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Command Sequence in Police Encounters: Searching
for a Linguistic Fingerprint
Violent Encounter 1001
In violent encounter 1001, two officers were involved in active dialogue with the citizen wherein the encounter resulted in the citizen being shot by the officers. Each officer’s language was evaluated separately.
Officer 1 issued a total of 33 commands, and officer 2 issued 31 commands. Regular commands dominated the command types issued by both officers. Overall, the first officer in violent encounter 1001 used regular commands in 66% of utterances (73% were of the beta subtype and 27% were of the alpha subtype), whereas the second officer issued regular commands 90% of the time of which 79% were of the alpha subtype and 21% were of the beta subtype.
Both officers’ alpha and beta subtypes were evaluated by looking at the number of command types and subtypes by pre-violent event and post-violent event. Officer 1 predominantly issued regular alpha commands (57%) and regular beta commands (43%) in the pre-violent event phase. This resulted in an overall total of beta commands being used 48% of the time by officer 1 in violent encounter 1001. Officer 2 in this encounter issued regular alpha commands 76% of the time and regular beta commands in only 21% of utterances, resulting in alpha commands being used 76% of the time in the pre-violent event for this officer.
During the post-violent event phase, officer 2 did not issue any commands, while officer 1 issued a total of four regular commands, 100% of which were of the beta subtype.
Violent Encounter 1004
In violent encounter 1004, three officers were involved in active dialogue with the citizen; however, only one officer issued ten or more commands and was therefore the only officer included from this encounter analysis, which resulted in the citizen attempting suicide.
Of the 20 commands issued, indirect commands were the most frequently issued (35%), followed by “other” commands (20%), regular commands (15%), interrogation commands (15%), and question commands (15%). All of the indirect commands were of the beta subtype (100%) as were the regular commands (beta subtype 100%) and interrogation commands (beta subtype 100%). Question commands were issued using alpha subtype in 67% of utterances (beta subtype 33%).
Looking at the pre-violent event and post-violent event phases, the officer in violent encounter 1004 issued six commands prior to the violent event, 83% of which were indirect commands. The beta subtype was also issued 67% of the time during the pre-violent event. In the post-violent event phase, the officer issued predominantly indirect commands, which were issued 29% of the time. Beta subtypes were issued 64% of the time. Overall, the use of beta subtypes by this officer during the entire encounter was 80%.
Violent Encounter 1005
Violent encounter 1005 resulted in a citizen being “Tasered” by the officer on two separate occasions during the encounter. Therefore, for this violent encounter, there is a pre-violent event phase, a first post-violent event phase, and a second post-violent event phase.
The officer in violent encounter 1005 issued a total of 77 commands. Regular commands occurred most frequently (62%), with other predominant command types issued being indirect commands (18%) and interrogation commands (12%). Of the regular commands issued by the officer, the beta subtype was used in 77% of utterances. The beta subtype was also used in 93% of the indirect commands issued. The most prevalent subtype associated with the interrogation commands utilized by this officer was also beta (82%).
During the pre-violent event phase, the officer used regular commands most often (47%). Beta subtypes in the pre-violent event phase accounted for 82% of utterances. During the first post-violent event phase, regular commands accounted for 80% of utterances. The officer also utilized alpha subtypes 80% of the time during the first post-violent event phase. However, the officer reverted back to issuing predominantly beta subtypes (81%) during the second post-violent event phase. Overall, the officer in violent encounter 1005 issued beta subtypes in 82% of utterances.
Violent Encounter 1006
Violent encounter 1006 resulted in a citizen being shot by an officer. Of the 12 commands issued, regular commands comprised 70% of the utterances, followed by “other” commands which were used 20% of the time.
During the pre-violent event, regular commands were issued 71% of the time and were issued in 100% of utterances in the post-violent event phase. In the pre- violent event phase, the officer issued beta commands 63% of the time and alpha commands only 13% of the time. During the post-violent event phase, the officer used alpha commands 100% of the time. Overall, the officer in this encounter issued predominantly beta subtypes (63%) and used alpha command subtypes only 30% of the entire encounter with the citizen.
Violent Encounter 1008
Violent encounter 1008 involved a citizen engaged in threatening behavior with a weapon. The encounter resulted in the citizen being shot by police officers. In this encounter, the officer issued a total of 82 commands. Regular commands were issued most frequently in this encounter, with total regular commands being issued 72% of the time. The next most frequently issued commands by the officer were indirect, which were issued 15% of the time, followed by commands that fall into the “other” category (12%). The beta command subtype was issued most frequently (61%) throughout the encounter. The alpha subtype was used in only 39% of the commands given.
