Why loud & repetitive verbal commands can hinder compliance

Using loud, repetitive verbal commands can be more of a hindrance than a help when trying to gain compliance from a resistive subject


There is an old saying, “There is a time to talk, and a time to shoot,” which is a concept that should be familiar to all police officers. There are also a lot of less lethal options between the two choices. Verbalization when appropriate, can, and should be used, at all levels of force. 

There is a time and a place for loud, forceful commands. However, using loud, repetitive verbal commands can be more of a hindrance than a help when trying to gain compliance from a resistive subject.

Three and done

Like any of our tools, the use of communication can be sharpened with new knowledge, training and experience. (Photo/Pixabay)
Like any of our tools, the use of communication can be sharpened with new knowledge, training and experience. (Photo/Pixabay)

During his “Realistic De-escalation” class, Dr. Bill Lewinski of the Force Science Institute suggests a verbal strategy that has an officer issue the same loud verbal commands no more than three to four times. If the desired response has not taken place, the officer needs to change what they are doing or saying.

Breaking the loop

All too often police officers get caught up repeating the same verbal commands over and over again. You can watch videos involving cops repeating the same commands – in some cases dozens of times – where you see the suspect does not change their behavior. Yet officers get stuck in a verbal command loop due to training, stress or a combination of the two.

Einstein said the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different outcome. If a suspect hasn’t changed their behavior after being ordered in the first three attempts, what is the likelihood they will change it in the next 30 tries? If you find yourself in that situation ask yourself, how should I change what I am saying to get the desired results?

Is it a sign of danger or an inability to perceive the officer?

A suspect’s non-compliance can be a sign that the suspect intends to harm an officer or attempt to escape. However, if the suspect is suffering a mental health issue, they may not be aware of or capable of following an officer’s commands.

An officer’s stress level typically rises during these situations, which generally results in the officer yelling even louder. This poses several problems in situations when dealing with the mentally ill:

1. You can’t listen when you are yelling.

In most cases the only way to determine the specific problem is for you to engage in conversation. Yelling at someone doesn’t allow for much two-way communication. If you slow down and listen, you might actually hear cues you can use to defuse the situation and/or gain compliance. Achieving effective communication goes a long way toward slowing things down, and history shows that if we can slow things down, most situations are more likely to end peacefully.

2. Screaming at someone who is already afraid of you doesn’t help calm them or you.

When we do this we end up with a subject who is fearful and, because of increased stress, may become agitated and begin to act out to protect against a perceived threat. This results in officers becoming more stressed and in greater fear of their personal safety. The fear can result in more aggression on both parts and potentially spiral up into a use of force.

Secondly, when emotions run high and our voices raise we have a tendency to look at the other person’s face. This aids in the communication process, but can be hazardous for police officers.

3. Everyone wants to be listened to.

To a subject on the receiving end of the loud, repetitive, verbal loop it may appear that the officer is not interested in listening. Even if they try to talk, it appears that they are being shouted down by an officer. To engage in conversation, you have to appear interested in conversation.

Tactical tips

Here are some tactical tips officers should follow when issuing verbal commands:

  1. Most people can’t talk and shoot at the same time. A situation may require the firing of a TASER or weapon. That job should be given to someone not involved with communicating with the subject when possible. Talking adds additional time to an officer’s response when they need to respond physically.
  2. Only one officer should do the talking. Too many voices – possibly giving contradictory commands – only add to the confusion and stress of the situation. PoliceOne columnist Gary Klugiewicz uses this “one voice” concept in his trainings.
  3. Keep the subject's hands in view. If the situation requires that officers’ weapons are out and pointed at a subject, place the sights on them but in a position where you can see the subject's hands. If the sights are placed on the subject’s chest and the hands are out of view, you are actually adding time to your response should you need to fire. If you place the sights at the subject’s waistline you can see their hands in most cases and your sights. This will provide for a faster reaction if they reach for a weapon.
  4. Officer safety comes before communication strategies. Always use cover or concealment when available and appropriate. Distance gives you the advantage of being farther from a suspect and can help reduce their anxiety of feeling trapped or closed in. Time is usually on your side.  When possible, use your words, distance and cover to slow things down.

Verbal communication is one of our most powerful and often used tools. Like any of our tools, the use of communication can be sharpened with new knowledge, training and experience.

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