Title: “Key signals for the survival of a law enforcement officer”
Author: José Manuel Petisco Rodríguez
English translation: Jose Pacheco García
Most people are unaware of the impact of their gait, position, gestures and even the tone of their voice when being chosen by some criminal as potential victims. Just us animals selects their victims looking for vulnerabilities, the criminal, usually select people who instinctively are perceived as a fragile target. But what happens when the target is a law enforcement officer?
From my point of view, the criminal will be guided by the same principles as a predatory animal, as is shown by several FBI investigations related to the security of public order (Pinizzotto & Davis, 1999). According to these investigations, the police officers signals clearly mark the way in which criminals interact with them.
We know that every individual has a characteristic way of sitting, standing and walking. Proof of this is that we are all able to recognize our friends and family from a long distance, just due to their gait or position. According to Flora Davis (1976), the way we move, sometimes is as personal as our signature, and often is an indisputable key of our character. But, if a law enforcement officer, by his nature or any other reason, does not transmit authority and confidence with their gestures and postures, can he gain confidence and security by adopting gestures and postures that convey precisely those messages?
Following Paul Elman’s teachings, a world renowned authority in the field of gestures, we could say “yes”. Ekman (2003) confirmed that an intentional facial expression change, adopting a particular emotional expression, causes similar physiological changes that occur if the facial expression would has been spontaneous. We also know that the facial expression may affect the mood influencing the way we move. According to Flora Davis citations, when a person goes through a long depression period, the body goes awry and the shoulders are bent because of the problems weight (Davis, 1976). Ray Birdwhistell (1970), meanwhile, studied the motion of people’s bodies and hands in numerous videos from the 70s and beyond, concluding that concerned people walk with clenched fists. We also know that concerned people show this concern walking (hands behind, head down, etc.). Besides, this concern may cause the movement to seem hesitant or the gait awkward.
All these examples come to emphasize, once again, the clear connection in psychology between thoughts, emotions and behavior. Therefore, we might say that what is going on in the mind of an individual finally is transferred to the external behavior. In this regard, a public authority agent, worried, or going through a stressful situation, facing their personal safety, may be more vulnerable than other who is not troubled or stressed. Instead, a brisk walking could denote a great vigor and have a positive impact on a vital image. For Pease (2006) the walk of young, healthy and energetic people, swinging arms above, forward and backward, it’s faster than most people walk (probably because they have more vitality and muscle flexibility).
Therefore if we intentionally adopt certain postures or facial expressions, we begin to experience the emotions associated with these postures and gestures, denoting safety, trust or authority, contributing to feel more secure, confident and positive about the control over the situation. Furthermore, others believe we are secured agents, confident and in control of the situation. For that reason, it would be important, for all members of the Security Forces, to know what gestures and postures convey trust, confidence and authority to other people.
At this point, if the above is correct, it would be interesting to train Security Forces in two different, but closely related ways: the observation of other people´s gestures and body movements, which may be indicative of a potential safety hazard as well as being aware and knowing what gestures and postures convey trust, confidence, or authority towards others.
In this regard, there are enough publications of a certain rigor highlighting the possible readings of the gestures that we show, but unfortunately there are few studies that demonstrate what signals emitted by an agent make him a potential victim of the criminal, or what signals make the offender give up the idea of attacking, remaining “docile” to him. What influence may the Agent´s gestures and postures have? May his appearance or the peculiarities of his voice have influence? May the message content that sends have influence? It seems clear that we must investigate and look into this matter.
For example, before an identification request by an agent, what signs might indicate that a suspect will run? Which one is going to respond aggressively? What gestures denote submission? Warning signs of a possible escape attempt, such as facial expression, eye movement seeking a way out, a change in the orientation of their feet, gestures to run away, could be identified as useful. Regarding gestures that may indicate an attack towards the agent, we could pay attention to hands clenched into fists, putting hands into pockets or inside the vehicle looking for something, the facial expression denoting anger or rage, whether hits some stuff or himself (to increase adrenaline levels), etc.
It is clear that criminals, like predators, do appreciate the potential vulnerabilities of their victims and when in doubt choose an easier “prey”. Therefore law enforcement officers should always be aware of the non verbal messages they give to suspects with whom they interact. Do they transmit doubt and insecurity or security and authority?
We know that indicators like the agent’s voice or certain behaviors may affect the offender behavior in one way or another, but no studies have shown exactly which those indicators are. Intuitively, we could say that an authoritarian voice opposed to a friendly voice, or a secure gesture against a wave of doubt or insecurity, may be some of those signs. Do not convey the same image certain energetic movements than slow and lacking energy movements.
Other signs, based on the behavior of predators, may be related to the agent’s appearance. So, an obese agent could be more vulnerable than an agent with an athletic appearance, or a tall and heavy agent could give a greater impression of control over the situation than a smaller agent, or a young agent may be more vulnerable to an offender than a veteran agent.
Can the way he looks, the gestures that he issues, the way he walks or talks tell a criminal that this agent will be a difficult target? As we have stated, we cannot know for certain what signals are those that contribute to make a decision by the offende, fleeing, attacking the agent or following his instructions faithfully. What is clear is that, from my point of view, the entire range of Security Forces should be trained in the nonverbal behavior areas, because their conduct and the impact of their actions are the key for his survival facing an arrest, or to the daily tasks required by the normal performance of their duties.
Learn more at
Birdwhistell, R. (1970). Kinesis and context: Essays on body motion communication. Filadelfia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Davis, F. (1976). La comunicación no verbal. (L. Mouglier, Trans.) Madrid: Alianza Editorial.
Ekman, P. (2003). El rostro de las emociones. Signos que revelan significado más allá de las palabras. (J. J. Serra, Trans.) Barcelona: RBA Libros S.A.
Pease, A., & Pease, B. (2006). El lenguaje del cuerpo. Cómo interpretar a los demás a través de sus gestos. Barcelona: Amat, S.L.
Pinizzotto, A., & Davis, E. (1999, Junio). Percepciones de los delincuentes. ¿Qué mensajes envían los agentes del orden a los delincuentes? FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 68(6).