Verbal Commands

Verbal commands very often set the tone for the ultimate outcome of police encounters, including SWAT operations.

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At the beginning of nearly every law enforcement force continuum are verbal commands, considered to be the least forceful method of gaining subject compliance.

Verbal commands are so basic they can be easily overlooked or dismissed as unimportant. 

However, the opposite is true. Verbal commands very often set the tone for the ultimate outcome of police encounters for SWAT. Verbal commands have been an integral component of law enforcement from the earliest days of policing.

Verbal commands today are usually preceded by the identifier: "Police!" Followed by any of the following commands: "Freeze," "Don't move," "Show me your hands," "Hands up," "Get down," "Down," and other equally descriptive easy-to-understand commands.

What is the purpose of verbal commands? To identify us as Police, followed by immediate compliance, further followed by control of the subject(s). Ask any street cop why this is important, and they will say "officer survival."

So what does this have to do with SWAT? Let's start with the most common SWAT verbal commands today. "Hands Up!" and "Get Down!" and other similar variations.

"Hands Up!" has been around as long as police have. For good reason. Hands are where suspects hold weapons, so it makes sense to gain immediate control of a subjects' hands.

"Get Down!" is a far more recent command, probably first used tactically in July 1976 during the Israeli commando hostage rescue at Entebbe Airport. The Israeli commandos determined that controlling 100-plus hostages could lead to chaos and, in the confusion, provide the terrorists time to kill hostages. 

So the Israelis came up with the idea of ordering everyone to "Get Down!", figuring only the hostages would comply. However, the terrorists would likely refuse to comply and instead remain standing to kill their hostages and commandos.

The plan worked to near perfection. Nearly all of the hostages immediately dropped to the ground, while the terrorists remained standing and were cut down by the commandos. However, at least one hostage stood up-to point out the terrorists-and was killed by the commandos who thought he was a terrorist.

After Entebbe, SWAT teams everywhere began adopting the "Get Down!" command that today, 32 years later, has become the preferred verbal command for many, if not most, SWAT teams. However, many other teams continue to employ the tried and proven "Hands Up!" command.

I can make a case for both commands. Each has proven track records and fierce advocates. As with all tactics, there are pros and cons to both. Why do different SWAT teams prefer different commands? Which commands work the best? Why or why not? Are commands situational (adapting to the situation)? What about verbal command combinations?

"Get Down!" isn't always applicable. What if it's a vehicle takedown? What if the suspect is already lying down? What if a prone suspect's hands are hidden from view? Why not follow "Get Down!" with "Show me your hands!"? What if you need to pass through or by multiple subjects to reach the target? These, and other situational considerations are what happen in the real world of SWAT. It really boils down to something called common sense, as in what will work best under the given circumstances.

It's desirable for every SWAT member to know which verbal commands to say and when to employ them. I can make a case for both commands and have, in fact, employed both on many occasions.

My personal preference is "Hands Up!" Call me "old school," but I want to see their hands. And by "up" I mean straight "UP!" as high in the air as possible. This technique works-and works well-especially in tight quarters, where you need to reduce the threat while passing through to reach your target.

To enhance its effectiveness even further, "Hands Up!" can be immediately followed by "Face the Wall!" and/or "Don't Look at Me!".

"Get Down!" advocates readily point out that suspects are still standing, posing potential threats to the entire team, whereas suspects proned out are a far less threat.

This is where prisoner handlers come into play. They follow up by commanding suspects to kneel down (hands still up), then cross their legs, and interlock their fingers behind their heads. Thus allowing prisoner handlers easier control. And control is the important thing.

Which verbal command is best?

The one that works best for you and your team is the best. You need to believe in your tactics, and also to be consistent, including which command is primary, secondary, etc. Every team member needs to be on the same page.

Training is how you gain consistency, along with situational flexibility. Training means commands become second nature for all team members. You'll get your reward from how smooth and effective real world missions are accomplished. Positive reinforcement of success eventually makes believers of even the most ardent doubter.

When it comes to tactics, if you 100 SWAT officers, that's how many different tactical opinions you'll have. Most SWAT teams I know are fiercely loyal believers in their tactics. At the same time, the more tactics we know and learn, the more effective and adaptable our teams will be.

Despite any differences of tactical opinion, the SWAT community is always learning from each other. I look forward to hearing from you, the readers, whether you agree or disagree with me. The main thing is to continue honing our tactical expertise to a constant razor-sharp SWAT edge.

About the Author
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SWAT Sergeant (Ret.)
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