Force Science News #81:

Have You Tried These Distractions?

Have you tried these distractions?


In a recent report on the value of using distractions to defuse potentially violent confrontations, we invited officers to submit some of their favorite ploys for diverting dicey suspects from thoughts of attacking.


Here’s a sampling of responses we received, along with a trainer’s observations on the need for more emphasis on communications skill instruction.



Our original article, “Distractions and aggressive subjects,” was transmitted 8/24/07


Let’s see; there’s Grumpy, Dopey, Tipsy… No, wait….

One of the tricks my team uses with volatile drunks involves a little humor. We tell them if they can name the 7 dwarfs before we get them back to the station, we’ll let them go. They’re usually occupied throughout the journey and are still trying to name all 7 while being booked in. Some of the regulars have even gotten used to the challenge and start naming the dwarfs as soon as we confront them.


Insp. Gerry Kiernan

Hampshire Police

United Kingdom


“I saw his demeanor change to a calm, how-can-I-help look”

I was working a high-crime housing project area, looking for a known gang member who had earlier fled from a vehicle stop involving a stolen auto. I located him as he walked down a sidewalk, but I knew he would flee if I bailed out of my patrol car and tried to rush him.


I parked across the street at a location he was walking toward. He was obviously nervous as I leisurely exited my car. I said, “Sir, have you seen a little 4-year-old boy? He’s missing and we’re trying to find him.”


He looked at me a bit puzzled. I began to describe this imaginary child as I walked toward him, and I saw his demeanor change from a nervous fleeing look to a calm, how-can-I-help look. He walked with me to my patrol car while we discussed the “missing person.”


I then transitioned into discussing the stolen vehicle. He became very compliant and cooperative and now wanted to help us find the car thief. After I checked him for weapons, he voluntarily went back to the stolen vehicle with me to help with the investigation. He was subsequently booked for auto theft and miscellaneous other charges without resistance.


Ofcr. Paul Willett

California Highway Patrol


Sniff, sniff

My partner and I would often pretend to smell smoke in the house while on domestics and other calls to private residences when the subjects were not paying attention to us. We’d both start walking around sniffing and asking loudly, “Do you smell smoke?” More often than not, the occupants would stop what they were doing and start sniffing. We could then gain their attention and deal with the situation calmly.


Brian Carter (ret.)

Royal Canadian Mounted Police


Deflecting Rage by Creating a Void Where It’s Aimed

As I was booking a drunk for domestic violence, he started to swear and insult me, his voice becoming louder and louder. His hands, on the counter, clenched into fists. He said loudly, “Your mom musta been a real whore to raise a bastard like you.”


Keeping a bladed stance and my hands up, I said, “Oh, you know my mom? She works the downtown area. They call her Gummy Bear ’cause she’s got no teeth.”


He looked at me with red, watery eyes and burst out laughing. The rest of the process went smoothly.


I used a common judo principle, “pull when pushed.” I had every right to throw him into a separation cell, but by not responding, by creating a ‘void’ where he aimed his rage, his emotionality had nothing to fight against. And since his ‘problem’ was a woman, my statement had an element of, not agreement, but empathy.


An emotional action needs a calculated response, before a rational discussion can be attempted.


Dpty. Paul McRedmond


Multnomah County (OR) S.O.


“An inexpensive, non-incendiary distraction”

On vehicle stops, we all know that despite direction to see their hands, occupants, if they’re high and holding controlled substances, often keep stuffing the seats in hope you won’t notice. We have to consider also that they could be stashing or retrieving a weapon.


The routine seems to be that the officer repeats the commands in a louder tone and then louder again, maybe even drawing his pistol to emphasize the message. The problem is that the suspect is likely looking at where he/she wants to hide the drugs or weapon and is panicking to the point of auditory exclusion.


I’ve found that an open-handed slap as hard as you can with your free hand onto the roof of the car almost without fail causes everyone inside to magically freeze. It seems to serve as an inexpensive, non-incendiary distraction that breaks the suspect’s attention fixation.


Det. Sgt. Chris Sheehan


Medicine Hat (Alberta) Police Service


Quick ice-breakers

Before joining law enforcement, I worked in a mental institution. I quickly learned that minor and innocent distractions when talking to upset or mentally ill persons was a quick ice breaker.


I used such simple things as “I really like that pair of boots you have there” and “It sure is hot here today. Let’s move over to the shade and talk.” These worked really well in conveying that I was interested in the person I was dealing with and his immediate well-being. There were times when this approach did not work, and I just responded in a quiet and respectful voice, addressing the person as Sir or Miss.


Instruction in distraction techniques should be included in every officer’s annual refresher training.


Sgt. Phillip Schumpert


Federal Correctional Institution


Big Spring, TX


Just whistle

I am well-known for using a Fox 40 police whistle to stop domestics. I blow it until they stop yelling. Sometimes they get upset with me, distracting anger from each other.


I also use the whistle to disperse large, unruly crowds by walking into the crowd and blowing till they disperse. This has worked wonders for breaking up fights at large bar scenes. At one such scene, a lieutenant was told by the other LEOs, “Watch this.” Then I did my act and the crowd of approximately 300 left in moments.


Ofcr. Steven Baum


Niagara Falls (NY) P.D.


The sorry state of police communications training

Distraction techniques are sometimes called “pattern interrupts,” and their effectiveness in circumventing undesirable subject behavior is well researched.


The irony is that many major police agencies either provide officers with no communications skills training or the time allocated is inadequate or the method of training proves to be ineffective.


Law enforcement agencies and their trainers are providing the best officer safety training and equipment ever offered in policing. Extensive time is spent on weapon retention, weapon disarming, ground fighting, multiple assailant attacks, and a multitude of other skills. All these are essential.


But-have agencies provided as much training to equip their officers with the necessary skills to stay out of confrontations as they have to ensure that they win them? Surveys of agencies and academies indicate that typically less than 5% of the available instructional time is spent on communication training, despite the fact that officers will need to display communication competence during 95% of their active duties.


Even a cursory risk-management review of this situation should raise the alarm for agency administrators, particularly in light of the increasing civil litigation resulting from behavior-based complaints.


Police communications must be designed around the psychology of persuasion. Powerful verbal and non-verbal communication can work to modify a subject’s behavior in such subtle ways that they are not detectable by the individual being influenced. However, officers who are not properly trained in these strategies may unwittingly use words and body language that undermine their attempt to positively influence behavior.


Strategic communications should be built upon the cornerstone of officer safety training and taught by use-of-force instructors. This maximizes the buy-in from front-line troops, since they correctly perceive that the training focus is on enhancing their safety and equipping them to better conduct their job, rather than as just a political initiative.


S/Sgt. Chris Butler


Chief Crowfoot Learning Center


Calgary (Alberta) Police Service


Written by Force Science Institute

September 25th, 2007 at 7:20 pm

© 2017 Force Science Institute Ltd.