By Lt. Jim Glennon, Lombard, IL (ret.)
The words "I'm not arrestable" were uttered by a motorist to Las Cruces, New Mexico rookie Police Officer Carlos Wooten moments after the officer initiated a traffic stop on the man. Though the stop happened over eight years ago, Wooten, now a much more veteran officer, will never forget what happened next.
As Wooten was attempting to talk to the motorist the man decided to walk away from the Officer rather than answer his queries. As Wooten began to issue orders the noncompliant motorist said to him, "I'm not arrestable."
Wooten was put in a position that required him to physically control the noncompliant motorist. As the encounter escalated, the motorist pulled a gun, "out of nowhere," and pointed it at the Officer's face. A shot rang out and a bullet ripped through the left side of Wooten's neck.
Not one to taking being shot lightly, the officer decided that the shooter needed to be arrested no matter how much he was willing to resist. Ignoring the gunshot wound for the time being, Wooten, with help from his partner, did manage to subdue and arrest the gun wielding motorist.
Officer Wooten recovered from his wounds and was back at work within three weeks.There are a number of issues that we could address concerning this incident: How easily people conceal weapons. How fast they can produce them. The courage and tenacity of the hero who is Officer Carlos Wooten. But what I want to focus on are the words that preceded the motorist's murderous actions: "I'm not arrestable."
In the Calibre Press Street Survival Seminar, the instructors often ask this question to the attendees: "Before people attack us, what do they do?" Veteran officers are quick to recognize the point of the question and are just as quick to shout out the correct answer: "They tell us!"
And the officers are absolutely right. Though I know of no specific studies that have tracked how often bad guys reveal their nefarious intentions to the police officers they plan on attacking, veterans around the country know that these warnings happen all the time. And it is this communication of an impending attack that I want to address. Officer Wooten was warned by his attacker prior to the actual assault and he took that warning to heart. Perhaps that is the reason he is alive and still fighting crime today.
Most people who interact with police officers comply with orders and answer questions willingly. However on occasion, some have criminal assault on their minds. They don't want to comply or answer questions; they want to control and defeat authority.
But what can be counted on by police officers is that as these people internally process their options and determine their course of action they will unconsciously leak their true intentions. Those leaks will be revealed through one, or all, of the following communication channels: direct words, body language, or paralinguistic signals.
In Officer Wooten’s case the assailant leaked his intentions through the words he used: "I'm not arrestable." Perhaps he believed that he was not subject to the officer's authority. Maybe his general anti-social and belligerent outlook surfaced verbally as he contemplated his next move. Whatever the reason, he unquestionably indicated to Wooten that he was not open to an arrest scenario. "I'm not arrestable," spoke volumes to a police officer who was paying attention.
There are any number of examples in which specific words or phrases used by people indicate their true intent and may actually telegraph an impending attack. They are usually uttered as the situation evolves but, as in Officer Wooten's case, they may occur at the outset of the interaction. Some of the most common and recognizable of these examples are:
• "I'm not going to jail!"
• "I can't afford to go to jail."
• "You're not big enough to arrest me."
• "I'm not going to be arrested Barney!"
And the very vague and ambiguous"
• "I'm gonna kick your ass!"
An infamous incident that involved a young female patrol officer in Texas illustrates this phenomenon. While engaged in conversation with the man she stopped, dispatch advised that the motorist was wanted.
The motorist told the Officer, "I can't afford to go to jail." Seconds later he attacked and pummeled her into unconsciousness. There may be a variety of reasons this officer didn't pick up on the cues: the assailant had his daughter with him which may have lulled the officer into believing he was a father and not a dangerous predator; his statement was not said in an angry tone of voice, and he was generally friendly even laughing at one point. But the statement, "I can't afford to go to jail" was still made and it did have meaning.
Body language examples are infinite when it comes to leaking evil intent. Police officers need to pay particular attention to any of the following while dealing with people that begin to exhibit noncompliant tendencies:
- "The 1000 Mile Stare" (lack of blinking or eye movement, wide eyed)
- Bladed, or Pugilistic, Stance (one leg dropped behind the other)
- Clenched Fists
- Tight Jaw Muscles
- Scanning (looking around – presumably for witnesses, back-up, escape route)
- Adjustment of Clothing (rolling up of sleeves, zippering of coat, etc.)
- Hands on Hips
- Arms Folded Across the Chest
- Wide Stance
- Narrowing of Eyes
- A Round-House to the Side of the Head
Finally, the paralinguistic (rate of speech, tone, vocal pitch, hesitations, the lack of spoken discourse and timing) indicators:
- Angry Tone
- High Pitch Voice (sign of stress)
- Change of Pitch/Modulation (accompanied by a shift in body posture)
- Lack of Response to a Question
- Hesitant or Partial Responses
- Dry Mouth
- Change in Cadence of Verbal Dialogue
- Growling, Spitting, Drooling
Watching the dozens of videos shown throughout the two-day Calibre Press Street Survival Seminar that depict officers engaged in physical confrontations with citizens affords attendees the opportunity to identify many of these pre-attack indicators. However, recognizing these behaviors is easy when you are sitting in a nonstressed environment surrounded by hundreds of other law enforcement officers. Observing predatory mannerisms and picking up warning signs communicated by a criminal is effortless when the image is projected on a 10 x 12 video screen.
In the real world, officers often find themselves confronting hostile offenders in an ever changing and violent environment. Weather, lighting conditions, multiple subjects, nosey and intrusive spectators are just some of the things that distract an officer’s attention from his/her main adversary. So it is imperative that police officers study and be consciously aware of pre-attack indicators. They must be able to recognize them as they are presented. For if they can recognize the signs, that recognition may be what affords them the opportunity to stop an attack before it can be initiated.