Part 2: Recognizing the Signs and Signals of Crime and Danger | Law Enforcement & Security Consulting

By a man’s fingernails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boots, by his trouser-knees, by the calluses of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt-cuffs, by his movements, by each of these things a man’s calling is plainly revealed. That all united should fail to enlighten the competent enquirer in any case is almost inconceivable.” ~Sherlock Holmes, 1892, from the Definitive Book of Body Language

In Part 1 of Recognizing the Signs and Signals of Crime and Danger, we discussed patterns, the normal and its reverse, the abnormal conditions of conflict. We also discussed how a fine tuned Boyd Cycle can enhance our abilities as protection professionals to orient to our current environment. To sharpen our skills we must study and learn the subtle signs of danger as well as those obvious to us, if we are to adapt and evolve, to more efficient, preventer’s of violence. Subtleness in human conflict, comes in the form of “body language.” The understanding of non-verbal signs and signals of anxiety, or pre-attack, pre-crime, indicators are crucial to our orientation and safe resolution to dynamic encounters.

Life is predictable most of the time, most people act in certain “normal ways.” Obviously we all have differences as well, but most normal human behavior is somewhat, predictable… When it comes to safety and security and those that would do us harm, what is it that we in law enforcement and security should be looking for to help us prevent and resolve violence and crime? What’s suspicious or telling, that something is wrong or amiss? What are the signs and signals telling us? How do we utilize the signs and signals to help us maintain order and control of that small percentage of predators, who wish to do harm? Part 2 of this article will focus on the non-verbal signs of danger that show, when things are out of the realm of normalcy. What are the signs and signals, their meanings in context of law enforcement and security encounters? How to seek initiative and gain the advantage through reading the non-verbal signs and signals of crime and danger?

First things first: If we are to read non-verbal communication (body language) in the context of conflict we must understand that conflict is inevitable. Conflict is part of everyday life and most conflicts are resolved through communication, without ever being brought to the level of violence. However when it does go bad and escalates, the very nature of violence, is chaotic and unpredictable. So it is important to note; the observer of the overall circumstances surrounding a potential violent encounter takes in to consideration the environment he is in, the overall picture and his perception of whats happening. This is based on experience, possessed through the individual officers knowledge of his job, training he has had throughout his life and career as well as any new information presenting itself at the time of the encounter. Reading body language is both an art and science and takes training and practice to develop and utilize the skills properly. Nothing when it comes to predicting violence is 100% accurate. Conflict is defined by Don Vandergriff in his book “Raising the Bar” as “a clash between two complex adaptive systems.” These systems (humans) have their own plans and agendas, moves and counter moves in an effort to get what they want. This must be understood clearly first if we are to seek the advantage we want to control and resolve conflict safely.

In The Definitive Book of Body Language, it describes three rules for accurate reading. Rule 1. Read gestures in clusters. This means no one gesture in isolation of other gestures or circumstances is an effective sign of anything. Body language, a gesture can have many meanings and its based on seeing the whole picture. So look for clusters of gestures to read what the body is telling you.

Rule 2. Look for Congruence. If you ask a person you’ve made contact with, a question, his body language must match his verbal response. An example I have seen often in law enforcement and security; Are you going to cooperate and comply? The subject answers yes and his head turns left to right, right to left saying no… The body language is incongruent to the verbal response yes and the head gesture, saying no!

Rule 3. Read gestures in Context. All gestures should be considered in the context in which they occur. If for example a man was taking an exam rubbing his hands back and forth through his hair it could be a sign of test anxiety or frustration with a question, and means no harm to anyone. if on the other hand the man was in a police booking room and as part of a cluster of gestures he ran his hands through his hair or across his head, could mean anxiety, related to his freedom being taken away. A potentially dangerous set of circumstances that must be dealt with accordingly, before it escalates. In this article on Recognizing the Signs and Signals of Crime and Danger all gestures should be considered with these three rules in mind.

