Interpersonal Communications and Officer Survival | Law Enforcement & Security Consulting


According to FBI statistics, over 50,000 law enforcement officers are assaulted each year. One out of every three officers assaulted is injured, and approximately 70 officers make the ultimate sacrifice in the performance of their duties, losing their lives. While safety and survival issues have made great strides over the last twenty years, we are still missing a vital link to that survival training: the understanding of interpersonal communication and how it relates to police officer survival. We study interpersonal communication in an effort to get more productivity out of organizations and more satisfaction out of our personal relationships. An important link, however in interpersonal communications is the relationship between a law enforcement officer’s encounter with a citizen and how that communication—read properly or improperly—relates to survival on the street. The subtle signs of danger that are often missed by officers are key to an officer’s winning conflicts on the street, whether through verbal persuasion, hands on defensive tactics, or deadly force.

To insure that the reader has a full understanding of what law enforcement officers face when handling dangerous encounters, we will first look at the law and what information law enforcement officers must know and understand thoroughly in order to reduce friction in decision making. Second, we will look at an actual incident that I have used training law enforcement officers. This incident starts off as what we in law enforcement call an “unknown risk incident.” It is a car stop initially that slowly turns into an all-out assault on the officer, an assault that I believe could have been prevented if proper observations, orientations, decisions and actions were made and taken. Finally we will discuss the Boyd Cycle, how it relates to this particular case study and its overall importance to law enforcement officers when understood and used properly. The Boyd Cycle will give law enforcement the edge it needs to win on the street, the edge necessary to take the initiative and defend themselves physically from dangerous encounters. For those reading this article it is important to understand that this paper is specifically related to how understanding the Boyd Cycle and non-verbal communication can save a law enforcement officer’s life!

The law

We look to the law in the area of use of force to gain a better understanding of the types of issues law enforcement must contend with in dynamic encounters. In the U.S. Supreme Court case, Graham v. Conner (1989), the Court mandated that the correct test to measure the appropriateness of an officer’s actions is by using the “objective reasonableness” standard. The reasonableness of an officer’s actions is not subject to interpretations from others outside of the profession but is to be judged from the prospective of a “reasonable officer.” The Supreme Court went on to say that officers’ actions should be judged without regard to the intent or motivation of the responding officer. Further, such decisions should be made “from the perspective of a reasonable officer coping with a tense, fast evolving scene, rather than with 20/20 hindsight” (Graham, 1989, p. 1872). The Graham decision provides a basis that can be used to examine the role and factors that are important to the legal determination and evaluation of the “reasonableness” of an officer’s actions. However, the decision clearly states that “reasonableness … is not capable of precise definition or mechanical application” Graham, 1989, p. 1981). It is evident that no policy or other organizational procedure is capable of providing precise definition as to what appropriate force is or how much force should be used. Thus, the only approach that can approximate this standard is one that roughly estimates the situational context in which force incidents occur. Kappeler (1997, p. 72) states that these factors include:

1. Whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the officer or others;

2. The severity of the crime;

3. Whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest; or

4. Whether the suspect is attempting to escape custody.

The importance of the factors stated by Kappeler (1997) and the Graham decision cannot be overstated. These factors represent the apparent danger or element of risk both clearly evident and perceived by officers as they arrive at a scene and interact with citizens and suspects. Skolnick (1966) spoke of “symbolic assailant” factors, which are elements of encounters possessed by the suspect. There is a combination of individual, situational, and environmental elements that contribute to the totality of the circumstances. We must examine all of the Kappeler elements, stated above, which identify the perceived risk to the officer or others in the immediate area.

The situation

There are at least three elements that need to be included in any examination of the correct police response. The first element is threat. Threat includes situational clues that are given by the suspect, as well as environmental concerns. The second element is the severity of the offense to which the officer is responding. Past experience of the officer may put the officer on guard as to what type of person or situation he or she is dealing with. Severity of the offense may be considered part of the overall threat perceived by the officer, but in this study, we looked into the non-verbal communication as a predetermining factor of overall threat. In an ideal world this should be the key element that determines if an officer acted correctly in using physical force. However, given the nature of society and the unpredictability of human beings, other situational factors must be considered.

