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Prevent Confrontations Using Mind Over Muscle

Use tactical psychology to deter resistance during your next DWI stop.

August 01, 1996  |  by Daniel Hoffman

Everything is going smoothly as you administer DUI field tests. Your subject is generally cooperative, though failing miserably. As you pull out your Cuffs and tell him that he is under arrest, however, his mood quickly changes. When you take hold of his arm, he pulls away and the fight to handcuff him leaves you both on the ground. Your uniform is ripped, and as you lead your prisoner to the intoximeter, he yells that he is going to sue you for "beating him up." While you console yourself by thinking, "It's all this jerk's fault, He gave me no choice," part of you wonders if you could have handled things differently.

While police recruits and offi­cers spend many hours of training learning physical methods of arrest, little (if any) time is spent discussing how an officer's actions may affect a subject's behav­ior and thought processes. Aware­ness of officer/sub­ject reaction can be thought of as "tactical psycholo­gy." and it is a valuable tool to include in your overall officer safety profile.

The golden rule of tactical psycholo­gy is: People don't like to be arrested. While this may sound painfully obvious, consider the types of people we deal with daily, Most of the people we arrest are gen­erally cooperative and are taken into cus­tody without incident. While they may not enjoy the process, they realize that the arrest is inevitable and do not want to com­pound their problems by resisting. Occa­sionally, we deal with the true "bad guy." where it is known up front that he will have to be taken by physical force.

The potentially uncooperative subject, however, is the most problematic for the street officer. This is a person who may seem cooperative until the point of arrest, (which may be done intentionally to lull an officer into complacency) or he may be a subject whose verbal or nonverbal cues provide an indication that he is trouble. Whatever the case, some subtle changes in how you handle yourself may profoundly reduce the number of times an incident escalates to a physical confrontation.

The DWI stop provides a good exam­ple of tactical psychology, as intoxicated drivers are potentially uncooperative sub­jects for several reasons. First, alcohol will lower the inhibitions of a normally self ­restrained person. Secondly, DWI defen­dants represent a complete cross section of the community. Finally, the thought of being arrested or going to jail in itself may seem good enough reason to resist.

Whatever the case, you do not want your subject to think about being arrested. If the golden rule of tactical psychology is that people do not like to be arrested, then the platinum rule is: Don't let your sub­ject think about or anticipate being arrest­ed. Most people need time to formulate a plan of resistance and to firm up their intent to resist arrest. This is especially true when someone's mind is fogged with alcohol, which may slow down their thought processes and reaction time. If an arrest is sudden and handcuffs are applied quickly, most subjects will not have time to become uncooperative.

Let's now examine the DWI stop, step­-by-step, viewing everything from this per­spective: What are my actions and how will they be perceived by the subject?

The Initial Stop

You stop a driver and while talking with him you note all the signs of intoxication. You ask the subject how much he has had to drink: and his reply is-you guessed it-"two beers'" What would you say upon initiating field tests'? If you say. "It looks like you've had two too many." or "Those must have been awfully big beers." or my other such comment, you have already committed a psychological blunder. You have in effect said. "You look drunk to me, and we both know where this stop is going to lead." The subject will most likely think. 'I've been busted," and may spend the next few moments (while performing the sobriety tests) sizing you up and for­mulating a plan of resistance.

Try this instead on your next stop. When you get the "two beers" response and it is time to do field tests, say: "Before you go on your way, I need to do a few tests to ensure you are OK to drive." This will put most drivers at ease. They will likely focus on performing the tests, considering them a mere formality, rather than dwelling on the prospect of arrest.

The Performance Tests

While administering performance tests, it is important to appear nonjudg­mental. While a subject may be failing a test miserably, you should not give either verbal or nonverbal cues indicat­ing your thoughts. Rolling your eyes, making negative comments or stopping a subject midtest may cue the suspect that you think he is intoxicated and will start his mind wandering toward the "What if I'm arrested'?" mode.

You may also want to consider the order in which you administer tests. Three common standardized field performance tests are the horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN), the one-leg stand and the walk-and-turn tests. For officer safety and tactical psychology reasons, administering the tests in this order is wise.

The HGN test is usually given while the subject is still seated in his vehicle with his upper torso turned toward the officer. The car door is an effective barrier to sudden assault and minimizes the danger that is inherent in tests that require you to be so close to a subject. If there are others in the vehicle, partic­ularly if there are any cues of a threat, you may want to administer the HGN test away from the vehicle. However, if the test is performed while the subject is still seated, he will be more at ease remaining within his zone of control. Further, it reduces the time that a sus­pect spends performing roadside tests-a time when apprehension can build. Finally, the HGN test is the one test where a subject truly has no idea how he is performing. If he is going to fail the other two tests, it is better that an obvious failure occur toward the end of the process when he has little time to consider the consequences.

A Wise Strategy

While I once believed that the one-­leg stand and the walk-and-turn tests could be administered in either order, field practice lead me to discover one strong point in saving the walk-and-tul1l test until last. One of the biggest mis­takes an officer can make during a DWI stop is to stand face-to-face with a sus­pect, pullout handcuffs and tell him. 'I'm going to have to place you under arrest for DWI."

Most people are visually oriented, meaning that the bulk of information they take in and retain is obtained through what they see. When a sub­ject's senses are sluggish due to alcohol, they may rely even more heavily on visual input. Pulling your handcuff's from your belt is a clear indication that you are going to make an arrest. When a potentially uncooperative subject sees those handcuff's emerge, his mind clicks into a fight-or-fight mode. By saving the walk-and-turn test until last, you give yourself a golden opportunity to take out and load your handcuffs with­out the subject being aware of your intentions. As a suspect "walks the line" away from you, counting his steps, you can remove and load your cuffs undetected. As he turns to come back, you will already have the cuff's in your strong hand, nonchalantly folded in front of you.

The Fourth Field Test

I am a strong advocate of "hand­cuffing as a fourth field test." Whoever first used it definitely understood the value of tactical psychology. An intoxi­cated subject may not realize that he is going to be arrested, and the less time he has to think about it (and formulate a plan of resistance), the better. By using tactical speed cuffing with the subject favorably positioned, the offi­cer gives the subject literally no time to realize he is being cuffed and arrested, much less an opportunity to react to it.

At the conclusion of the walk-and ­turn test, convey to the subject that there is just one more thing to be done. Tell him to face whatever convenient object is at hand, which will put his back to you, then ask him to put his arms straight out like an airplane. Some people will immediately close their eyes thinking that they are going to perform a nose-touch test. Then tell the subject to point his thumbs down. Once in that position, tell him to bring his hands together slowly behind his back. As his hands come close togeth­er, the cuff's (which are already in your hand from the previous test) can be applied in a standard one-two speed cuff. If the subject resists upon the application of the first cuff', he can be taken down with an iron wrist-lock takedown and controlled with mini­mum effort.

The Pay Off

Police officers are finding their actions subject to increased levels of scrutiny by the public and the media. As professionals, it is our duty to employ all tactics at our disposal that prevent the unnecessary escalation of force, while at the same time protect­ing ourselves. An awareness of tacti­cal psychology and the role it plays in a subject's responses will hopeful­ly lead to fewer physical confronta­tions, lawsuits and use-of-force com­plaints, as well as contribute to a more positive image for your agency and the law enforcement profession as a whole.

Daniel Hoffman is a sergeant with the Fairbanks (Alaska) Police Department.

Tags: Drunk Driving


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