The attack cascade: Engaging an offender before it's too late

We don't wait until water goes from horizontal to vertical to start furiously paddling a kayak, so why do we wait until an offender strikes to start dealing with non-compliance?

When does a waterfall start? If you wait to furiously paddle your kayak until the water goes from horizontal to vertical you will be swept away. Just like a waterfall starts upstream, an attack or escape begins cascading long before the fists or feet fly.

No batter waits for a pitcher to make a throw before taking a swing. They make their decision based on practiced observations of pitcher behavior. Cops should be trained to act based on behavioral cues of attack or flight, rather than to react to an attack at its peak. Critics would call this response preemptive, but the reality is that, just like the batter’s swing based on the pitcher’s windup, the fight has begun before the first blow is struck. We’ll rely on science to justify our actions in the courts.

With the offender who senses a threat — “Crap! I’m going to jail!” — his primitive brain alerts the body and starts the adrenaline for fight or flight. Depending on the magnitude of the threat, according to that individual’s perceptions, the primitive brain can override the thinking process and take over the body — “I don’t know why I ran, officer. I just did!”

If the threat is not overwhelming, the primitive brain gives the thinking brain a little time to mull things over. If the thinking brain has time to put the brakes on the primitive brain, it may decide that compliance is in the body’s best interest and the offender follows your instructions.

Or the thinking process may be to develop an escape plan.

Can you know the difference?

Deadly Delay
Many police officers — as seen on videos — wait far too long interpreting attack signals before engaging an offender.

Subtle and not-so-subtle manifestations of this mental process show up in the body seconds before gross body movements of fight or flight present. I call this process the cascade sequence. Just like we don’t want to start paddling until we’re over the brink, we don’t want to start dealing with non-compliance until the offender strikes.

Our fear of tackling a nervous, but complaint, offender creates an intervention delay that can result in more suspect and officer injury. We’re trying to make the decision about whether this person is just nervous because of the police contact and all of its consequences, or if the body is just waiting for the best time to fight or escape.

Is Cascading Different for Compliant and Non-Compliant Offenders?
An absolute necessity for early intervention is your ability to articulate your observations of predictive behavior of attack or escape. You’ll notice I have not used the phrase “pre-attack indicators” because the cascade of brain activity is already engaging in attack behavior, so it’s not “pre” anything. I suggest that trainers start referring to the “cascade of indicators” and save the phrase “pre-attack indicators” to refer to environmental circumstances such as the existence of an arrest warrant or the presence of other persons as an audience for the offender.

In general, compliant nervousness will manifest in the offender’s body position being square with the officer and concentrated on his own existing space rather than angled or gradual positioning for fight or flight. Nervous jitters will center in the hands and voice of a compliant subject.

Compliant subjects may talk more — speech requires brain cells that are not available to the person contemplating for fight or flight. Physical preparation of the non-compliant is going to the shoulders, elbows, feet, hips, and knees for fight or flight. The compliant person is bracing for submission and will have nervous hands and fingers rather than the large muscle groups. The submissive will more likely maintain eye contact with you — the non-compliant will be scanning for targets, confederates, or escape routes.

Arrest-control scenario training is currently centered on responding to the gross motor movements of an attack in progress (“defensive” tactics). We aren’t likely to authentically reproduce genuine, subtle, fear based fight or flight behavior in role players because those are autonomic and impossible to mimic.

For now, your best training in early intervention in the cascade sequence is your own experience put to use. 

About the author

Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy.. He is retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30 year career in uniformed law enforcement and in criminal justice education Joel has served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor, and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and bachelors in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the US Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over fifty police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards including the Colorado POST curriculum committee as a subject matter expert.

Follow Joel on Twitter @ChiefShults.

Contact Joel Shults

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