When it comes to an officer's lawful request, I tend to regard just about any act of non-compliance as a threat or, at the very least, a red flag.

Non-compliance may be indicative of everything from the poor guy having a diabetic seizure to a s.o.b. hell-bent on killing you. All too often, it's simply a matter of an individual being clueless.

Whatever the cause, it generally portends some manner of a threat—the danger of your over-reaction or under-reaction to the act; the possibility of an escalating situation; or the prospect of you coming under attack.

Sometimes your reaction is a no-brainer: "What the **** are you doing here?" asks Citizen Kane in a hockey mask, while firing up a McCullough Chainsaw with nary a tree in sight.

Most of the time, you need to evaluate the nature of your request against the level of resistance you receive in response to it. Your request may be something as simple as asking someone to provide identification, exit a vehicle, sit on the curb, or put out a cigarette. Non-compliance can be the person simply asking, "Why should I?" It could also be putting a car in gear and punching the accelerator.

"One size fits all" cops may be tempted to treat each instance by immediately going to Defcon 5 and carpet bombing: Welcome to the Municipal Theater of the Absurd.

You have to do several things simultaneously. Watch for telltale facial cues, where eyes are wandering, and just what the hands are up to (see Mike Seigfried's excellent primer, "How to Watch the Hands"). Trust your police instincts and see where the person's overall behavior falls within your reference point of experience. The one thing you don't want to do is make more of a situation than what's at hand.

Divorce your ego from the equation, particularly when there is no evidence of an imminent assault.

Often, the person asking, "Why?" is simply one who subscribes to the "Question Authority" School of Thought. Unfortunately, they don't all adhere to the "When Authority Answers, Listen" School of Diplomacy. Here's where a little verbal judo can go a long way.

If you have the luxury of time to answer the person's questions, then do so. If he persists in his refusal to cooperate, the fact that you attempted to engage him in conversation will work to your favor in any subsequent review of the incident.

If the situation is one wherein you suspect it may be a matter of a personality clash, ask for only specific units to respond. This will keep the officers involved limited to those you want on scene (people adept at talking agitated people down) while preventing needless frustrations from others (the cop whose Indian name is He Who Pisses Off Many).

At all times, continually evaluate what the person is truly angling for. Is he grandstanding for the benefit of onlookers? Attempt to remove his audience. Is he stalling for time to orchestrate an attack or escape? Take a protective posture, and possibly get units rolling. Is he even in his right mind? The situation may call for intervention that is beyond your skill-set.

The one thing you have undeniable control over is yourself and your response to the situation. Your goal is to resolve the situation using the lowest degree of force possible.

But make no mistake about it—non-verbal assertiveness may come into play. Someone may even end up with contusions or TASER barbs in his ass. Let's hope it's not you.

If you do contemplate the use of a TASER, be cognizant that there is a sizable difference between non-compliance and aggressiveness. Such facts came into play in the recently decided case of Bryan v. MacPherson.

The case revolved around a Coronado (Calif.) cop and a non-compliant 21-year-old motorist he Tasered. Factoring in the Ninth Circuit's ruling were these key facts: 1) the subject did not aggressively approach the officer and was not even facing him when Tasered; 2) the subject was wearing only boxer shorts and tennis shoes, ergo was visibly unarmed; and 3) the officer should have known that by deploying the TASER X26 might, the suspect might fall face down on the asphalt and smash four of his teeth (which he did).

The court went out of its way to cover the officer somewhat by claiming that because there was arguably a gray area that was not addressed in a precedent case, the officer's mistake may have been borne of ignorance. The next cop won't be so lucky.

That's why in dealing with non-compliant individuals, always "balance the amount of force applied against the need for that force." That's the criteria by which your actions will be evaluated.

That evaluation can become unnecessarily complicated in the aftermath of an incident involving multiple officers and a variety of weapons.

In one incident, a distraught woman wielding a weapon said that she was about to surrender to one officer's instructions when she was shot and wounded by a second officer for failing to comply with his. Given the sometimes conflicting orders one encounters in the field ("Get your hands up!" or "Keep your hands in your pocket!"), it's a wonder that such things don't happen more often.

This is why it's imperative to leave no ambiguity as to which officer is responsible for verbally engaging a subject.

Another thing that can help gain compliance is allowing non-LEOs to engage the person. In those instances wherein the suspect is visibly unarmed, you may want to consider having a friend or relative talk with the person. Of course, you'd damn well better trust that this third party has everyone's best interests in mind, and isn't apt to add fuel to the fire ("Shoot it out with 'em, Billy Bob!!").

When it comes to using force, we've all heard horror stories of cops who have Tasered geriatric grandmas and pubescent terrors (I'm still negotiating with Fisher Price for four-point restraints for brats). I'm not so sure that some of these incidents couldn't have been prevented.

Worse still are those occasions when firearms unnecessarily come into play, and cops end up losing their careers and their freedom. I'm not talking about those hits on officers' careers initiated by feds and executed by judge or jury, but those that by any objective standard are wrong. I'm talking about those who find snowballs as constituting deadly force as defined by Tennessee v. Garner and end up pointing a Glock at kids.

If you anticipate that force is probable—and you have the opportunity to do so—request a field supervisor.

A supervisor can prove an asset on multiple fronts. On larger departments, they often have a means of recording the incident (assuming that your dashboard cam or clip-on camera isn't already recording). Often, they have a greater array of less-lethal tools in the trunks of their patrol vehicles. Finally, they can assume control of the situation in directing uses of force.

Normally, I'd say such advice would be redundant, but too often cops allow themselves to get caught up in the immediacy of the moment and forget to get Sam on the radio before committing themselves to some unfortunate action.

In no manner am I discouraging cops from taking care of business when they have to. Nor will you always be able to even attempt to gain voluntary compliance. It's hard as hell to strike up a conversation with some dirtbag while you're chasing his ass over hill and dale and trying to give him a cost-benefit analysis of his current course of action.

If you can engage a person verbally, do so. Remember the magic words when all else has failed: "Is there anything I can say or do that will gain your compliance?"

If you do find yourself having to "go assertive" only to end up letting the individual go on his way—say, incident to a felony T-stop that turns out to be an uninvolved civilian—then do a little more than the usual dust-off.

I still hear stories from people who were roughly detained and suspected that there was some justifiable reason for the treatment, but it was never communicated to them by the involved officers. This generally leaves bad and long-lasting impressions, and doesn't help the next poor bastard with a badge in dealing with said civilians later.

By conditioning people to reasonably expect some explanation at the back end of a situation, they will not be so reticent to comply on the front end.

I'm curious: How do you feel about concepts such as verbal judo? Has it worked for you? Or do you think that it is the citizen's obligation to comply with an officer's commands-no questions asked? What has helped you to talk down someone who was categorically not going along with the program?

Author

Dean Scoville
Dean Scoville

Associate Editor

Former associate editor of Police Magazine and a retired patrol supervisor and investigator with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, Sgt. Dean Scoville has received multiple awards for government service.

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Former associate editor of Police Magazine and a retired patrol supervisor and investigator with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, Sgt. Dean Scoville has received multiple awards for government service.

View Bio
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