I Learned About Policing From That: Body Language

In May 1992, I worked the midnight shift with the West Palm Beach Police Department. In the six short years I'd been a police officer, I was happy with the way my career was going. In 1989 I was selected for SWAT and to assist in training defensive tactics and firearms, and assigned to the field training officer (FTO) program.

I always remembered a training point drilled into us at the police academy and later by my FTOs: "Watch their hands; it's their hands that can kill you." I kept this in mind, but over the years I thought there was more to it than just the hands the warning signs had to start earlier, with body language.

Just as fighters exhibit subtle body movements prior to striking, a subject's body will show similar, if not the exact, movements prior to an attack. As a young martial artist, I took an interest in this and watched videos of fighters to learn what I could about body language. I also watched people in public, at the mall, restaurants, wherever I could. My preparation paid off because on that early May morning, a subject's body language spoke and I was listening.

Around 0300 hrs my trainee and I responded to a business alarm. After checking the business, we pulled into a large parking lot to write the report. My trainee was in his last two weeks of the program, so he was doing all the work as I graded him on his performance. During this portion of the training period, the training officers were allowed to dress in civilian attire. I was dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt with my service weapon concealed underneath in a belt holster.

While my trainee wrote up his report, I noticed a male subject walk across the parking lot away from one of the businesses. I made a mental note of his description, and after my trainee completed the report, I suggested we find the subject and check him out. I got on the radio and called in the suspicious subject.

When we arrived, another officer close to our area had already stopped the subject to speak to him. We pulled in behind the subject and faced the officer, who was giving the subject a verbal lesson on life in a very relaxed manner, one leg up on the front bumper of his car, an arm leaning on his knee. My trainee exited the car and took a position as a cover officer. As I remained inside the car, I listened to this officer talk to the subject, but more importantly, I noticed this quiet subject's body language, unheeded by both officers, which told me something bad was about to happen.

The Signs

As I continued to listen, I watched the subject, who stood squared to the officer and about half a car length away. The subject repeatedly brought his hands up to his waist and touched his belt line as if he were adjusting his large, untucked shirt. From my angle, his eyes seemed to shoot back and forth between the officer's face and sidearm. I watched this movement recur several times. He then adjusted his stance by dropping his right foot back just slightly. The officer continued to talk and never picked up on this movement; neither did my trainee.

At this time, I thought I should get out of the vehicle and intervene. As I exited the patrol car, I eased the door open and slowly closed it until I heard the click of the lock engage, trying to be as quiet as possible. I moved swiftly but quietly around the back of the patrol car and behind the subject. When I got within arms' reach of him, I placed my left hand on his right shoulder. He was slightly startled but remained surprisingly calm. When he looked at me, I said, "Hey, how's it going?" as I ran my right hand across his waistband.

Adrenaline & Reaction

It took a split second for me to feel the grip of a handgun. I was shocked. Adrenaline flooded me like nothing I'd ever felt before, and then my training kicked in. In one motion, I gripped the handgun, stripped it from his waistband and threw it into a grassy area about five yards from where we stood. My motion didn't stop there. My right arm recoiled and I struck the subject across his left shoulder as I lowered my center and took out his right leg, dropping him where he stood. This fast, aggressive action took care of the situation, allowing me to stabilize and handcuff the subject.

After all was said and done, my adrenaline still surged and anger came over me. I was angry with the officers who stood there shocked. I was angry they missed the body language, or as Tony Blauer calls it, "pre-contact cues," those subtle or not-so-subtle signs an attack is about to happen. I was also angry with myself for not reacting to the signs faster.

Lessons Learned

My trainee and the other officer could not believe what had just occurred. They asked me several times, "How did you know he had a gun?" I told them I didn't know he had a gun, but his body language and several signs indicated something was about to happen and I had to act. I immediately went into debrief and discussed with the officers what I observed. I described the subject's actions, both the overt and subtle. This was a crash course in Body Language 101 for all of us.

Every so often when I see the two officers, we talk about that night. We laugh about it, but in the back of our minds we know how lucky we were. Each defensive tactics class I teach contains a unit on body language, either in simulation training or with a video.

Law enforcement technology has changed quite a bit since then. Now most patrol cars carry the dashboard video, which some consider detrimental, but in reality protects careers and lives. As trainers we must regard the dashboard video as a training tool to review use-of-force situations, officer-to-subject positioning and subject body language. I use training videos of incidents recorded by other agencies' dashboard cameras to examine both the good and bad aspects of the officer's positioning and the subject's body language. I replay the tape to analyze both the overt and subtle movements of the subject to give the officers a thorough view of a subject's body language prior to an assault.

Training our officers to "Watch their hands!" is still the correct thing to do, but let's train them to look further at the subtle hints of an impending assault revealed by a subject's body language.


John P. Riddle is a sergeant with the City of West Palm Beach Police Department. He is currently assigned to the training staff in the staff services division. During his 21 years of service, he has worked patrol, street-level narcotics, SWAT and training. Contact him at jriddle@wpb.org.

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