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Trusting your instincts is key to officer survival

By Dave Smith

On June 21, 2007 25-year-old Detective Jeff Bates, a five year veteran of the Broward County, FL Sheriff’s Office was on patrol in an unmarked car when he saw William Sherman, age 46, walking down the street. Detective Bates, a member of BSO’s Selective Enforcement Team, was wearing black pants and a shirt emblazoned with the word “SHERIFF” on it. He observed Sherman, whom he thought looked “suspicious,” as he walked down the street, and decided to exit his vehicle and speak with him.

As a department spokesman told the press: "This is something cops do all the time… it's just in their mind that if they see someone out of place they stop and have a chat with them." Detective Bates, who’s suspicions about Sherman were correct, had the presence of mind to call for back up before encountering Sherman, who stabbed the detective in the thigh with a steak knife shortly after the encounter began.

Sherman, who lives only a block from where the encounter took place, didn’t get far. Just after Bates was injured, his back up arrived on the scene, took control of Sherman, and found two more knives in his possession. Sherman is awaiting charges and Detective Bates was treated and released the same night.

What’s wrong with this picture?

What is it that triggers our “suspicion” of an individual? One researcher found that often, powerful “hunches” or intuitive actions were not only based on what we observe that is present, but also those things that are absent. Perhaps the hardest thing to explain in a report is what was the “thing” that made us approach a subject. This is especially difficult when the there was, in fact, not a thing but an “absence,” something that is missing or an action that should have occurred but didn’t.

Detective Bates not only felt the need to interview the eventual assailant, but also to call for backup. Over and over we are advised to trust our instincts, but science has been slow to explain or even study the phenomena of human “instincts.” Many scientists have claimed for decades that we are born as blank slates and are totally a product of environment. Now, we are finding that humans have an abundance of preloaded software for survival and we need to learn to develop those instincts instead of deny them.

Passing the “smell test”

The old saying “it just didn’t pass the smell test” is truer than we thought with the discovery that humans have similar organs to other animals for such things as evaluating odor. We know dogs that can smell fear, but we now know that we can too. Our Jacobson’s Organ is a chemosensory organ that evaluates what we smell. Have you noticed all the additives they are adding to your cologne to make you (hopefully) more attractive to whoever you are trying to attract? When humans perspire, we have two types of sweat, eccrine and apocrine; one simply cools while the other is released by fear or anxiety and smells to the world “I am afraid.”

Interpreting the non-verbals

Kinesics, the scientific study of body language, was pioneered by the anthropologist Ray L. Birdwhistell, who wrote Introduction to Kinesics in 1952, but it took law enforcement awhile to catch on. A person’s body language expresses emotions, feelings, attitudes, even pending behavior, and a subject’s body language often contradicts the messages conveyed by their verbal responses. A subject may be expressing cooperation verbally while exhibiting such behavior as shifting into a fighting stance, clenching the jaw, “target-glancing” you or one of your tools (such as your firearm), hiding their hands, or any of a hundred other “pre-attack postures” that humans may display before attacking.

Many of these behaviors we intuitively sense as signals to us, but routine desensitizes us to the possibility of the more important threats that maybe being indicated. Detective Bates obviously was wise enough to ask for backup based on some set of signals he observed from the subject. Remember, what someone doesn’t do can be a more important indicator than what they do when evaluating them. One of the best drug seizure patrol officers I ever met made the majority of his arrests on the suspect’s failure to “check him out” as they passed each other.

Often, the hard part for you when you have acted on a “feeling” was bringing those unconscious cues you received up to the conscious level so you could record them in your reports! The important thing is to remember to trust those “ESP-like” moments. In fact, in studying ESP researchers were amazed to find that many times it was simply the remarkable capacity of the human mind to pick out the smallest cues present or absent and prick the consciousness with a sense of warning.

The most important lesson is to never stop trusting your “spidey sense” and if you are an FTO reinforce the need in new crime fighters to learn to look at every detail and look for cues!


Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell
Sources of Power, by Gary Klein
The Gift of Fear, by Gavin De Becker

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