Police Command v. Police Request

What is the difference between a police command and a police request under the law? Is it always easy to tell the difference? We asked leading police law expert, Professor Rachel Harmon (UVA Law) to explain.

A police command is an order that carries the weight of law enforcement authority and demands compliance. Failure to obey a lawful police command may result in legal consequences, such as arrest or prosecution. On the other hand, a police request is a non-binding appeal for cooperation. A police request may be made when an officer is seeking information or assistance from an individual, but the individual is not required by law to comply. While a police command and a police request are dramatically different in terms of legal weight, the distinction on the ground may not always be clear-cut. In some cases, a police request may be made in such a way that it carries the weight of a command, or a command may be issued in a way that is more suggestive than authoritative. In these situations, Prof. Harmon points out that legal risks arrise.

Rachel Harmon is a nationally-renowned police law expert. She is a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. 

Additional Resources

Do you have to comply with police orders? – a brief legal explainer with Prof. Rachel Harmon

Police Commands & Police Coercion – an interview with Prof. Harmon exploring the legal limits and paradoxes of police commands. (2023)

Policing the Police – an interview with Prof. Harmon on the laws restraining police action and governing police accountability. (2022)

The Law of the Police –  Casebook exploring the complex array of federal, state, and local legal rules that govern police encounters with the public. (Aspen Publishing, 2021)