The 'Ask, Tell, Make' mistake

This approach attempts to make the situation fit the tactics regardless of the totality of the circumstance


The concept of “Ask, Tell, Make” has been around for many years and is taught widely across the country.

It is a simple stepping-stone process for handling situations. First, you ask the suspect. If you fail to gain compliance you tell them in the form of a lawful command. If they still fail to comply, you go hands-on by placing them under arrest and using whatever force is reasonable.

However, there are a number of problems with the application of this principle.

Are we misapplying a concept designed for a one-time use? (Photo/PoliceOne)
Are we misapplying a concept designed for a one-time use? (Photo/PoliceOne)

The History

Academy trainer Steve Papenfuhs was having a problem with his students. The trainees were responding to a domestic scenario and, when they arrived, the disputants were pushing each other around. For this particular academy class, the cadets were not taking charge, separating and restraining the subjects. As a result, they were failing the exercise.

Never having encountered this problem before, Papenfuhs taught “Ask, Tell, Make” specifically for this group, in this scenario, for this particular problem.

Papenfuhs had originally read about the concept in The Police Marksman magazine in 1997. After his initial use of “Ask, Tell, Make,” someone else presented the idea at a national training conference and from there it spread and took on a life of its own in the same way that the Tueller Drill devolved into the 21-foot rule.

I met Papenfuhs at the Force Science Institute Annual Conference in 2018. He happened to be sitting behind me and when one of the presenters mentioned “Ask, Tell, Make” during his talk it sparked a conversation between the two of us.

Papenfuhs feels a responsibility for the misapplication of a concept designed for a one-time use in an academy scenario setting now being used by law enforcement across the country.

The Application

No two police interactions are the same. “Ask, Tell, Make” attempts to make the situation fit the tactics regardless of the totality of the circumstance.

Some situations require officers to move immediately to physical intervention. How often do we see police officers talking when they should be doing? Taking the time to talk your way through the first two steps physically endangers officers and subjects when physical intervention is the required solution to de-escalate a situation.

We have also had the burden of working with the cop who moves to hands-on with little attempt at dialogue.

Police work isn’t baseball. There’s no “three strikes and you’re out” rule. Depending on the situation and the subject, asking several times may gain compliance, while immediately ordering someone may result in greater resistance. No de-escalation model allows for the application of “Ask, Tell, Make,” so it runs counter to that training and violates the principles in most cases.

To quote fellow trainer George Williams of Cutting Edge Training, “The federal case laws governing force are very generous to officers and their safety. However, the mindless application of ‘Ask, Tell, Make’ is not a reasonably one-size-fits-all solution to policing difficult or confrontational individuals. Sometimes, there is no need to ask or tell, it is reasonable to just ‘make.’ Other times, the situation does not reasonably support ‘making’ someone do something regardless of how many times he was ‘told’ until there is reasonable justification for that decision.”

The “Ask” and “Tell” phases can last an extended period. Think of any barricaded subject call where talking can take place for protracted periods to avoid having to move to “Make.” Gaining compliance through your words takes knowledge, skill and sometimes a lot of time.   

There are no simple, stepping-stone solutions to the complex, volatile, varying, stressful, dynamic, dangerous situations officers deal with daily. There is a time to ask. There is a time to tell and there is a time to make. How long you choose to ask, and/or tell is dictated by the situation. Making should always be as quick as possible. It is not as simple as 1, 2, 3.

However, here are three things every officer does need to be effective:

  1. Know the law;
  2. Engage in ongoing training and practice with your words, tactics and tools;
  3. Learn to read each situation and employ the tools and tactics that will minimize resistance and increase safety for all involved.

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