The eyes: The thousand yard stare, a person looking through or beyond you is a clear sign something abnormal is going on. Whether the person is thinking and putting a plan together, to run, escape, give up, or to assault, is being considered. That look into nowhere is a look inside the individuals mind. He is running through options. The action he chooses is based on “his” orientation of the situation, everything thats going on, taken into consideration. Gaze avoidance, or a failure to make eye contact with an uniformed law enforcement or security officer is another form of deception. Looking away or avoiding eye contact is a way of mentally hiding. This goes back to childhood. Remember when, you were a child playing hide and seek? There you are hidden in the obvious spot, eyes closed hoping not to be discovered.

More serious plots bring about the effect of gaze avoidance as well. For example; the terrorists that by-passed security in one of the airports on 9-11 withheld eye contact from security officers as they passed by. This was found after reviewing and analyzing security tapes from Dulles International Airport. Another example:an officer approaching an individual and the proverbial turn and walk away as if you were not seen. Again avoidance of eye contact. In the interview setting at the point of a critical questioning and a response is warranted, the subject looks down or away, again a sign something maybe amiss, or a possible sign of deception. When you are up to no good or lying, you divert your eyes away or down from whom you are trying to deceive. This according to research, is a normal human response to deception, guilt, embarrassment and shame.

Dilated or constricted pupils, is a sign of possible drug usage, legal or illegal. Dilated pupils are also a sign of survival stress (High Anxiety) and we should remain alert and prepare to take initiative to control the situation. Important to note, when face o face with the unknown.

The eyebrows are a sign, what is known as the eyebrow flash, could be either a hello or an indication of surprise or fear based on context of the situation. Furrowed eye brows, could be a sign of anger or aggression. Widening of the eyes, shows dominance or possible aggression. Widening of the eyes are an involuntary enlargement of both eyes, which takes place in situations of high stress, and emotion… Darting eyes, could be a sign of just checking out people in a room, looking for an escape route, possible witnesses or for assistance from other criminals. Blink rate, is another import sign of anxiety and stress in an individual. A normal blink rate is approximately 20 blinks per minute. As stress and anxiety heighten , so does the blink rate. Slowing of the normal blink rate is less common, but is also a sign of high stress. In some, the rate almost comes to a complete stop, eyes wide open with the whites of the eyes exposed 360 degrees.

Observation of the eyes and an understanding of the involuntary information they give to law enforcement and security professionals is critical, to controlling dynamic encounters.

The nose and mouth: is a critical location to watch on subjects we deal with in the law enforcement and security professions. We live by bringing into our system, oxygen. A normal breathing rate is somewhere between 12 and 20 breaths per minute. However when a subject is in a potential conflict, where his freedom may be at stake, significant increase in breathing rate takes place. You will note flared nostrils or a wide open mouth and the chest rise and fall at a more deeper and rapid pace. This natural effect opens the mouth and the nostrils flare in an effort to get the oxygenated blood to where it needs to go, the gross motor muscles, lungs, legs, and arms to prepare for the perceived potential fight or flight. Lips are another place to watch closely. A subject full of anxiety, lips may curl or tighten in a moment of decision making.

The jaw and neck: When we are fixed on a feat of strength, some of us clinch or teeth or bite our tongue in an effort to perform the strenuous action we choose. This clinching or biting is unconsciously shown, its right there, plain to see. Think about yourself in the gym, about to lift some heavy weights or remember back to moving a heavy piece of furniture and looking across at your partner with tongue out or teeth clinched in an effort to assist. Someone skilled at deception and who knows himself will attempt to disguise this. The skilled observer can see the jaw moving slightly. This jaw clinching, also moves the small muscles in the neck. Watch also for raising or lowering of the chin. Chin up! Possible flight! Chin down! Possible fight.! My experience has been either one of these chin up, or chin down, are accompanied by a slow deep breath and then action! Also the carotid artery is in the neck and when the fight or flight kicks in the pulse rate can be seen plainly, sending out a message anxiety is present. Subtle signs and signals presenting themselves.