The problem

Law enforcement officers spend months training at the academy, learning criminal law, criminal procedure, use of force, firearms, defensive tactics, community policing strategies, investigations and officer survival tactics, etc. This training is necessary and critical to how they perform their jobs in their communities once out of the academy. Most states and municipal agencies also have ongoing in-service training to keep officers refreshed in the same areas considered vital to the law enforcement mission to protect and serve.

All this training is what is considered the critical tasks of a law enforcement officer. There is, however, one task missing in the law enforcement profession as a whole. That is the understanding of interpersonal communications and officer survival, especially the non-verbal and verbal cues that relate to danger in a law enforcement encounter.

We spend countless hours training our criminal investigators in how to read body language (kinesics) to detect deception and illicit admissions and confessions out of criminals. History and experience has shown that this study of communication in the area of non-verbal and verbal that relate to anxiety and deception is just as if not more critical to the law enforcement officer on the street as it is to the investigator in the interrogation room.

Example: On a cool, clear November night an officer is on routine street patrol in a small town. The officer has made several stops and issued garden-variety citations; no arrests for operating under the influence until he clocks a small Nissan pick-up truck at 70 miles per hour in a 55 mile an hour zone. The driver takes a bit longer than normal to pull over once the officer ‘lights him up’, which sets off a small bell in the officer’s mind. However, thinking the motorist was simply seeking a safe place to pull over; the officer gives it little thought. Once stopped, the motorist exits the Nissan, and the officer asks for his driver’s license. However, the motorist cannot find his license despite much fumbling with his wallet. His two small sons are also in the Nissan, and finally one of them pokes his head out the window and informs his father that mom (for whatever reason) has the license. So, the officer using the subject’s social security number calls dispatch which subsequently informs him there are no ‘wants’ or ‘warrants’ out for the subject. The officer transmits to dispatch in front of the subject and the return information from the dispatcher also is broadcast in front of the subject. The officer later says that had there been any negative information on the subject, his dispatcher would have told him to ‘clear for traffic’, and he would have moved to a location away from the subject. In addition to the subject fumbling, the officer has detected alcohol on his breath. The subject says he had nothing to drink–other than two or three beers earlier in the night. The officer makes the decision to give the subject a ‘breath test, and the test indicates that the subject has a point-12 to point-13 blood alcohol content; legal limit is point-08. The officer decides to arrest the subject and goes back to his cruiser to request back-up, but in the transmission only requests that back-up ‘ease on over’. His nearest back-up is some six miles distant.

As the officer reads the subject his implied consent rights, the subject obviously (in the camcorder tape) begins to ‘turn off’ the officer. The subject becomes very agitated and (paraphrasing) tells the officer that if he’s arrested he’ll lose his job and he won’t be able to pay support for his two sons. He reiterates that several times, but the officer has already committed to the arrest. The subject begins to walk away from the officer, and the officer, surprised, grabs the subject by the shirt collar. The subject and officer nose-to-nose now; the subject tells the officer not to touch his “goddamned shirt” — “don’t touch me…” — etcetera. The officer is just as immovable: “Mr. Anybody, I’m not going to let you go back to that car…” The officer lets go of the subject and is explaining himself to the subject. The subject is standing there with his hands on his hips, looking away from the officer. As the subject and officer are exchanging words, the subject is rolling his shirt sleeves up and then blades his body away from the officer. Suddenly, within a fraction of a second of the subject stepping back positioning his body, the subject throws a tremendous right hook at the officers left jaw knocking the policeman unconscious, to the ground. The subject then leaps onto the officer’s prone figure and inflicts a terrible beating (later determined to be 33 blows). The officer is unconscious for most of the beating as the subject is exclaiming: “I tried to tell you…I tried to tell you…I tried to tell you…”

Then, by a seeming miracle, a passing truck driver and his wife see this drama unfolding and stop by to render aid. The truck driver has a large Mag light and proceeds to strike the subject over the head as hard as he can using both hands. The subject stops beating the officer at this point and rolls over to his left side. The truck driver’s wife has taken control of the subject’s two young sons, who have both leaped out of the truck begging their father to stop beating the officer.

