Officer safety: Developing a "spidey sense"

Hopefully these tips can help officers pick up on subtle indicators before the offender commits to the attack

As a reviewer of use-of-force reports, it has always rubbed me the wrong way when I read the phrase the attack “came out of nowhere.” No one, not even your most terrible felony prisoner, can actually materialize out of thin air. 

What the officers really mean to say is that they had poor tactics or they lacked awareness. More common, however, is that officers do not identify and/or recognize the threat early enough to address it. 

Hopefully these tips can help officers pick up on these subtle indicators before the offender commits to the attack.

First step to assessing hostile offenders is a visual evaluation. Where are the offender’s hands? What does the offender’s body language tell you? 

Obviously we can see the difference between an offender with his shoulders down, eyes sheepishly looking away and an offender with his biceps flexed and an intense gaze. That’s easy, but what are some of the less obvious attack indicators? 

Look at the offender’s foot positioning. If they have a bladed stance that means that they are most likely preparing to initiate some type of movement. It doesn’t mean that they will be violent but if you’re having normal conversation and they look like they are about to be active, you should be too.

Watching the offender’s hands is equally if not more important. It is said that it’s the hands that will kill you. If an offender is about to attack, they will often times make a fist and then release it nervously. This is the offender either deciding if they are going to make a move or deciding when the right time to initiate that move is. 

In addition, watch for offenders that “talk with their hands.” If an offender is getting animated, we have to identify the movement that may turn violent and stop it before it gets to that point. These attack indicators, along with others such as the thousand-yard stare and the puffing of the chest, are in themselves not enough to justify a use-of-force; however, the totality of all of these indicators may be enough to go hands on. 

Another avenue of information that is sometimes overlooked comes straight from the offender. What is the offender saying? How is he saying it? What does he actually mean and WHY is he saying it? These are all questions you should be asking yourself when conversing with an offender. Sometimes you might get the key piece of information you need to avoid using force all together. 

Time for a quick story.

I was fingerprinting a recently booked inmate who looked like all I needed to do was say the wrong thing and the fight was on. I noticed a tattoo on his forearm that said “Angel.” I asked him about it and what it represented. 

I did this just to keep him talking and not thinking about fighting. The result was better than I had intended. The inmate lowered his head and spoke “Now you have me thinking about my family.” The inmate then opened his mouth and pulled out a razor blade that he said he was either going to use to hurt him or officers so that we would kill him.  

This was just dumb luck but now I regularly use this tactic to build a rapport with inmates.

The last technique I will share is a simple one but officers often times get complacent with. The technique is just a simple escort hold. One of the main responsibilities of corrections officers is to move people. Whether it’s to court, visitation, or other facilities, we move a lot of bodies. This can also be a tension point that will cause some offender to be aggressive or at least agitated. 

I suggest that when moving these people, keep a hand on them, even if they’re restrained. You can keep hold of the inmate (right above the elbow is best) and go where you need to go. This can be very useful because with any movement the body can make, it needs to move that elbow (among other things) to do it. It’s instinctual to keep balance. Officers can use this to their advantage to detect that movement before it can manifest into something violent. 
If a use of force is necessary, it is vital that these pre-attack indicators must be documented in your reports. It’s easy to forget why we did what we did. All of the looks we receive, the things we’re told, and the resistance we feel has to be included in the report because leaving that stuff out only hurts us. It may be easier to write up a quick blurb of what happened but when the lawsuit comes, that detailed information in writing is invaluable. 

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