The Skin: Before we move on to the rest of the body lets talk of the signs and signals the skin gives off. First thing thats noticeable to the observant security or law enforcement officer, is the color of the skin. Is the skin suddenly flushed? Look for sudden redness in the face and ears. A sign survival stress is kicking in, as this happens blood pressure rises and skin color changes to red or bright pink. This rising of the blood pressure can also result in the area of the face becoming pale colored. Again survival stress causes this opposite reaction in some. The gross motor muscles need blood pumped into them, to prepare for action and simply the blood run from the small blood vessels in the face into those areas and is obvious to see. You can also note this effect in the neck and upper chest area as well, so be observant and heed the signs. Sweating or perspiration, is another sign to watch for. Look in the area of the forehead or brow and the upper lip for drops of perspiration beading up. This is again a result of survival stress and the bodies physiological response to anxiety and stress.

The Shoulders: The shoulder shrug you will see take place usually in combination with a lot of head movement right, left up and down. You will also see an overall submissive body position, leaning forward with palms of hands open and facing upward or towards himself. This is a sign of uncertainty and helplessness or submission. Be alert for the shoulder shrug as it may be an opportunity to talk your subject into compliance.

Chest: The chest brings us back to breathing rate. Normal breathing in a healthy person is around 12-20 breaths per minute. Under pressure and anxious the breathing rate increases. This breathing rate in combination with an increased heart rate will show itself and the trained observer who pays close attention will note this change. The chest will rise and fall at a more rapid pace. The heart rate in the warmer months can be seen beating through a tee-shirt of a would be attacker or person committing a crime you come in contact with. Take note as to whether or not the chest of the individual you have made official contact with is squared off. Facing someone when you have nothing to hide is normal upper body positioning. If the subject is bladed or positioned at an angle, deception, attack or distance away from you are possible objectives.

Legs, Feet and Overall Body Positioning: Watch the legs and feet. Positioning of the legs squarely the subject is not in a good balanced position, for an assault. he can assault but its not the best position. Most would be attackers will stand as long as they can flat footed and squared off in an effort to lull you into complacency. When the survival stress kicks in and you begin to see the subject moving his feet and legs into a bladed, balanced “Fighters Stance” with hands either moving up into a boxers position or held down along his sides with finger extended out, more than normal, the potential for attack is prevalent. The more obvious is bladed body hands up in boxer’s position. The more subtle gesture, is the extended fingers at his side. this is done in an attempt to deceive you. In most cases where I have seen this cluster of gestures the fight comes suddenly and furiously. You must be alert, and take initiative quickly through decisive action to regain control.

Watch for “happy feet” the continued bouncing up and down rapidly on the balls of feet, is a sign of anxiety and stress as well as the high likelihood of fleeing. Assault could also be the motive behind this signal. You will see this signal in clusters with darting eyes and chin up with the subject leaning in the direction he wants to go accompanied by a slow deep breath at the moment of decision.

Distance and relative positioning are key to staying safe. How you control the subject and approach, if approach is necessary, will be paramount to you seeking advantage. You want to control the subject, not the other way around. So be alert for a subject who closes distance with you. This closing of distance could be done quickly in an overt attack, or it could be done subtly and slowly and then attack, once the subject has gained the advantage of closing distance. Do not get lulled into complacency! Turn Boyd On! and pay close attention to all subjects movements and immediately keep him in your control.

The Hands: Last But Not Least. The hands known in the law enforcement and security realms as “Deadly Hands”, hold the tools that can cost you your life, or cause injury to you. The hands grip firearms, knives, clubs or any other object that can be turned into a dangerous or deadly weapon. The hands and arms personnel weapons such as fists, fingers, edge of hand, arms and elbows can cause serious damage by a committed assailant. You must break all you have been taught when it comes to eye contact, while speaking to others. what mom and dad taught as a sign of respect can get you seriously hurt or killed. I know this seems simple but the informal parental training and life experience from birth to present, of doing the respectful thing (eye contact) can be a hard habit to break. But it can and must be done.

