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Departments : Officer Survival

Sign Language

Use simple hand gestures to clearly communicate with suspects.

April 01, 2004  |  by William Harvey - Also by this author


A “calming” hand signal communicates to a subject that you want him to calm down even if you don’t ask him verbally to do so.

In my years instructing law enforcement officers in defensive tactics I've observed that cops tend to overlook the importance of total communication with the suspect. Oftentimes, when arresting a person, an officer or deputy gives directions verbally only and then wonders why the suspect does not comply.

Could it be that the perpetrator did not fully understand or comprehend what the officer's verbal directions were? Could there have been a mixed message sent non-verbally?

Good communication can gain voluntary compliance, lessening the need for force and preventing officer injury. A simple hand gesture can make the difference.

The Typical Situation

Two officers are dispatched to a call of a disturbed suspect on a corner. The suspect is acting aggressively toward passers-by. The officers coordinate their arrival via radio to gain a tactical advantage. They arrive and observe the situation before acting. The suspect is unkempt and acting irrational. Officer A is the contact officer and Officer B is cover.

As Officer A begins to determine what, if any, problems exist, she stands in a tactical position and begins a conversation with the suspect. The two officers even triangulate positioning to have better advantage. Sound familiar? Nothing is procedurally wrong with this scenario. However, what if there is a language barrier or the suspect has hearing difficulties? Is there street or crowd noise? To further complicate the issue, if witnesses are watching from nearby stores, what do they perceive?

While these officers have done nothing wrong, they could handle the situation even better. The majority of people are visual learners. Anyone who has ever been in school could tell you that it is often not what is said in the classroom, but how it is presented that bridges the gap between hearing information and absorbing it.

Visual Cues

A contact officer can use basic hand signs to reinforce a command or clarify a request if not fully understood.

One useful sign in the above-mentioned scenario would be a calming gesture. Put your hands in front of you, fingers open and palms down. In conjunction with requesting that a suspect calm down, use an up-and-down motion to reaffirm this request. This empty-hand motion can be seen by a disturbed suspect, even if he does not hear the officer's request for whatever reason. It could be a language barrier, hearing impairment, traffic noise, or any other host of reasons. The important thing is that the contact officer's intent is clear, regardless of verbal communication.

In addition to making the officer's request clear to the subject, a hand signal can be seen by witnesses. People across the street would be able to see this officer's request for calm, despite what could happen later. The witness could say on the stand that although he did not hear anything spoken he did see an attempt to calm the person. This offers not only tactical but also legal survival.

The same tactic can be used in administering field sobriety tests. When directing a possibly intoxicated driver to an appropriately safe area away from his or her vehicle, motion your hand or arm toward the area you want the person to go. This leaves no question as to the officer's instruction. The officer can testify that he or she not only told the suspect to step into a specific area, but also pointed in that direction. A visual command in addition to a verbal command is added insurance in this instance.

But some body language can complicate a message. An interview position is a common stance that can lead to misunderstandings. Some may view it as stiff or rigid, which can be a good or bad thing, depending on the officer's intent.

With the body bladed, hands up in a ready position, the interview stance conveys tactical readiness. In some situations this may be the desired message. But even if you are giving perfectly understood directions that promise no threat, this is the message your body posturing will send. This may be the best thing to do, but remember that sometimes it may stymie communication.


When encountering two suspects, an officer can direct one while holding the other suspect using non-verbal direction.

As for anyone who questions the safety of having your hands up instead of poised and ready to deploy equipment, there are drills in both firearms and defensive tactics that begin with the student in an interview or even the surrender position because in any situation, you never know what you will encounter. Practice drawing your weapon or other device from a variety of stances or positions in training. Always use "but if this, then that" thinking.

Lessons Learned

Sometimes the simplest gestures elicit the best response. Watch other officers to see what hand signals they use to gain compliance from people. I've learned a few from colleagues that I now use myself.

I recall a respected veteran officer from my younger days who was a hulk of a man and a great street officer. His trademark move was to raise one
finger extended from his huge hand to his lips while he made the shushing sound used to quiet a child. He did this often and got the silence he requested. Many scoff at this because it is not some macho or martial arts maneuver, but it worked. This gesture should not be done in a condescending manner to belittle a person, but if used appropriately it is another alternative for seeking voluntary compliance.

Another signal I now use on the job was one I witnessed at an accident scene. A child was injured and while the paramedics examined and stabilized him, his parents arrived. If you have ever had to restrain a mother who wanted to see an injured child and expected the worst, you know the scene. The paramedic looked out of the ambulance window and gave the mother no more than a thumbs up (could have been the universal "OK" with index finger tip to thumb). It worked. It cut through the noise of the scene and calmed her. Lesson learned.

One Direction Does Not Fit All

There are those who want officers to understand all the nuances of every culture. While this is a nice idea, I do not think it is possible. The United Nations has an entire staff that addresses these protocols; law enforcement officers do not have this luxury.

Whereas one successful non-verbal command may be accepted in nearly all societies, it may have a mixed meaning in another. When I was involved in planning for the Summer Olympics in Georgia, we attempted to train officers in what are acceptable practices to most cultures and nationalities. It would be folly for me to suggest that one non-verbal command will fit all situations or cultural groups, especially if you are working in a jurisdiction where there is immense cultural diversity.

Deciding which hand signals to use should fall to you and your department's trainers. You know the composition of your jurisdiction and what cultures live and work there. I would suggest that you or your trainers contact the outreach groups for the cultures represented in your community or the local university to seek out even further understanding of local people's customs so you'll know how best to clearly communicate with citizens and gain their compliance.

Don't Compromise Your Safety

There are times when tactical demands require that you forgo the use of hand signals with suspects. But in such a case you might be able to use similar signals to wordlessly communicate with colleagues in tense situations. When you can use these tips to your advantage, use them.

The biggest complaints made about officers are usually due to a lack of communication or understanding. Coupling simple hand signals with verbal commands may assist you in some field contacts. But use them when you deem them appropriate. The ultimate goal is always to maintain your safety and survival.

William L. "Bill" Harvey is a member of the Advisory Boards of POLICE magazine and the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA). He was a longtime trainer for the Savannah (Ga.) Police Department and is the Chief of Police of the Lebanon City (Pa.) Police Department.

Tags: Defensive Tactics


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