The officer regains consciousness just as the subject rolls over to his left side and although badly beaten and losing strength is somehow able to handcuff the subject and exclaim “10-17″ (urgent call for help) into his shoulder radio.
During the beating, eyewitnesses will later testify, the subject furiously tried to wrestle the officer’s gun from its holster, but apparently due to a double thumb safety lock was unable to get to the weapon. The officer is spitting out blood and teeth and is obviously losing strength quickly as back-up arrives and takes control of the subject. The subject is non-cooperative, and just as the back-up officer reaches down to pick the subject up, the handcuffs open. The back-up officer is obliged to use spray on the subject, before he can try to cuff the subject again. Still, though, as the officer is attempting to put on the same cuffs they give way and open a second time. The pepper spray contains the subject, however, and finally the officer uses a pair of his own handcuffs to control him.


There is a lot going on in this set of circumstances. It is already known that these types of law enforcement encounters are dynamic and rapidly changing events. Also it must be noted that these encounters are analyzed and judged by the totality of the circumstances. However for this case study let’s focus on the highlighted area above, step by step, which illustrates the non-verbal cues that can be read as signs of anxiety or danger signs.

1. Walking away:

§ This is read as a sign of contempt. Contempt for your authority and a sign that the subject is done listening to you.

§ His anxiety level is high and he wants to leave.

§ He is ignoring you.

2. Hands on hips:

§ Known as the confrontational gesture.

§ This is another sign of ignoring you and another sign the subject’s anxiety level is high.

3. Looking away:

§ Again ignoring you. He is done with whatever you have to say.

§ Possibly looking for witnesses, escape routes, preparing to fight or run.

4. Rolling shirt sleeves up:

§ A rather obvious sign of high stress and anxiety.

§ Getting ready to fight.

5. Blades his body away (fighting stance):

§ He is taking a fighting stance and is more than likely about to assault you.

§ It could be a push, a pull, or a punch.

6. The subject becomes very agitated and (paraphrasing) tells the officer that if he’s arrested he’ll lose his job and he won’t be able to pay support for his two sons:

§ This is verbal communication that should send a non-verbal message that things have taken a turn for the worse.

§ Most people do not want their children involved in the interaction between themselves and law enforcement.

§ This subject is dragging his children right smack into the middle of this problem.

§ This is a tell-tale sign of high agitation and anxiety.

This example and these non-verbal communication signs listed above are just a few of the many signs that could be construed as dangerous or indicate a person in high anxiety. When the subject is in this state it is possible for an officer to be attacked, as in this case, or the subject may take flight. No one sign alone means much, but clusters of these non-verbal cues are critical to an officer and his survival on the street. Here ms a list of some more non-verbal signs that fit into these criteria. This list is compiled by former Illinois Police Chief Steve Rhoads, who is a three-time medal of valor winner with the unfortunate experience of being in four gun battles. Rhoads takes his program for ‘Detecting Danger’ on the road both nationally and internationally. The program is cored around two main elements:

1. What do officers need to learn about themselves, to lessen the likelihood of danger?

2. What do officers need to know about subjects that could lessen danger?

§ Head angle indicates fight or flight

§ A dropped chin means fight

§ A raised chin means flight

§ Confirming gesture of fight is a fixed stare

§ If flight, look for darting eyes

§ Watch area around neck for possible attack (upper body muscles)

§ “Happy feet” could be a strong indicator of flight

§ When an officer sees a threat potential, call subject’s attention to it

§ May get him to reconsider threatening action

§ Short, choppy gestures/verbal communication, the threat is real

§ Hands inward/anger inward; hands outward/anger outward

§ Palms in mad at himself

§ Palms out mad at you

§ Watch deadly hands; drying of hands, hands stroking to get dry for attack

§ Multiple gestures and deadly gaze mean likely trouble

§ Knuckle-popping, loosening of fingers, flexing of fingers mean likely trouble

§ Watch setting of hands

§ Confrontation gesture: hands on hips, elbows outward

§ Remember: What behavior should you expect in a given situation?

§ Does the behavior make sense?

