By Jean Reynolds

Research is challenging some long-held beliefs about ensuring police officer safety. Many officers used to believe that toughness and aggression were the keys to controlling a tense situation. The assumption was that offenders would be afraid of a confrontation with an officer who exhibited a no-holds-barred attitude towards lawbreakers.

Unfortunately some offenders—especially those under the influence of drugs or suffering from mental illness—do not stop to think about the consequences of a power contest with an armed officer. In those cases, an officer’s tough-and-aggressive stance can cause a situation to escalate. There’s always a possibility of a violent outcome, with no guarantee that the officer will be the victor.

Researchers also advise against trying to win cooperation by adopting a friendly and likable demeanor with a suspect who seems contrite and compliant. Many times those apparently cooperative suspects have taken advantage of an officer who was perceived as an easy target.

Research suggests that the best way to maintain control is to present yourself as a consummate professional who knows what’s going on and what to do about it. There are two reasons for this approach. First, if you’re alert and meticulous about following procedures, you’re more likely to notice signs of imminent danger. Second, an offender may not want to take any risks with you. This officer is a pro, he’s thinking. I’d better not take any chances.

An article in the July 2014 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin reinforces the importance of staying alert and carrying out the procedures you’ve been taught. An offender who had shot an officer was interviewed as part of an FBI study of attacks on law enforcement. The offender said that he was stopped twice for speeding violations while he was wanted for a felony warrant. Both times his first thought was to fire on the officer rather than face being taken into custody.

But the officer who conducted the first traffic stop was so alert and thorough that the offender decided not to risk reaching for the weapon under his seat. The offender noticed, for example, that the officer checked the trunk of the car, used the side mirror to observe the suspect before talking to him, and scanned the back seat. The suspect was sure the officer would react quickly to even a subtle movement and decided not to risk reaching for his weapon.  But a later traffic stop was conducted by a less focused officer, and this time the offender decided to try to shoot. As a result, the officer was seriously wounded.

The procedures taught in police training programs are there for a reason: they help ensure your safety in situations that can quickly turn dangerous. Do not drop your guard if a suspect seems friendly and compliant, and do not take the bait if a suspect tries to distract you by starting an argument. Focus your attention on demonstrating that you know what’s going on and what to do about it. Research has shown again and again that your professional demeanor can be the deciding factor in maintaining your safety and the safety of everyone else at the scene.

Sheets, James J. (2014, July 1). Preventing Assaults: Assessing Offender Perceptions. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin