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Surviving hostile encounters: a veteran officer's view.

Federal, state, and local law enforcement officers in the United States frequently encounter dangerous or potentially hostile criminals in a variety of settings. In the 10-year period 1994 through 2003, over 571,000 officers were assaulted during such situations. (1) A violent offender can come in any form with no restrictions as to size, age, or gender. (2) Officers must remain mindful at all times of warning signs that a subject they have contacted might become vicious at a moment's notice. Physical confrontations with suspects sometimes can occur when the officer least expects it or during the most mundane of duties. The thought of long-term incarceration, embarrassment, loss of employment, alienation by family or friends, or any number of other factors could signal an unexpected reaction from a person. What can officers do to safeguard themselves from suspects whose behavior or actions can change instantly? During my more than 27 years in the law enforcement profession, I have discovered some answers.


Watch Body Language

Frequently, suspects exhibit body language indicators that can alert officers to pending violent behavior. Some of these can include nervousness, profuse sweating, shaking, muscle rigidity, dryness around the mouth or lips, and rapid speech. Subjects may look around for an escape route, try to place their hands in their pockets, or pay attention to verbal signals from their companions. Changes in mood in a kind of "roller coaster" fashion also constitute a warning sign.

Officers who work together should communicate with each other in formal and informal training sessions and discuss what actions they might take if a suspect turns violent. Many become so adept at spotting these indicators that they, their partners, and their backup officers react at the same time through nonverbal communication and can control subjects before they can cause injury to themselves, the officers, or innocent citizens.

Communicate Skillfully

Officers' abilities to communicate with the people they contact and to control their own body language represent their best tools in dealing with suspects in a hostile environment. Offenders can sense changes in officers' demeanor and can draw inferences from their body language that could indicate what future actions they may make. (3) How officers initially approach suspects could determine whether these individuals cooperate or become violent. Of course, this in no way assures that a confrontation will not occur. But, approaching a person in a calm and professional manner can result in a successful, peaceful contact even when it culminates in an arrest.

I have found that engaging individuals in conversation about something that I suspect interests them (e.g., their motorcycle parked in front of their house or a collection of books on their bookshelves) often helps. It is surprising how quickly people's attitudes will change when they think you are interested in something that interests them. It can make an otherwise hostile encounter a nonviolent event. I have found major success in using this technique in communicating with individuals during all types of police-related duties. Being able to "read" someone can help defuse hostility when you make the initial contact. But, never forget that the suspect is attempting to read you as well.

Consider Narcotic Use and Mental Illness

Officers who have worked the street environment for any length of time know that, in some cases, they cannot avoid a confrontation. The presence of various narcotic substances, such as methamphetamine, PCP, and cocaine, can deteriorate a situation rapidly with seemingly no logical explanation. Many documented incidents exist where suspects under the influence of some substance sustained numerous gunshot wounds (some ultimately fatal) and continued to function, subsequently injuring or killing officers or citizens before succumbing to their wounds. Sometimes, baton strikes or chemical agents have little or no effect, creating a severe dilemma for officers trying to take individuals into custody. Less lethal weapons (e.g., beanbag rounds and pepper-ball guns), however, have become useful alternatives and have proven effective in some situations. Training with these devices and having them available when needed is of utmost importance. Officers must remain diligent in defensive tactics training and physical conditioning.

The mental condition of a suspect also can influence the outcome of a contact. Some people with certain mental illnesses do not act rationally and cannot comprehend certain concepts. Sometimes, they can have incredible physical strength. Officers need to be aware of the potential hazards and take appropriate precautions. I feel that it always is advisable to have a minimum of two officers present in these situations. Sometimes, "verbal triggers" can turn a person hostile. This applies not only to those who are mentally ill but to other people as well. I have found that if you detect that a certain topic raises the anxiety level of the contacted person, you should refrain from speaking about it and change the subject. It may take some practice to read a suspect, but the extra effort can prove worthwhile.

Never Underestimate the Suspect

Size, shape, or gender never dictates how potentially violent a person might or might not become. Therefore, never drop your guard. Some of the most violent physical confrontations I have had with suspects involved persons of slight build, including females. As a result, I offer three main recommendations for officers.

1) Be alert, professional, calm, and constantly aware of changes in the suspect's movements and demeanor. If you are going to make an arrest, put the handcuffs on immediately and do the pat search afterwards. Once their hands are immobilized, suspects have less opportunity to obtain a weapon, effectively resist, or flee the scene.

2) Trust your instincts and be prepared for anything. Always watch suspects, especially their hands. Suspects allowed to keep their hands in their pockets or out of your view always pose a potential danger to you. Most reasonable persons asked to remove their hands from their pockets and then given an explanation that it is for the safety of all present will understand the reasoning behind the request. Suspects who intend to harm you also realize that you are attentive to their movements and may think twice about attempting a confrontation. I have had offenders tell me after an arrest that they had intended to do physical harm to me but that I never gave them a chance to do so. This is the payoff for paying attention to the subject and your surroundings.

3) Do not become so focused that you miss what is going on around you. Use your peripheral vision. Your suspect might have associates nearby that present a potential threat to you and other officers. Always watch your positioning in relation to suspects and keep your gun side away from them.

Train, Train, and Train

You will react the way you were trained. This holds true with driving skills, defensive tactics, firearms use, and officer survival-related scenarios. Having been assigned to a SWAT team as an operator and team leader for a number of years, I know that an officer's need to train frequently is of the highest priority to function in an effective manner in a high-stress situation. You will respond to the stimulus of the event and react, often referred to as "autopilot." As the SWAT operator, I usually was briefed prior to entering the situation and had an idea of what I was up against. In a patrol setting, however, you do not always have that luxury. Things can happen in the blink of an eye. Training is as critical and often more so in the patrol setting where the unexpected is a given. The moral of the story is simple: train, train, and train.


To be certain, you cannot anticipate every action a suspect might take. Watch the person's hands and avoid using verbal triggers. Use your communication and observation skills, as well as your training, to enhance your ability to survive and prevent possible violent encounters. Keep yourself updated on the laws and your departmental policies and procedures regarding the use of force. Hold regular formal and informal training sessions with your fellow officers to help anticipate how you and your co-workers will react when confronted by a violent suspect. Maintain control of your environment when making law enforcement contacts. Stay safe so you can return to your loved ones at the end of your shift. Protect yourself as diligently as you protect your community.


(1) U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, 2003 (Washington, DC, 2004), 66.

(2) U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States, 2003 (Washington, DC, 2004), 268-290.

(3) For additional information, see Anthony J. Pinizzotto and Edward F. Davis, "Offenders' Perceptual Shorthand: What Messages Are Law Enforcement Officers Sending to Offenders?" FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, June 1999, 1-4.

Sergeant Burns serves with the Auburn, California, Police Department.
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Title Annotation:Focus on Officer Safety
Author:Burns, Scott D.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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Next Article:The leadership paradox.

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