§ The face can be a barometer of a subject’s intentions

§ Raised eyebrows

§ Red face

§ Underneath eyes opposite rest of skin surface

§ Fixed, dilated stare

§ Real danger may not be coming from loudest mouth

§ Watch the one not talking

§ Mouth tense, lips down at corners

§ Mouth breathing indication of nervousness, anger

§ Flared nostrils, setting of jaw indication of nervousness, anger

§ Eyes wider during periods of intense emotion

§ Loudest mouth may not be able to take physical action (No adrenaline or oxygen getting into muscle tissues; all being burned elsewhere)


The solution is to train law enforcement officers in the art of detecting danger signs by reading body language and understanding its meaning. The instruction and demonstrations of the signs is the easy part. You see the signs in every situation you are in that goes bad as a law enforcement officer. The good news is that the overwhelming majority of law enforcement contacts end in a civil manner. Most people do what law enforcement asks them to do. The statistics according to the FBI are 97% of police contacts end civilly without any force being used, about 10% of the remaining 3% end in assault situations. The hard part is to get law enforcement to understand the importance of knowing these signs and how they relate to their survival.

Enter The Boyd Cycle

So what do we do? How do we get law enforcement officers to read the signs so they can safely and legally defend themselves on the street? The answer in my mind is obvious. The Boyd Cycle! The Boyd Cycle, otherwise known as the O-O-D-A loop, is a decision making cycle developed by Col. John Boyd U.S.A.F. He developed the cycle over the skies of Korea in the mid 1950’s, while flying combat missions. He determined that conflict was timed, competitive Observation, Orientation, Decision and Action Cycles. The essence for Boyd was human perception, not weapons or circumstances. He once said, “Machines don’t fight wars. Terrain doesn’t fight wars. Humans fight wars. You must get into the minds of humans. That’s where the battles are won.” The O-O-D-A loop put in simple terms is as follows:


· Sensing yourself and the world around you.


· Is the complex set of filters of genetic heritage, cultural predisposition, personal experience, and knowledge.

· Mental image or snapshot of the situation.

· Is what’s happening good or bad?


· The review of alternative courses of action and the selection of preferred course as a hypothesis to be tested.

· Takes into account all the factors present at the time of orientation.


· The testing of the decision selected by implementation.

· You do it!

· “Decisions without actions are pointless.” Actions without decisions are reckless

According to Col. Boyd the key here is to understand that walking through this process is critical to winning conflict. The Boyd Cycle and how it relates to non-verbal communications is simply stated as situational awareness. Being aware of the signs of danger, looking for them with attention to detail, and most importantly once you see the signs, orienting yourself to the signs, understanding what they mean to you as a law enforcement officer. According to Boyd the orientation phase is the most critical. You must make observations, but more importantly you must understand (orient) what your observations mean. What is what you’re seeing telling you? Then based on this, make decisions and finally take action based on the O-O-D-A cycle. The notion of the loop, the constant repetition of the O-O-D-A cycle, is the essential connection that is repeated again and again. Because our actions will have changed the situation, the cycle begins anew and repeats itself throughout the tactical situation.

In the above scenario the importance of the Boyd Cycle and its relationship to survival is obvious. The officer in the scenario is complacent and not expecting anything other than the so-called routine stop. We have all been there. As the situation unfolds the subtle and not so subtle signs are obvious and therefore controllable. However they were not picked up on by the officer. This allows the subject to take the initiative and launch a vicious assault on the officer. In my opinion this lack of awareness is found in most incidents where officers are assaulted or killed in the line of duty. The Boyd Cycle equals situational awareness and situational awareness gives us the edge we in law enforcement need. The Boyd cycle must be practiced on every call, every call and proactive response law enforcement officers handle.

The Boyd cycle and its importance to law enforcement in the realm of officer survival and winning conflicts, whether through the use of verbal persuasion or hands on defensive tactics or deadly force, are obvious. Its importance to the observation (reading) and orientation (understanding) of body language or non-verbal communications is critical to the decisions and actions taken by law enforcement. Not only so they may justify these decisions legally, but also they may live to go home at the end of their shifts. That is the number one rule in law enforcement.