An example of not seeing “Deadly Hands” from training: This scenario was a force on force free play exercise, using simmunitions! I played the bad guy. My role was a man with a gun emotionally disturbed. The lesson was to get the responding officer to see the gun and respond accordingly. The responding officers were told they had a suspicious person acting strangely, and given a brief description. No mention that I was armed! A single officer responded and made contact with me. The gun was in my right hand from the start, concealed behind a leg or crossed armed, under an armpit. As soon as contact was made and conversation began officers immediately made eye contact. I was role playing a emotionally disturbed person so I started talking and shouting and at the same time exposing the gun (a full size 45 colt). The first exposure was about hip level, then a little higher and higher. 30 percent of the officers did not see the gun and respond until it was almost shoulder height. A smaller percentage did not see the gun until I fired upon them! Most did not visually observe the gun until the second exposure to it… The lesson: We must scan the hands first, make sure they are free from any weapons. Then once we initially see free hands and open palms, scan the rest of the body constantly and efficiently up and down, all a round, throughout the contact. This is your Boyd Cycle working. Observe, orient, decide and act constantly to insure, no weapons get into the hands of the subject. This takes serious training. I say serious training, but training comes in many forms. This can and should be done on every contact you make. Constantly scan and observe, every contact looking for weapons, location of hands, are they wearing rings, watches etc. are they carrying anything soda, beers, tools, keys, anything. this will enhance your ability to fine tune this skill as well as become better at reading body language as discussed throughout this article. One more key thing when it comes to deadly hands. You must clear “both hands” If you find a weapon in one, you must make sure there is no weapon in the other, an obvious, yet often overlooked tactical consideration.

More signs and signals from the hands: It is important to note that the hands are one of the most expressive body parts. The hands show emotion, ideas and point to things of interest. Those things of interest, can be internal thoughts to do harm. The hands hold more signs and signals than obvious weapons. Watch for drying of the hands. A subject may be nervous and begin to get sweaty palms and subtly dry them on his clothes, usually the thigh area of his pants or the front of his shirt. This drying of the hands could be just to simply remove the sweat from the palms or the drying could be to prepare to grab and assault. Look for hand gestures to the face another sign of nervousness and anxiety. Hands to the head or running the hands through the hair in what is called “grooming” or self-stimulation.” This is a sign of high anxiety when we become fearful or deceptive. Knuckle popping, stretching fingers, is a sign of loosening up for potential attack.

Placing hands on hips, elbows out and looking or turning away, is known as the “Confrontational Gesture.” This person is in a NO mindset and will need to be watched closely with officer initiated, strategy and tactics to maintain control. The confrontational gesture is also in some cases accompanied by a cessation of communication and completely ignoring you.

Watch the hands for rolling up shirtsleeves or removing hats from the head and placing it in a “I do not want my hat ruined during the fight location.” A sure signs of a physical confrontation. Arms folded across the chest is a sign of defensiveness, its used as a subconscious form of protecting one self and gives the internal feeling of “I’m safe” or “you cannot get me.” Watch for the hands rubbing arms or any other area of the body, again this is self stimulation and is used as a form of comforting ones self in stressful situations.

The palms of hands send signals, the obvious being they should be empty of any weapons. More subtly they give a bigger picture of whats going on. Open palms facing up is a sign of submission. Open and turned towards himself, means he is upset mostly with himself although still anxious. Palms open and facing you accompanied by questions like; why are you doing this to me? What are you going to do now? These are signs the subject is angry and upset with you. If the subject simultaneously closes distance, it could mean impending assault.

As we discussed the hands and arms naturally move a lot. The reversal of that and a key that something is amiss, is lack of movement or sudden cessation, of the hands and arms. This is important to note as the lack of movement could be used to mask a hidden weapon, or its an attempt by a street smart, experienced criminal to control his body language. A sudden cessation of movement means decisions are being made, “fight, flight or give up?” Make note of “nothingness when it comes to non-verbal communications, especially the hands. It is just in most cases not “NORMAL!”

