Officer survival: Spotting armed suspects
Early discovery is critical because if you wait until you actually see a weapon you may be too far behind the reactionary curve to thwart an attack
Most officers who get shot are caught by surprise – but does that have to be? If you can read subtle cues that indicate concealed carry, you may be able to anticipate you’re dealing with an armed subject and gain a preventive edge of timing and positioning.
Sgt. Technician Jeffrey Kleinsmith, an academy instructor for the US Secret Service uniformed division, shared techniques used by agents who protect the president to spot gun-toters before they strike. “This training works great on the street,” Kleinsmith said.
As part of a multi-agency gun recovery unit that patrolled tough neighborhoods of Washington, DC, he used these observation methods to help detect more than 300 hidden firearms on suspects in the first six months of his assignment, resulting in a 15% decrease in violent crimes in the targeted areas. Early discovery is critical, he stressed, because if you wait until you actually see a weapon you may be too far behind the reactionary curve to thwart an attack.
Here are some observations officers can make that could help indicate if a suspect is armed:
suspect's strong side
As you observe a potential suspect, try to determine his strong side. Typically, wristwatches are worn on the weak arm and first steps are taken with the weak leg. Generally, people use their strong hand for most actions, such as lighting cigarettes, shoving someone, holding or moving objects and rolling dice in a craps game. Even in the absence of confirming cues, you can count on “85% to 90% of people in the world being right-handed,” Kleinsmith said.
Right front waistband
The overwhelming majority of offenders who carry a gun tuck it into their right front waistband, between their navel and hip.
“They must keep the gun accessible,” Kleinsmith said. “Also they see guns put there in the movies so they consider it cool, and they can easily show their buddies that they’re armed.”
The second most common hiding place is the small of the back, Kleinsmith says, “but this is relatively rare because it tends to be very uncomfortable.”
In practically all cases, a hidden firearm will be unholstered. This works to an officer's advantage from an observation standpoint, but to the bad guy’s extreme disadvantage because the gun’s uneven weight can cause it to move on its own and require adjustment.
“As suspects move, watch for a ‘security feel,’” Kleinsmith advised. “Because the gun is loose, they’re constantly in fear it will slip, and they’ll periodically touch it, consciously or unconsciously,” to be sure it’s still there and in place. You can often see this done on surveillance tapes when armed robbers are approaching a target, and “cops do it, too, for reassurance when they’re in plainclothes,” even though they usually have holsters.
In his experience, Kleinsmith says he has seen “only one bad guy on the street with a holster.” Of the 1,301 guns taken off the street by the gun recovery unit he was part of, only seven had holsters. An NYPD detective, Robert Gallagher, who was especially skilled at detecting hidden weapons with observational techniques “rarely ever” found a holster with some 1,200 recovered guns, Kleinsmith says. “If you find someone with an empty holster,” Kleinsmith predicts, “there will be a gun within a 20-ft. radius.”
Protective body movements
Closely related to the security feel is what Kleinsmith calls “protective body movement.” This is particularly noticeable when an armed subject is running or moving abruptly; he holds his arm against the concealed weapon, either stiffly or with a very restrained swing.
Even if the suspect is just walking, you may see that he takes a full stride with his opposite-side foot but the gun-side stride will be shorter, almost like a limp in some cases because he’s trying to clamp the gun in place and minimize its slipping or its risk of falling out.
The arm may also come in against the gun as a protective movement when people start getting close to the suspect. Similar to you, when approached, armed offenders may turn their gun side away when you come up to them. “Craps games offer good chances to spot people with guns,” Kleinsmith noted. “They’re squatting down, standing up, rolling dice, passing money. Movement helps you pinpoint hidden weapons.”
Of course, look for telltale bulges. “A gun is not flexible and doesn’t conform well to the shape of the human body, so it may reveal itself in the form of a protrusion,” Kleinsmith reminds. While the entire firearm may not be outlined, tight clothing may reveal bumps that relate to a hammer, grip or muzzle.
Style of clothing
As you study a subject’s clothing, ask yourself:
- Does it fit the season?
- In cold weather, is a coat unzipped or unbuttoned?
- Is the subject wearing only one glove, leaving his shooting hand bare?
- Is he wearing a belt that’s not through the loops of his pants, thereby capable of cinching tighter against a hidden gun?
- Is a coat weighted down lower on one side?
- When he walks or runs, does his coat or jacket bounce off his leg as if something heavy is in the pocket?
- Does a loose-hanging hood seem weighted down, causing the drawstring to pucker?
- If a subject seems to have a wallet in his pocket but is wearing a fanny pack, then what’s in the fanny pack?
- Is footwear mismatched, with one shoe larger than the other to possibly conceal a small handgun?
With bikers, the favored hiding place for firearms is inside boots, Kleinsmith says. Some may also use special pockets sewn into their colors. “Watch females who are with bikers,” he cautions. “Most of the time they carry for the males,” capitalizing on the tendency of too many officers to dismiss females as a threat.
Movements during a vehicle stop
During a vehicle stop, closely observe the occupants as soon as you begin contemplating a pullover. “Watch their shoulders,” Kleinsmith says. A shoulder moving up can indicate a gun being drawn from a waistband; a shoulder dipping down may mean drugs, booze, weapons, or other contraband being shoved under a seat or between seats.
If you decide to use indications such as Kleinsmith enumerates as justification for a stop-and-frisk, “you must be able to articulate your observations,” he warns. Ideally, you’ll be able to identify several cues. “Write down all the characteristics you observed, all the facts as to why the stop was conducted. Never go just on a hunch.”
Also, use these giveaways to make you conscious of your own actions while wearing a concealed weapon. An armed criminal’s body language “may be more magnified” regarding a hidden weapon, Kleinsmith says, but officers tend to share many of the same nervous habits and modes of dress. To a knowing individual, you may unconsciously telegraph your armed status in situations where you don’t intend such.
Kleinsmith concludes: “Trying to increase your awareness of possibly armed individuals can enhance your observation skills” – and your safety. “If you know what you’re looking for, you can’t believe what armed suspects show you.”
This article, originally published 12/13/2007, has been updated.