlawful towards you, but it’s never a good thing to get an officer mad at you because you’re being disrespectful.

Andy: Why would you want to piss off this person who has so much power over you?

Jonathan: Right. Exactly. It’s just a bad idea in every way.

Andy: Not smart.

Jonathan: It was interesting because the moment my son started talking, the officer and I simultaneously told him to be quiet. It had nothing to do with him, mind your own business. But anyway, it’s complicated and it’s emotional. But I do want to say again, I know policing, particularly in certain communities, it needs to be fixed. We need reform in criminal justice, but I do believe the overwhelming majority of officers have their hearts in the right place and it is some bad apples who are doing these things that we see on TV all the time.

About Jonathan Cristall

Jonathan Cristall, Esq., is the author What They Don’t Teach Teens. Jonathan spent his teen years taking unnecessary risks and getting into completely avoidable trouble. Now a veteran prosecutor for the City of Los Angeles, he is a sought-after speaker in the community on sexual violence prevention. He works extensively with teenagers and their families to teach physical, digital, emotional, and legal safety skills. Jonathan’s work has been featured in HuffPost, Beverly Hills Courier, and Good Men Project to name a few. 

Jonathan lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three teen boys, who were the inspiration for putting together the book.

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