Pre-Attack Warning Signs

Stay alert to the cues of a potential attack so you can act appropriately before it's too late.

Mike Rayburn Headshot

It's time we paid attention to what the bad guys are telling us—either through their verbal or nonverbal communication.It's time we paid attention to what the bad guys are telling us—either through their verbal or nonverbal communication.Photo: Michael T. Rayburn

We call them officer-involved shootings, but in reality they're gunfights. Calling our law enforcement officers warriors and gunfighters may not be seen as "politically correct," but let's be real here. If you are shooting at someone and they are shooting back at you, it's a gunfight. The same holds true if someone is shooting at you and you are shooting back at them—it's still a gunfight.

Statistically speaking, according to FBI research, the chances are more likely that the bad guy will be the one who starts shooting first, causing officers to react and return fire. How does the bad guy get the drop on officers and start shooting first? Probably the biggest reason is that they have already made up their minds they're not going back to jail, no matter what.

You may have stopped this person for a minor traffic infraction, and for some officers that's their only mindset: Stop the violator, issue the summons, and then go get another one. Yet in reality, you need to look at every encounter as having the potential to turn deadly—whether from a shooting or other type of attack.

That doesn't mean you walk around paranoid thinking everyone is out to kill you, because that's really not the case. It's not us against them, even if it feels that way sometimes. It means you stay alert to the warning signs of a potential attack, and the warning signs are out there if you look for them. Too many officers either ignore the pre-attack warning signs or dismiss them as being something else.

Verbal and Non-Verbal Signs

What are the pre-attack warning signs? Some are extremely obvious, while others are not so apparent but still detectable if you're looking for them. The most obvious ones are the verbal cues. The bad guy will tell you, "I'm not going back to jail. You're not arresting me. I'm going to kick your a--."

Recognizing nonverbal preattack warnings signs is something we all need to work on, as they are not as obvious. It's said that between 60% and 90% of human communication is body language, or nonverbal communication. A recent study cited Botox as a factor in miscommunication, both in the workplace and at home, for an individual's personal life. This is because other people are often unable to read the "facial expressions" of a person who has received Botox treatments. Imagine giving your spouse some horrendous news, only to have them sit there expressionless with a frozen face. Thankfully, most people's faces and other body language communicate what they're thinking or feeling, whether they realize it or not. If you know what to look for.

Let's take a look at preattack warning signs you're likely to encounter on the job.

Unconscious Body Changes

There are many non-verbal cues signifying a potential attack that the subject might be unaware of exhibiting. One of them is conspicuous ignoring. You're asking this person some questions, and they just stare at you with this blank look on their face. Yeah, it's not Botox. They're ignoring you because their mind is focused on something else. Maybe on how to escape and get away from you, or maybe on how they're going to attack you. Either way, caution is warranted.

Body tightening or flexing of the muscles are other good cues to look for. Subtle ones include the muscles in a person's neck tightening up, or seeing a person's shoulders rise up slightly as the related muscles tighten up. Maybe you'll notice a clenched jar as the subject's face tightens.

A change in breathing is something that's done completely subconsciously. It goes back to our fight or flight syndrome. The brain, automatically, is preparing the person for fight or flight by oxygenating the blood. The brain is telling the lungs to get that air in because something is about to happen for which the body is going to need it.

The Eyes Have It

Quite a few preattack warning signs involve the suspect's eyes. A big one, and it gets overlooked a lot, is target glancing. There are a number of videos out there where you can actually see the perpetrator glancing or looking right at the officer's weapon. Have you ever been talking to someone and noticed that they keep looking down? You probably thought they were just being rude by not looking you in the eye, but they could have been looking at your gun and trying to figure out how to get it out of your holster instead.

As you're questioning a subject he or she may start looking around. The person could be looking for a way to escape, for your backup, or for any witnesses or other people who may try to help you. They may also be looking to see if any of their fellow criminals or gang members are in the area to help them.