During the pre-violent event phase, the officer issued regular commands most frequently (44%), followed by the use of indirect commands (12%), and finally “other” commands (6%). Beta subtypes (33%) were issued more often during the pre-violent event phase than commands with alpha subtypes (21%).
During the post-violent event phase, regular commands dominated all those issued (73%), while the beta subtype (36%) and alpha subtype (36%) were issued equally. Overall, the officer issued beta subtypes in 34% of the commands issued and used commands with alpha subtypes only 23% of the time.
Violent Encounter 1009
In violent encounter 1009, two officers engaged in active dialogue with the citizen; however, only one of the officers issued ten or more commands and is therefore the only officer included in the remainder of the analysis for this encounter. In this encounter, the citizen used a vehicle (automobile) in an attempt to harm the officer included in the analysis.
Of the 11 total commands issued by the officer, 36% were that of the “other” category. Regular commands were issued a total of 36% during the entire encounter, followed by the use of indirect commands, which were issued 27% of the time.
During the pre-violent event phase, commands generated from the “other” category occurred 50% of the time, followed by the use of indirect alpha subtypes (27%). There was only one alpha subtype (regular command type) issued in the pre-violent event phase (13%). In the post-violent event phase, all commands issued were regular (100%) and alpha subtype (100%). Overall, the officer issued commands with the alpha subtype 36% of the time, while not issuing any beta subtype commands during the encounter.
Violent Encounter 1010
In violent encounter 1010, the citizen was shot while trying to flee arrest, but was apprehended after a short chase. Overall, the officer issued 128 commands, 30% of which were from the “other” category. Interrogation commands were also issued in 30% of the utterances. Regular commands were used 23% of the time during this encounter. Of the interrogation commands, the beta subtype accounted for 74% of those issued, while the regular commands were also found to have been dominated by the beta subtype (62%).
During the pre-violent event phase, the majority of the command types issued consisted of regular commands (35%), followed by interrogation commands (26%), and then “other” commands (22%). Beta subtypes (43%) were used more frequently than alpha subtypes (35%) during the pre-violent event phase as well.
In the post-violent event phase, “other” command types (31%) as well as interrogation commands (31%) were issued equally, followed by regular commands, which were issued 20% of the time. The beta subtype was dominant (41%) during the post-violent event phase, while alpha subtypes were only issued in 28% of the utterances. Overall, the beta subtype was used most in this encounter (41%), while the alpha subtype was only issued in 29% of all command types.
The results of this study indicate a relationship between increased beta subtype commands used by police officers and the occurrence of a violent event. The data did not appear to be congruent with an increased frequency of officer-issued beta commands in relation to proximity of the violent event. As a result, there does not appear to be any support for the first hypothesis. However, in 75% of the violent encounters evaluated in this study, commands of the beta subtype were vastly predominant during officer dialogue with citizens. This was supportive of the second hypothesis. Of these violent encounters, there were six officers (67% of the nine total) who issued commands primarily of the beta subtype.
As indicated previously, implicitly stated commands (beta subtype) were issued most frequently within the context of the violent encounters between officers and citizens, and this could be construed as a significant problem. Commands issued within this subtype are often difficult to comply with due to vagueness, interruption, or indirectness. It is important to note that officer use of beta commands during violent encounters does not appear to be an intentional behavior. In fact, officers did not seem aware they had issued implicitly stated commands and expected compliance. Although this study did not examine an individual’s understanding of the issued commands or an apparent “willingness” or “disinclination” to comply with commands issued by an officer, it does offer an opportunity for future officer training and educational development for improving communication skills.
Interestingly, several of the violent encounters appear to indicate an initial pattern within the command dialogue issued by an officer, which is followed by increasingly erratic command dialogue patterns, seemingly precedent to the violent event between the officer and the citizen. This is supportive of research by Pennebaker and Francis (1996) in which an individual is thought to have a linguistic “fingerprint” or a “style” of speaking that is unique from other individuals based on certain outcomes. Consequently, it may be the case that officers, like other individuals, have a “linguistic pattern” they are comfortable engaging in with others. According to the results of this analysis, it appears to be the case that when officers are in an encounter with a citizen that could potentially result in a violent event, they deviate from this “comfortable speaking” pattern and move toward a more inconsistent, variable pattern within the context of the dialogue. The more the officer appears to lose control of the situation, the more he or she seems to lose control of his or her communication skills.
Significantly more research needs to be conducted to determine the reasons why officers lose the ability to communicate effectively and control a situation that is already moving out of control. Further research on the effect of pre-event assessment, emotional control and empowerment training, and attentional training might also yield helpful information. What this could mean for law enforcement officers and agencies is that there appears to be a great need for further research and additional training in effective communication, which might have dire consequences if left ignored.
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