Short choppy gestures: When you see hands and arms moving in short choppy gestures accompanied by a verbal barrage of anger directed at you, be prepared for an assault to take place. This is a form of psyching oneself up for ACTION! When you see this, ACT and take control of the subject. An impending attack is highly likely.

The Killing Gesture: When it came to eye contact I was little hard on mom and dad and their early training to always make eye contact. I will give them an A+ when it comes to “Pointing” as it has always been taught by mom and dad as being rude. In the context of a law enforcement or security officer contact, it is known as the “Killing Gesture.” The index finger pointed towards an individual already emotionally aroused will indeed illicit a hostile verbal or physical assault. We must be careful in utilizing this gesture and in reversal we must prepare to remain mentally calm when its directed towards us. I have seen the pointing gesture used all to often by officers in an effort to gain control. I have also seen it brought to a heighten level of “Declaring War” by tapping the index finger on the chest of a unruly subject. Avoid the “Killing Gesture” unless there is a good tactical reason for doing so. If its a habit? Break it!

Tactical use of the Killing Gesture: To get a response in an effort to see if you have an assaultive person or not. Example if you have a person who is violently directed verbally, talking about how he is going to harm you. Your verbal communications has not curtailed his verbal attack and you are unsure of his true intent. Is he all bark and no bite, or is he about to assault? You determined you need to take action to control the individual. You may want to simultaneously point towards the subject, use a more stern voice and demeanor, and move towards the subject, in an effort to show you will tolerate no longer the escalation of his behavior. “Turn and place your hands behind your back,” Sit down on the ground,” something to that effect. Based on the reaction, you control him for your safety, or if he raises the bar and becomes assaultive use reasonable force or disengage and wait for back-up. I have seen this work in our favor on occasion ending with the verbally abusive subject giving up before it escalated out of control. Nothing is 100% guaranteed in conflict, so you must base it on the circumstances taking place. Obviously if you can wait for back-up you do so. If no back up is available you have to make judgments as to your actions. You base this judgment on experience and the fingertip feel (fingerspitzengefuhl) and presence of mind you have. Taking into account the unfolding circumstances, environment and your equipment, skills, training, verses his. This is critical and you must adapt and make the judgments necessary for successful resolution. The Killing Gesture I focused on the tactical use of because it is often over used as I mentioned above. If you are going to use it, make sure its thought out.

Knowing Thyself: Sun Tzu in the Art of War said; “Know yourself and know your enemy you will be safe in every battle. You may know yourself but not the enemy. You will then lose one battle for every one you win. You may not know yourself or the enemy. You will then lose every battle.” We have covered the signs and signals of crime and danger and what they mean in context of law enforcement and security. I want you to keep in mind that we need to control and use our own body language as well, if we are to seek the advantage we are looking for in an effort to control danger and violence. The obvious method of working on this is through training ourselves to control our responses to remain mentally calm in the face of adversity. We are human and this takes practice, like any other skill we want to develop. The first step is to train yourself not to take things personal… I know it is easier said than done, but it can be done! Through self-analysis and an honest assessment of our strengths and weaknesses and making changes to improve. Most of the people we deal with are looking for control of their lives back. We are the professionals and must first keep ourselves safe, and then attempt to resolve conflict, not encourage it out of some mis-guided sense of ego we possess. If we can do that, we put ourselves in control of our own emotions. And our tactical judgments and actions are not made from a reaction of fear or anger, but instead, of sound judgment based on implicit and explicit information obtained from the environment we are in at the moment.

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. Its my belief that seeing the signs and signals early in an encounter will prevent the escalation of violence. How? By not allowing situations through lack of observation and orientation 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 through initiative. Body Language is 5 times more valuable than the verbal communications. As professionals its time we refocus our efforts more intently on this valuable information.

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