In my Seminars (Arresting Communication, The Warrior’s Edge, and Ultimate Survival Instincts), officer safety is addressed from the perspective of communication. We address the unconscious aspect of the human mind and its inadvertent part in displaying cues that indicate pending attack.
As mentioned in my last article about Scanning, specific nonverbal signals communicate nefarious intent. These signals — leaked out of the unconscious facet of the criminal mind and displayed via body language — need to be recognized and cataloged in the conscious mind of those in law enforcement. Because, as the unconscious acts at light speed and independent of the conscious, it is imperative that we train ourselves to recognize certain signals in order to narrow the processing time between observation and action.
Let’s examine some of the “telegraphed” indicators of hostile intent — keeping in mind that many others exist.
The target glance: Target glancing is a term used to refer to the obvious preoccupation an offender will have with a particular area of an officer’s body or with any of the officer’s weapons. It can involve either staring or repeated glancing at the intended target. One of the most common target glances involves ocular attention on an officer’s gun, indicating that a subject is considering a “gun-grab.” However, other areas of interest to a would-be attacker include the chin, the nose, the throat and the eyes. Any target glancing directed at the face generally indicates that the suspect is evaluating an attack of some sort, perhaps a punch. Targets can also involve the hip or upper leg area, obviously indicating the subject is measuring the possibility of a takedown.
Clenching: Whether it’s tightening the fists or clenching the teeth, constriction of muscles indicates physical stress and perhaps readiness for an attack. Pre-fight tensions will cause jaw muscle to bulge, fists to close and facial muscles to contract. If you pay close attention you may observe the trapezius (also called “trap”) muscles (the flat triangular muscles that cover the back of the neck and shoulders) rise as the large muscles of the body constrict as if to prepare for physical contact or assault.
Eye blinks: Average eye contact between two people is about three seconds. The average non-arousal blink rate is about the same, 20 times per minute. Under significant stress the human being will alter blink rate patterns in one of two ways: They will either blink rapidly (40 to 60 times per minute), or they will slow their blink rate down drastically (two to four times per minute). The latter of the two alterations is often referred to as the “thousand-mile stare.” It’s often described as one person looking through the other person. Because it is stressed induced, the reason for the exhibited stress has to be considered in the totality of the circumstances. If you are questioning a subject and rapid blinking is evident, deception may be causing the stress. If the “thousand-mile stare” is displayed while interviewing a suspicious person, then be aware that flight or fight is probably about to occur.
The pugilistic stance: Also known as “the fighting stance,” the pugilistic stance is almost always a precursor to an attack — or at least an indicator that one is being considered. The pugilistic stance is rather obvious: dropping one leg and side of the body (usually the strong side) behind the other. It may be accompanied by a fist clench, facial tightening and even a verbal warning. But police officers must recognize that any shifting of the weight or stance by the other person, no matter how slight, may be a significant indicator.
Flanking: This usually occurs when there are multiple suspects; it’s the movement to the rear or side of a police officer by one or more of the suspects being engaged. Flanking is an attempt to find a position suitable for a successful attack. One of the most infamous and despicable examples of flanking in the law enforcement community involves the murder of Constable Darrell Lunsford in Nacogdoches County, Texas, on Jan. 23, 1991. The suspects Lunsford stopped employed flanking maneuvers (as well as demonstrating the pugilistic stance) prior to the attack that brought Lunsford to the ground.
Hesitation in response: Often, when intensely engaged in the process of internal thought, a person’s response time to questions becomes protracted. This is because people are not particularly good at divided-attention tasks. The more intense or stress-filled one task may be, the less likely it is the person can multitask. Contemplating an attack on an officer would be considered an intensely internal thought process. Measuring odds, determining a target and pondering the consequences of such an attack requires a tremendous amount of concentration. Answering questions while in such a state is not easy. Therefore, a police officer may notice a distracted gaze and hesitation between questions posed and answers given.
There are many more verbal, nonverbal and paralinguistic indicators of an impending assault that can be cited. I am looking for some from you, experienced law enforcement professionals. If you have any stories or examples, write me Lt. Jim Glennon or mention them here on this site.
In the meantime, remember that recognizing and understanding these signals on a conscious level may be the difference between winning and becoming a victim. However, in order to recognize the signals it is important to observe, pay attention to, and listen to those with whom you interact. As we all know, our ability to win violent confrontations depends on our own set of skills and our understanding of the people with whom we must deal.
(Parts of this article are excerpts from Jim’s book; Arresting Communication.)
Lt. Jim Glennon (ret.) is a third generation law enforcement officer with an undergraduate degree in Psychology and a master’s degree in Law Enforcement Justice Administration. Jim was the lead instructor and curriculum director for the Calibre Press Street Survival Seminar.
Jim is the co-owner of LifeLine Training and specializes in teaching courses in: communication (Arresting Communication), leadership (Finding the Leader in You) and officer safety (Ultimate Survival Instincts).
Jim’s book, ARRESTING COMMUNICATION: Essential Interaction Skills for Law Enforcement was named one of the “ten best law enforcement books of all time” by LawOfficer.com
Jim’s company, LifeLine Training, is a Blue Crew sponsor, offering discounts to all Blue Crew members on their training classes and his book, Arresting Communication.