Dangerous Body Language: A Thousand Words...None Spoken! Darting Eyes

A Thousand Words…None Spoken! Is a quote from a law enforcement and security professional participating in one of the workshops I presented a few years back on dangerous body language. It was his way of grasping and understanding the concept of non-verbal communication as it relates to fine tuning his abilities of, pattern recognition and in understanding the subtle signs and signals of danger otherwise known as dangerous body language.

In the article Recognizing the Signs and Signals of Crime and Danger I wrote about these non-verbal signs and signals. This series on the web-site we will take a deeper look at these signs and signals one by one and break them down in attempt to help all in getting a better picture, snapshot or what COL John Boyd called “orientation” of what's going on when we encounter people on the streets.

I am breaking these signs and signals down to explore, and discuss in detail their meaning. It is critical to remember when attempting to read people and make sense of the non-verbal sentences their body sends out while we interact with a potential adversary.  We must observe, orient, decide and act in context with the unfolding circumstances.  A non-verbal gesture standing on its own may mean nothing in particular when it comes to assaultive behavior, unless of course it’s a spontaneous furtive gesture, so it’s also important to read the non-verbal signs and signals in clusters, more than one gesture at a time. Multiple gestures may mean more stress, anxiety and hence heighten your anticipation of a deception, disruption or pending attack. It is also important look for congruence when reading nonverbal signs and signals, “do the subject’s words match his body language and the situation?”

Darting Eyes

As you arrive at the scene of a domestic violence call and tactically loiter in the shadows of the night outside the home gathering information on what may be going on, a male subject walks out the front door unaware you and your back up are there. As he begins to unlock the door to his car parked I the driveway, you both approach and catch the subject off guard. You tell the person you are there in response to a domestic disturbance. He instantly turns towards you squared off with his arms folded across his chest. He tells you he and his wife just had an argument and that he wants to leave.  You tell him you just want to make sure that everyone is ok and that once that determination is made, you will be on your way.

You quickly confer with your back-up, who decides he will check inside to confirm whether or not all is ok. As your back up turns and walks up the front walk, the male subject begins bouncing up and down on his toes. As you ask him what happened, he begins to tell you again it was just a verbal argument. You observe the subject is quickly glancing back and forth between you and your back-up. As your partner gets closer to the door the subject begins pacing back and forth while his eyes dart quickly back and forth between you, your back-up and now towards his car and then towards the road. His voice is rising higher and higher as he speaks to you. Your thought is that he is emotionally charged and angry. Your presence has seemed to escalate his emotional state and he continually tells you he wants to leave. You again tell him to hang tight a few minutes until you get to the bottom of what's going on. The subject tells you “this is none of your business; it’s a personal matter between him and his wife.” As he speaks he closes distance with you. You quickly advise him to stay back and he steps back, his eyes glances again towards the officer now knocking on the front door and you, then his car and then the road.

You are an observant officer and these signs are telling you the subject is in a high state of anxiety and that he is contemplating either assaulting you or looking for a way out, a way to escape. You direct the subject to sit down on the driveway and he asks why? You tell him, look I do not know you, nor do I know exactly what happened inside, you appear to be very upset and about to do something rash that may escalate this problem to something even more serious.  Please for my safety and for yours grab a seat!

The subject stops suddenly, takes a deep breath and complies with your direction to sit. You continue your interaction with the subject asking him to explain what happened and he begins to tell you that the argument did get physical and that he pushed his wife. About this time, a second back-up officer arrives on scene and the officer inside the house comes back out to advise you that the wife was a victim of assault and battery. You take control of the seated subject, placing him under arrest without further incident.

The observations made at the scene of this incident, helped resolve the situation without further escalation of violence. The body language shown by the subject, squaring off, pacing, combined with a raised voice and darting eyes helped the observant and situationally aware officer deescalate the situation.

Darting eyes is a sign that the subject is planning and plotting something. Darting eyes is a way of trying to deceive you into thinking he is cooperating while he is contemplating options while sizing up the scene and determining options. Will I stay and cooperate, will I try to escape or are the odds against me and I will, must cooperate. Darting eyes could be a sign of just checking out people in the room, or it could be looking for an escape route, or an opportunity to assault or take advantage in some other way. They could also mean the subject is looking for possible witnesses or for assistance from other associates or criminals. Remember context is the key to proper orientation of the signs and signals a subject is sending. Your awareness and tactical options are enhanced by understanding the meaning of nonverbal communication. Recognizing, interpreting and responding to darting eyes in a climate of violence will help position you to a safe resolution.

Recognizing the signs and signals of crime and danger and being able to interpret them, in context with the environment and circumstances, takes commitment on the part of individual law enforcement and security professionals. The subtle signs are the signs we as professionals must see, to seek advantage and maintain control. Observing the signs and signals early in an encounter will prevent the escalation of violence. How? By not allowing the situation, to get, out of control. Seeing the subtle signs and signals, understanding them, gives law enforcement and security the advantage necessary via decision making, to maintain control by taking the initiative and seizing opportunities.

Conflict is a clash between two complex adaptive systems. Dealing with adapting adversaries you cannot predict exactly what’s going to happen next, because there are things going on that you cannot see, or hear. For example: the numerous thoughts going through an adversaries mind: “I will do what I am asked,” “I will not do what I am asked,” “I will escape,” “I will fight,” “I will assault,” “I will kill,” “I will play dumb until...,” “I will stab,” “I will shoot,” “he looks prepared I will comply,” “he looks complacent I will not comply,” etc. It is important to remember that the adversary has his own objectives; also, they have plans that conflict with the friendly side, therein creating further conflict and hence the need for adaptation. Understanding dangerous body language, (a thousand words…none spoken!) just may give you the edge you need. 

Stay Oriented!

Fred