Home Alive: 11 Must Rules to Surviving Encounters with the Police
by Geoffrey Mount Varner, MD, MPH
Dr. Saving Lives

"…we, as citizens, have to go above and beyond what should be necessary in order to be sure that our loved ones make it home alive."

The title of this book is devastating. Its aggressive presumption that police encounters threaten lives and require survival strategies is at first jarring and then, once considered, essential. There on the cover is the shocking assertion that American police violence is a given, and this national wound has no working cure.

Yet Dr. Geoffrey Mount Varner knows about cures. A Harvard-educated physician and public health expert, he has worked for decades in emergency rooms and cared for patients injured in altercations with police. As an African American from an accomplished family of lawyers, judges, and a high-ranking civil servant, Varner has observed the high incidence of shootings by police, researched encounters, cross-referenced his own experiences, and developed a list of 11 steps he prescribes for anyone—African American or otherwise—when interacting with the police. The goal, he says, is simple and clear: get home safely. Live through the encounter, live to see loved ones again, live to live another day.

The 11 steps are serious, sensible behavioral guidelines. No trash talk and chest-pounding, just a plea for respect, submission, silence, and restraint, all of which seem sensible enough when reading a how-to guide in the comfort of freedom but, as Varner wisely notes, can be difficult to muster, particularly for young men, in the high-anxiety moments of confrontation and perceived dishonor that can accompany interactions with law enforcers. But Varner beseeches his readers to relax their defenses and ease into his recommendations for the simple purpose of survival. Wounded pride gets you home for dinner; gunshot wounds get you dead.

The book is not anti-police. Rather, law enforcement emerges in a respected and humanized light. Officers are people. They may be scared and anxious when responding to a call. They may be hardened by the violence and crime they see. They may arrive into scenes fraught with drama and danger and may read signals wrong, feeling threatened by seemingly agitated members of the public. Police have a hard job, and they don’t always navigate well. But their mistakes can kill.

Varner’s emergency room anecdotes bring context and clarity to his prescription. Often in his career, he has met with emergency room victims of police violence while the officers were present with the suspects. This unique, first-person vantage point has informed Varner’s understanding of the ratcheted emotions and misunderstandings that can catalyze tragedy in police encounters. In scene after scene, without blaming the victim, Varner’s empathetic description suggests how modified behavior could have saved lives and minimized violence.

This book shouldn’t be necessary. Its very first words shouldn’t trigger sadness and shame. But Varner is working with facts and observations. Police encounters, particularly with African Americans, can turn violent. Thus, as with any known threat, we mitigate in the hopes of decreasing risk and protecting our loved ones. We tell children to shun strangers, we teach teenagers to say no to dangerous influences, and now we have a script for getting the family home safely after dealing with the police. Eleven steps don’t solve the problem. But for a physician whose oath is to “first, do no harm,” it’s a start.

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