PictureLou Hayes
The following is a post from The Virtus Group member Louis Hayes, Jr.

The police officer was part of a tactical team, with the day’s assignment being a search-and-arrest warrant on a couple of bad guys armed with handguns.  Part of the hasty plan was to order any of the people encountered to go down on the ground, so they could be handcuffed.

During the assignment, the police officer came face-to-face with one of the pajama-wearing, breakfast-cereal-eating suspects…in the kitchen. He looked at the officer calmly, as did the officer to him. The suspect was standing with his hands up in the air. Even in the midst of the chaos that surrounded them, the suspect and the officer talked in very calm, conversational tones. The policeman decided to NOT tell him to get on the ground, as doing such would put him out of his sight. Instead, he slowly and calmly explained that the team was serving a warrant on his home and that he was under arrest. “Don’t move, buddy. Stay right there.” The suspect was locked onto the officer – in a good way. Like a personal connection was made. They were both was listening and talking.

Then seemingly out of nowhere, the policeman heard one of his teammates yelling at the suspect to “Get on the ground!” Before he could stop him, the partner ran up to the suspect, grabbed his pajama top, and forced him to the ground. And with that, any rapport that the suspect and the first police officer developed (over the course of ten short seconds) was GONE.

When the second officer was asked why he did such, he answered in a logical manner: The plan was to have all suspects get on the ground for scene safety. The suspect ignored his commands. Force was necessary and reasonable to ensure further safety.

The resultant use of force review determined that the force was reasonable and within policy and law. I agreed then, as do I now.

In the above case, the suspect (who let me add – was a BAD guy!) emerged with a little laceration on his head…and a bit more hatred of the police. Sometimes the results of these chaotic events are more serious, even deadly.

What, if anything can we do, to limit these sorts of misunderstandings and uses of police force? Or are these mistakes, misperceptions, and resultant “tragedies” just allowable “collateral damage”…and an ugly, but necessary by-product of good, lawful, policy-driven police work that must be accepted by citizens?

The above case serves as my very first time when I asked myself, “Are there times when non-compliance with police commands actually makes sense?

Many of these sorts of learned-after-the-fact critiques reveal information on WHY a person might have not immediately complied with a police officers request or command. Consider these possibilities and the reasons that might contribute to non-compliance:

  • deaf;
  • music earbuds;
  • Autistic;
  • mentally ill;
  • physically disabled/paralyzed;
  • cognitive impairment;
  • non-English language speaker;
  • sensory/auditory exclusion;
  • medical emergency (ex: diabetes);
  • confusing/mumbled police commands;
  • conflicting police commands (between multiple officers);
  • being shocked or surprised and still processing what’s happening;
  • being temporarily blinded by bright lights;
  • misunderstood police jargon.

The above list can be cited as justifications, or at least logical explanations, for non-compliance. But the above list can just as easily be confused on the street by a police officer as: dismissive, disrespectful, disobedient, or ignoring.

And as police officers, we often interpret dismissiveness, disrespect, or disobedience, or ignorance as a challenge to our authority…which we then perceive as a physical threat to our safety. And maybe rightly so! There are bad people out there!

So instead of waiting to find out if the person MIGHT be deaf…or MIGHT speak another language…or MIGHT be still waking up, we respond with what we know: force. Lawful force.

Police force often immediately negates the question of whether or not the person was plotting an ambush or waiting for the right opportunity to flee or attack. Unfortunately, sometimes honest, well-meaning, innocent folks get caught up in the mix due to a disability, an environmental disruption, or a “human factors” physiological response.

What this really boils down to is how police officers respond to or even ACCEPT certain levels or types of non-compliance. Yes, it’s all situation-dependent. And yes, there will always be some innocent, vulnerable folks who end up on the receiving end of police force - due to a reasonable misunderstanding or unavoidable mistake.

What I’m asking is whether we are teaching our officers WHY and HOW to position ourselves to limit these mistakes and unfortunate incidents. When I say “position,” I mean physically…but also mentally and emotionally. Or are we in such a risk averse mindset that we are absolutely closed to acceptance of any extended duration of non-compliance?

I contend the answer lay within an understanding of a perceived threat’s URGENCY. Are we moving through the three steps of “Ask-Tell-Make” too quickly or too irrationally? Are there cases we could spend more time asking…even pleading for compliance? Or is that beneath us as police officers? When we “tell” subjects, are we doing so with a firm footing in not only law, but also logic? And when we “make,” are we ensuring that (even though law does not require it), we are somewhat confident that asking and telling aren’t going to work in the time available to stop a threat?

Maybe we can sum it up as the tug-of-war between Restraint and Stabilization on one end, and Hesitation or Reluctance on the other.

I feel as though, somewhere along the line, we police officers stopped explaining ourselves before the force event…and leave the justifications for the police report and the courtroom. Maybe if we took more time up front and accounted for some extra accommodations, we wouldn’t be in some of the messes we’ve now found ourselves…

Then again, sometimes, there is no time for that. And I get that too.


Louis Hayes, Jr is a system thinker and provocateur for The Virtus Group, Inc, a firm devoted to developing public safety leadership. He is a law enforcement trainer with biases in Constitutional law, crisis intervention, and tactical policing. Lou can be reached on Twitter @LouHayesJr and under #ThinkLE.

Be sure to follow these ideas at @TheVirtusGroup.



Paul H.
02/29/2016 2:08pm

Great article and definitely food for thought. I'm a career FF/EMT but also a reserve police officer. On occasion I've had to step thru uniformed officers to speak w/ an EDP and explain what was going on, and what could happen. There are times and places for both slow/deliberate approachs, as well as speed of action. Law Enforcement is certainly challenging as it has ever been, but we can use communication to our advantage, I believe we can promote positive relationships with the community.

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