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Columns : In My Sights

Reading Body Language: Leaky People

Don’t ignore suspects’ non-verbal cues signaling impending danger.

April 14, 2011  |  by Dave Smith - Also by this author

Illustration: Sequoia Blankenship.

I was reading up on body language the other day and I was struck by the fact that even though people are constantly giving us non-verbal messages we just keep ignoring them. In fact, whenever I am analyzing critical incidents I am amazed at the signs and symptoms of a coming confrontation, not just by what is said but by all the physical warnings "leaked" by the suspect.

Experts say when we interact with others we are always "leaking" with our face or body what we are thinking or feeling. My wife, the Sarge, has a way of refusing to acknowledge what I am saying and demanding to know what I am actually "thinking," since I'm apparently a pretty bad "leaker." A leak can be as simple as a look, a pause, a hand held near the mouth, or, as in my case, a desperate look toward the nearest exit combined with profuse sweating.

There are books filled with marvelous descriptions of the many physical signs that give people's true thoughts away if you can pick up on them. And often we do perceive these clues at a low level that comes across as "just a feeling." I once had a sergeant ask me why I had run a check on a fellow who turned out to have warrants. I couldn't say what it was at a conscious level, just that he didn't "feel" right to me.

The real danger for us on the street is when we quit listening to that little voice, that intuitive feeling that should make us pay more attention, or "get ready to rumble," as a famous voice whose name no one actually knows often says.

As law enforcement officers we are almost always dealing with people who are stressed either by circumstances or our presence. They are leaking anxiety out of every pore, and after awhile we tend to stop paying attention to this important information. Even con-wise institutionalized criminals leak some information. You just have to be willing to look for it.

I want you to take a few minutes to reflect on the dirtbags you have caught in recent months. Even the "smooth" criminals probably displayed several key behaviors of deception and anxiety.

There's the fellow who stepped out of his car and put his hands up in a surrender motion, the lady who covered her mouth every time you asked her about the possible warrant that just popped up, or the little doper who kept turning his body away and was looking off in the distance as you asked him about the odd smell that perfumed his clothing. These are all common examples of people with information they don't want you to know but just naturally escapes from their brain into their faces and bodies...It leaks out.

The hard part for us is that regular folks getting a citation or being interviewed are generally stressed by us, and they can leak the same way criminals do. All this leaking eventually causes us to start ignoring it as "interference" instead of a "signal" filled with important information we need to pay attention to. So many officer-involved confrontation videos show the suspect leaking like mad just before the incident and the officer just ignoring it. In these videos the bad actor is stretching, yawning, looking at the officer's firearm, and on and on.

The problem is we don't tend to review regular traffic stops where the violator is yawning, stretching, and looking at the officer's firearm. Nervous people act nervously, and our concern is what the heck they are nervous about. Is this their third ticket this year or are they thinking about how to kill us? What to do?

Let me leave you with two things to consider. First, trust your instincts, since often our unconscious mind perceives the truly "hinky" leaks and tries to tell us through a nagging sense that something's wrong. Second, always use good tactics and you will be better prepared for the results of having missed any signs.

In studying video after video, I've found the real difference wasn't whether the officers read the signs, but whether they had proper positioning or poor, good techniques or bad, and a mindset to never ever give up.

Dave Smith is the creator of "Buck Savage" and a retired law enforcement officer from Arizona. Currently, he is the lead instructor for Calibre Press' Street Survival seminar.

Comments (2)

Displaying 1 - 2 of 2

Brian Sharritts @ 12/18/2012 6:11 PM

I would like to thank the Phoenix police department for not shooting me. One morning at 1:30 I was walking to get picked up by a work associate and three cop SUVs pulled up behind me and told me to freeze. I put my right hand up and instinctively reached with my left hand for my wallet and ID. Very stupid of me as the sillouettes of the officers became apparent with blasters drawn. "Hands up" they commanded and began checking me for an armament. After the frisk down they told me they were responding to a call of some one brandishing a firearm and I told them I was on my way to work to bake. They released me and I got picked up by my work associate. I have been replaying the occurence in my head lately frequently and realising I could have been very dead as the body language I exhibited by reaching for my wallet so quickly could have been read as an imminently hostile situation. Mad respect for cops even having been on the wrong side of the law as a juvenile.

Louis Laszlo @ 8/31/2015 9:58 PM

Well Brian, sticking your hands in your pockets or in any concealed area without first letting the police know what you're doing and making sure you get their approval is a pretty good way to risk getting shot. But I can see an innocent person doing just that simply because they have no nefarious thoughts or intent, or understanding of how the police think. It seems like we, the citizens, who are supposed to be the ones being served and protected, must work awfully hard to make the police feel comfortable enough so we don't get killed. Anything we do or don't do, can be deemed a threat. It just isn't right.

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