Recognizing the Signs and Signals of Crime and Danger – Part 1 | Law Enforcement & Security Consulting

“In seeing victory, not going beyond what everyone knows is not skilled. Victory in battle that all under heaven calls skilled is not skilled. Thus lifting an autumn hair does not mean great strength. Seeing the sun and the moon does not mean a clear eye. Hearing thunder does not mean a keen ear. So-called skill is to be victorious over the easily defeated. Thus the battles of the skilled are without extraordinary victory, without reputation for wisdom and without merit for courage.”

Your duties require, you make observations to detect potential threats or criminal activity. As you stand your post or patrol your sector, just what is it you are looking for? What are the things that alert you to wrong doing? Alert you to danger? This post will be the first of two parts and will focus on the signs and signals to look for in the performance of our duties to help us prevent crime and threats from taking place and keep us safe while doing so.

Your on patrol, the day is sunny about 55 degrees. All has been quiet thus far during your shift. As you pass by a service station at 30 mph you note a tow truck, a flat bed with two vehicles loaded. You think to yourself, “nothing unusual here, a gas/service station and tow truck, with two vehicles on board; all seems OK? Then you note there are no markings on the door of the commercial vehicle. “Maybe they forgot to put the magnetic markings on before their service call you say to yourself as you pass by. I am sure its fine? Hell, your intuition, shouts loudly, I better check it out. You do and solve a major case involving automobile theft and salvage for profit.

The question here is what linked this officers mind to the tow truck with cars, on the flat bed, at a gas/service station? Isn’t that normal? Isn’t that where they belong? Yes they do belong; they fit a pattern of whats normal. The abnormal (no markings on the vehicle) is what triggered this officers intuition and told him something may be wrong. His response, ultimately prevented this particular crime from taking place, as well as solved numerous open cases in several other jurisdictions. This subtle sign triggered this officers orientation to criminal wrong doing. A fine tuned Boyd Cycle, running smoothly and intentionally activated, solved this series of crimes.

The obvious, is just that, “obvious.” A smashed window and a man standing next to this tow truck with a crowbar in hand quickly turning away from this officer and hurriedly, fast walking to the drivers door with the apparent intent to leave the area, would have been a more obvious sign that something was amiss. Anybody, cop or not would recognize this second scenario as a probable criminal act taking place. The same can be said about the person reaching towards the waist band, shouting I am going to kill you, would be the great probability of the person in question reaching for a gun… After a high speed pursuit the man who quickly exits the vehicle and run away is trying to evade capture. The person who gets out of the vehicle, hands held in the boxers position coming towards the officer, most probably wants to fight.

The obvious signs of danger are indeed clear signs of a particular intent. They are signs we should be able to see and respond to accordingly. These obvious signs are important to observe and respond to. But the obvious signs are often the latter stages in the game. It is the little things or what I call the subtle sign and signals that give us the edge, which give us the initiative and advantage in dealing with crime and danger.

In past posts we have talked about the Boyd Cycle and how important observation, orientation, decision and actions cycles are to gaining an advantage. The Boyd Cycle is about developed patterns, patterns of conflict as COL Boyd put it. We develop these patterns or characteristics through individual training and experience. We develop, over time, an intuitive understanding of what is right and what is not. What is normal and abnormal? Then consciously and subconsciously respond accordingly.

Not everything we intuitively sense, through observation, will be a crime taking place or a dangerous set of circumstances. We must also be inquisitive, look deeper into the circumstances that drew our attention. This inquiry may simply prove what looked wrong was not a crime or danger at all, but may be a person in need of assistance or some other type of service? The persons with tow truck in the above example could have been just doing their job and had forgotten to place the signs on the door. A quick registry and document inquiry could have proved normal activity. However the initiative driven officer whose initial intent was to stop and advise the markings were not on the vehicle, determined through observations, something was abnormal. What he was seeing, hearing and feeling, during this initial inquiry told him there was more going on. He stated: “eye contact being poor, they seemed to want to leave in a hurry and end the contact. They answered questions before they were asked.” All signs of possible deceptions which upon further review were indeed deceptive. The officer’s inquisitive nature and intuitive understanding of signs and signals related to crime and danger, told him something abnormal was going on.