The critical aspect of getting law enforcement officers in the right mind set so they can utilize the skills necessary to read, interpret and make appropriate decisions based on interpersonal communications is training. The development of these skills is critical to survival of law enforcement officers on the street, survival, both in the context of living and dying, and survival in the context of the legalities of the circumstances. Training is the way to get this done, but how do we train? We must train first in the basic fundamentals of interpersonal communications, the dynamics of conflict and how we process the information as in the Boyd Cycle. The training tools used in the development of the basics are classroom environment and tactical decision games or written scenarios where the officer must give a written response with a how and why he handled the situation the way he did. The responses are reviewed and discussed amongst members of the law enforcement agency. They identify ideas of how the circumstances were handled, with both the positive and negative aspects being openly explored. This tactical decision game is an outstanding way of developing the decision making cycle and developing the working knowledge of non-verbal communications.

Once the basics are understood we move on to interactive training, which involves role playing with a real, living, breathing and thinking opposing force. Train as you will fight as the military says. This type of training is critical in the development of the above skills. It puts the student into simulated stresses of actual situations and they learn to react appropriately to the threats perceived. This observation, orientation, decision and action cycle is tested in the simulated environment and reinforced through the repetitive interactive training.

The final way to reinforce and continue the training of our officers in the above disciplines of interpersonal communications, specifically non-verbal communications and its importance to officer survival, as well as the decision making Boyd Cycle, is the use of after action reviews. There is no better way to reinforce lessons learned than to sit down and talk about an incident that actually took place. To conduct the after action review process correctly, candor and honest feedback are imperative. The officers have to understand that it is a tool for training and not a tool to be used against them in a disciplinary action.

The after action review process is a must if we are to seriously move forward in the development of our tactics on the street. Using the incident above, where the officer was assaulted, try to see yourself as the officer involved sitting down and discussing the incident with fellow officers. Break the incident down step by step honestly. Picture the circumstances unfolding in front of you. After you have critiqued yourself in an after action review and have discussed all the lessons learned, I guarantee you will not handle the situation the same way the next time. You should pick up on the signs of danger and make faster decisions based on what you see and take the initiative necessary to put you in control of that situation.


Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War 2,500 hundred years ago. A quote from that book is as follows:

“If you know yourself and know your enemy in a hundred battles you will not be in peril, If you know yourself and not your enemy for every battle won you will suffer a defeat, If you know neither yourself nor your enemy in every battle you will be in peril.”

The meaning of this quote by Sun Tzu is obvious as to how it relates to interpersonal communications and decision making in the law enforcement profession. It does not, in my estimation, need to be explained.

The importance of understanding interpersonal communication and its relationship to proper decision-making and officer survival is obvious. If you learn to read the situation and understand that non-verbal communication is somewhere between 65% and 80% percent of the total communication process, you’ll see that it is imperative that law enforcement officers must understand this process. The officers have to be able to read the signs of anxiety and danger if they truly want to win in hostile encounters. Predicting behavior is something that cannot be done 100% of the time; if it could we probably would not need the law enforcement profession. The system has to move forward and develop individual officer’s skills in the art of reading non-verbal communication and decision-making. Training in this discipline and mastering the skills of reading people is a continuous process that is difficult, but the attempt must be made if we want to lower the number of names being placed on the law enforcement memorial each year.

*Fred Leland is a lieutenant with the Walpole, Massachusetts, Police Department. He joined the department in 1987 and is currently the Patrol Commander. He is also an instructor for the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Training Council and specializes in use of force, firearms and officer survival issues.


Coram, Robert (2002) Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War. Little Brown and Company.

Griffith, Samuel B. (1963) Sun Tzu: The Art of War. Oxford University Press

Heal, Charles (2000) Sound Doctrine: A Tactical Primer. Lantern Books.

Hammond, Grant T. (2001) The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security. Smithsonian Institution Press.

Kappeler, V. (1997) Critical Issues in Police Civil Liability. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.

Kolenda, Christopher (2001) Leadership: The Warriors Art. The Army War College Foundation Press.

Rhoades, Steven, Detecting Danger. Part 1 and 2 Line of Duty Inc.

Pinizzotto, Anthony, PhD, Davis, Edward F. M.A., Miller, Charles E. (1997) In the Line of Fire: Violence against Law Enforcement. U.S. Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Pinizzotto, Anthony. PhD, Davis, Edward F. M.A., Miller, Charles E. (February 2004) Intuitive Policing. US Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Investigation FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin .

Skolnick, J. (1966) Justice Without Trial – Law Enforcement in a Democratic Society. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

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