For preattack warning signs you'll also want to look at the suspect's eyes themselves. On most people you'll only see the white portion of their eyes on either side of the pupil. On excited or agitated people, you will see white on the top and or bottom of the eyes. Have you ever heard of the expression, "their eyes got really big?"

Persons with dilated pupils are in a state of great emotional excitement or anger and could potentially pose a real threat. Even if the person's eyes are dilated as a result of narcotic use, this person still poses a real threat, as the majority of subjects who assault officers are under the influence of narcotics and or alcohol.

Overt Movements

But not all body movements warning of an attack are so subtle. Squaring off or blading the body is a well-known and easily recognized sign. It's commonly referred to as a "boxer's stance." The subject's strong side foot will usually drop back, and they may crouch a little to lower their center of gravity by bending slightly at the knees and leaning forward a little.

Crowding the contact officer is another sign. If someone is going to assault you with their hands, an edged weapon, or some other personal weapon, they need to get in close to do it. They're not going to stab you from 21 feet away. They're going to close the distance and try to catch you off guard.

Also be on the lookout for exaggerated movements or ceasing all movement. They're stomping the ground, throwing their arms in the air yelling and screaming. Or, they're doing all that, and then immediately cease all movement and become totally cooperative. There may be some mental health issues going on there, but either way it's a preattack warning sign.

Any sudden movement, or any covert movement, should be taken seriously as a preattack warning sign. They could be attempting to conceal contraband, or they could be reaching for a weapon. If you assume they're trying to "hide the drugs," you'll be caught off guard if they produce a handgun and start shooting at you. You never want to be caught off guard on anything.

For example, take notice if you see a subject protecting personal items or rearranging clothing. This includes removing a watch or putting their cell phone "someplace safe." For the guys out west, this could include removing their cowboy hat. It sounds a little clichéd, but it happens. Rearranging clothing could be a means to conceal a weapon, or maybe they're untucking their shirt so they can swing their arms better.

Any attempt at distraction is another preattack warning sign. They could be pretending to look over your shoulder at something. Maybe point behind you to make you turn around. If you're dealing with more than one person, the other person could try to distract you in some way. You see that with gangs, especially in prisons. A small fight will break out; meanwhile, someone is getting shanked on the other side of the yard.

Verbal Signs

Repetitious questioning is another preattack warning sign. You ask them, "What's your name?" They respond with, "What's my name?" You ask, "Where are you coming from?" and they answer, "Where am I coming from?" Answering questions with questions is usually an indicator that the person's mind is preoccupied with something else. It could be because they just got caught doing something wrong, or it could be because they're trying to figure out how to disarm you and kill you with your service weapon.

Be alert for any sudden attitude change evident in words and action as well. For example, a person goes from being uncooperative or not answering your questions to all of a sudden being totally cooperative, maybe even calling you sir or ma'am while responding to your questions. Think about this for a minute. They go from telling you they're not going back to jail, and then a little conspicuous ignoring where they don't answer any of your questions, to then all of a sudden being totally cooperative with yes sirs and no sirs.

They told you what their plan was; they're not going back to jail. They've come up with a plan of attack by ignoring you while you were trying to question them, and now part of that plan is to be totally cooperative to try to get you to lower your guard so they can initiate a surprise attack against you. Reading this chain of events makes it seem like all of this is a long drawn out process, when in reality it could take just a few seconds.

Pay Attention

One preattack warning sign by itself may not be enough to determine if the person you're dealing with is in fact going to attack you. However, when you recognize two or three, or even more, warning signs clustered together, it's a good bet that you're about to be attacked in some way by the subject.

Action is always faster than reaction. Even if the bad guy pulls his gun first, by being aware of these warning signs you can cut down your reaction time, allowing you to respond and counterattack more quickly.

These warning signs have been around for a long time. This isn't even the first time I've written about them, and yet officers continue to either ignore or not understand their meaning. It's time we paid attention to what the bad guys are telling us—either through their verbal or nonverbal communication.

Michael T. Rayburn has been involved in law enforcement for over 30 years. He is a former adjunct instructor for the Smith & Wesson Academy and is the owner of Rayburn Law Enforcement Training. He can be reached at

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