What is abnormal or suspicious A question that should be asked more often in our professions a question that does, have answers? Abnormal is defined as: “unusual, exceptional, irregular, not normal.” as compared to Normal: “regular, standard, usual, and common.” The ability to differentiate between the two is critical to our ability to detect, prevent, avoid, defuse and resolve crime, crime problems and threats to do harm. Putting circumstances in context which they occur based on what our individual perception or orientation is telling us is key to understanding, “whats going on?” It is also important to understand that not all things are as they seem. When we are discussing subtle signs and signals we must expect the unexpected and be prepared, through keen observation, orientation, decision and action skills, to respond accordingly based on the facts and circumstances presented.

Crime and violence do not just happen. There are signs and signals presented long before the crime is committed or the assault take place. Seeing a man approach you pointing a gun at you, is an obvious sign of danger. A man getting out of a vehicle after being stopped for speeding and angrily demanding to know why you stopped him is a clear sign of high anxiety. When he continues to shout and closes distance with you after repeated commands to get back, is a clear sign of impending attack. After an assault by this man he disengages, goes to his vehicle and retrieves a firearm! The answer to whats about to take place, based on the context of the situation is obvious. This is a worst case scenario of a person about to inflict deadly force and your orientation, decision and action should be clear.

Obvious signs and signals of crime and danger can be clearly seen to the trained law enforcement and security professional. Yet they all too often go unseen or are seen too late. The most common danger signs experienced, however are subtle feelings, a hunch, you intuitively know something is wrong. The alert observer that listens to his intuition based on facts and circumstances presented at the time can seek advantage and prevent crime and dangerous circumstances from unfolding. The ability to observe these subtle signs and signals and orient to what they are telling you, can give you the clear advantage in dealing with conflict.

My experience spans 28 years between military and law enforcement 19 years being a front line officer and grunt. I have also spent those 28 years training myself and others in the military, law enforcement and security professions. What I have seen is a lackluster approach to observation skills and decision making training. I do not say this to be unjustly critical. Its just the way it is… I am guilty myself of focusing mainly on the physical skills required to handle conflict. However over the last 6-7 years it has occurred to me that if we are serious about officer safety and preventing crime and violence we must fine tune our mental skills. This is where the focus of training should be. The physical skills training is a must also, but our approach has to balance all realms of conflict to be successful. Understanding what to look for the signs and signals is a good place to start.

What are signs and signals of danger or crime? The signals are perceptible signs telling you something bad, illegal is occurring, about to occur or has already happened. Most perpetrators of crime and violence do not tell you their plans beforehand. To the protection professionals of law enforcement and security, its important to understand their acts or intended acts will show themselves in body language or non-verbal communication. The research states that non-verbal communications accounts for 65%-85% of communication. These statistics even if we take our merit on the low side of this statistic, reiterates the importance of our situational awareness, a smooth functioning Boyd Cycle.

The Boyd Cycle; a clear understanding of the observation, orientation, decision and action “OODA Loop” is a key first step. In the training LESC conducts with law enforcement and security professionals, this tactical decision making and threat assessment tool is a prerequisite that gives us the clear initiative in detecting crime and danger. The Boyd Cycle is a mental tool that helps us first understand how conflict unfolds, as well as, allows us to observe keenly through “all our senses” including intuition. What is going on? If we are to understand completely as is humanly possible what the circumstances are telling us, we must understand and utilize this concept. To see the subtle signs and signals, understand them and react to them gives us the advantage. This advantage I submit, will prevent through, “decisive action” most scenarios from escalating to violence. Why, because you took action, early in the situation and gained control. The Boyd Cycle in combination with knowing what to look for, paying attention to details, and the little things is the catalyst to successful resolution of crime and violence.

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