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  • Robert Farago

Cop Talk

It’s what they say AND how they say it

A great many officer-involved shootings involve cops shouting the exact same command over and over. “Put the gun down! Put the gun down! Put the gun down!” BAM!

Click here to watch a bodycam video that highlights the problem. The woman in the car stole from a liquor store and tried to flee. The cop shot her.

Before he opts for a ballistic solution, the officer repeats the words “get out of the car” eleven times – despite the fact that the driver wasn’t responding to his command.

Click here to watch a video where two police officers fail to gain physical control of the suspect for more than two minutes. Again, focus on what the cop is saying.

The main officer speaks in a calm and respectful tone – as per de-escalation training. It doesn’t work. He fails to get the man to cooperate or the woman to back off.

He says “we’re done” to the male suspect four times – to no effect. He instructs the female suspect to back up ten times – to no effect. The result: an officer down.

I did a short stint as a reserve officer in The Land of Enchantment. Hands up. I never faced an armed suspect. But I observed my fellow officers’ tone of voice and word choice.

They used a commanding voice and cop jargon (e.g. “I observed” instead of “I saw.”) The not-so-subtle message: answer my questions. Follow my instructions. Because authority.

When that doesn’t work, then what? Here are some verbal, body language and mental techniques to increase officer safety.


Colonel John Boyd of the USAF developed the construct known as the OODA loop: Observe Orient Decide Act.

Boyd trained pilots to win air-to-air combat by getting “inside” their opponent’s OODA loop. By being faster.

For police, there’s another way: interrupt the suspect’s OODA loop. If you disorient a suspect, they can’t get past the “orient” phase to act. Or, as they say, act out.

Distraction works, the more unexpected and left-field the better. Hey, where did you get those shoes?”

If you tell someone “don’t think of an elephant,” they’ll think of an elephant. If you ask “where did you get those shoes?” they have to think about their shoes – if only for a moment.

Their thought process is interrupted, their OODA loop disrupted. An officer can use this technique as an opener, or when a command doesn’t work.

Tell them to relax

We all have a mental script for interaction with a cop: how we think it’s going to go.

For lot of people, their first police contact is a distant memory. A bad memory. One of many. It’s no surprise they’re expecting the same thing to happen again. Or worse.

Even people who’ve never dealt with an officer are often mentally prepared for life-threatening danger. It must be said: media vilification of police has a lot to answer for.

A suspect may have never had a positive authority figure in their life. They may view any exercise of authority as a threat, and respond accordingly.

The cop in the second video begins by lecturing the perp. When things start going seriously south, he threatens the suspect (“I’m going to add charges”).

The officer is appealing (if that’s the right word) to the suspect’s rational mind. It does nothing to calm him. Quite the opposite. In fact, the perp may not be capable of rational thinking.

It’s not all about drugs or mental illness. The stress of a police interaction can trigger a subconscious fight or flight response. Panic attack? Call it what you will, they’re not thinking clearly.

The good news: a highly agitated suspect’s subconscious mind is open to suggestion. That’s why simple authoritative commands work. Except when they don’t.

The opposite is worth a try. A simple statement in a soothing voice: “Christine. Everything’s going to be alright. Just give us a little space to work this out. Please. Help me out.”

I’m not saying playing “the good cop” will work. I’m saying that being exceptionally nice and genuinely supportive in a high-stress situation can create compliance.

In the first video, the cop could have rapped on the window, smiled and said “Hi there. Do me a favor? Please lower your window so we can talk” instead of “get out of the car!”

Take off your sunglasses, smile

Humans are sensitive to other people’s eyes; how wide they are, the amount pupil dilation and where they’re looking. If a suspect can’t see a cop’s eyes, the cop isn’t human. They’re a robocop. That’s a bad, bad thing.

By the same token, a smile should be a police officer’s default expression. There’s a reason people talk about a “disarming smile.” Mastering it should be a high priority.

If a smile and kind, reassuring words aren’t effective? Bonus! People don’t expect someone who’s smiling to be violent. A smile gives a cop a vital second of surprise that can mean the difference between life and death.

Expect the best, prepare for the worst

To be calm, comfortable and relaxed in a potential life-or-death interaction requires training – before the interaction.

Cops should have regular shoot/no shoot training (with actors and simunitions). The fact they don’t is a travesty that leads to tragedy.

Failing that, visualization is vital. Mentally rehearsing dangerous incidents. Imagining a peaceful resolution and a violent one (with a successful outcome).

Done regularly, a cop will be more relaxed, more rational and creative when shit gets real, so that they don’t fall prey to a full-on fight or flight response, and make bad decisions.

Be careful out there

Cops’ duty belts have lethal and non-lethal weapons. Their most important weapon is between their ears. The more verbal tools and psychological tricks they have ready to rock and roll, the better. For everyone’s sake.

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