6 'invisible' signs that a subject is resisting a police officer

Every aspect of the scene and the arrestee must be explained for the benefit of supervisors, prosecutors, and juries


One of the many limitations of body worn cameras, dash cams, and civilian witness accounts are the signs of active resistance that the arresting officer becomes aware of. 

“He wasn’t doing anything!” is the frequent cry of bystanders and “I’m not seeing it” might be the honest opinion of a reviewing officer watching video of an arrest. 

Below are some things an arresting — or assisting — officer must document if they occur during an arrest. Each of these “invisible” justifications for dealing forcefully with non-compliance should be documented, especially when the officer can truthfully document his or her additional concern for the crowd, other officers, or third parties who might be at risk from a resistive subject. 

Remember that the law doesn’t require us to be right, but always requires us to be reasonable. Every aspect of the scene and the arrestee must be explained for the benefit of supervisors, prosecutors, and juries.

1. Subtle Hand Movements
Small movements such as pinching or grabbing can cause a great deal of pain and may need to be stopped by a strike or stun that tends to look over-aggressive. 

The testicles and inner thighs are especially sensitive and may not be the focal point of any observer’s attention or in the camera angle. 

Any movement that touches an officer’s equipment belt must be stopped immediately to prevent a suspect from gaining control of a weapon.

2. Whispered Threats
Some bad guys know they have an audience and will keep their threats quiet. They might hiss a threat into your ear or when they are turned away from a crowd or camera. Conversely, an arrestee with a flair for the dramatic will yell for the sake of the crowd about how much pain they are in. This should not distract the officer. 

A witness who hears an officer saying, “Okay, then we need to get you to the ER right away” is better than a witness who hears an officer saying, “Stop faking or I’ll give you something to yell about.”

3. Tightening Muscles
Most casual baseball fans will not see what a professional batter sees when he looks at the pitcher’s mound. The batter must begin the swing at the earliest predictive sign of the pitch that will be traversing the sixty feet to the plate at speeds nearing 150 feet per second. 

A police officer must respond to an attack or escape in the same way — at the earliest predictive sign. Since the law requires compliance to an arrest, anything that is inconsistent with compliance is resistance. One of the earliest signs is the tightening of muscles. Like the spectator in the stadium seats, the subtle tightening of muscles is imperceptible to the casual observer, but the professional can see it as plain as day.

4. Changes in Breathing
Holding the breath or taking a quick inhale can be — and often is — a setup for a strike or explosive physical action. An officer dealing with a subject at bad breath distance can pick up on this while the citizen with the cell phone camera cannot. 

5. Crowd Behavior
When an advocate for the arrestee is present, his or her actions should be documented as an indicator of the need for quick custody. Talking someone into compliance is infinitely more difficult when the arrestee has a cheerleading section. 

Taking decisive action to subdue and move the arrestee from his or her support team is critical to the safety of everyone involved. 

6. Known History
Information you have from dispatch or previous contacts can give an officer a heads-up that resistance is likely or that weapons have been involved. This is knowledge is rarely found in citizen witnesses to an incident, and it can mean the difference between life and death for the officer. An officer with the knowledge that an arrestee is likely to be aggressive will move more swiftly to get control of a subject.

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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