The quality of commands officers issue tends to deteriorate drastically in potentially life-threatening confrontations, possibly leaving suspects confused about what they’re expected to do to comply, according to 2 new studies conducted under the auspices of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato.
What these studies reveal is “more shocking than anything we expected,” says Dr. Dan Houlihan, who directed the research. “This is path-breaking material that officers and administrators should pay close attention to because of its serious implications.”
FSRC’s executive director Dr. Bill Lewinski told Force Science News that additional research will now be launched into “how officers can improve their verbal communication under high stress and perhaps prevent offenders from escalating to lethal violence. This is the first step in a string of investigations that may ultimately have a profound effect on training and street practices.”
The recent research, believed to be unique in law enforcement, grew out of discussions between Lewinski and Houlihan, a professor in the psychology department at Minnesota State who specializes in studying and modifying the resistance of recalcitrant children to the commands of classroom teachers. Houlihan over the years has identified various command styles and has measured their relative effectiveness. Lewinski suggested surveying the nature of commands given in policing situations, particularly violent encounters like officer-involved shootings.
The resulting field work and analysis was designed and primarily performed by 2 master’s degree candidates at the university, Emily Schwarzkopf and Julie Vandermay.
In one of the 2 studies, Schwarzkopf and co-workers rode along with officers from LE agencies in Minnesota and carefully reviewed tapes from other departments’ patrol car dash cams and the “COPS” TV show. They noted the specific types of commands issued during both nonviolent and violent confrontations.
In a companion study, Vandermay analyzed only violent encounters, focusing particularly on the sequencing of commands and on the emotional content of the language used.
“When the data began to emerge, it astounded me,” Houlihan told FSN. “I hadn’t expected the results to be so distinct and so lopsided.”
In nonviolent situations, the researchers documented, officers overwhelmingly issued so-called “alpha” commands. “Alpha commands,” Lewinski explains, “are simple, direct and explicit, so that even someone in a chemically or emotionally induced fog is likely to understand them.” Examples: “Take your hands out of your pocket,” “Stop talking,” “Quit resisting,” “Don’t leave your vehicle.”
In violent confrontations, the research revealed, officers’ command style tended to be dramatically different. As threats appeared and escalated, officers overwhelmingly employed primarily “beta” commands. “These are indirect or imprecise orders that require interpretation by the suspect, based on his or her inference of what the officer intends,” Lewinski says. Examples: “Move,” “Give it up,” “Don’t be stupid,” “Stop screwing around,” “Knock it off,” “Don’t make me kill you.”
In other words, officers in day-to-day interactions generally gave very clear commands about what they wanted, and for the most part they gained compliance. But when they felt themselves threatened, this direct precision tended to be abandoned quickly. While they may have started out issuing alpha commands, in the face of resistance and personal danger they overwhelmingly transitioned to vaguer, less direct beta commands and, in general, gained markedly less compliance.
“In nonviolent encounters, 84 per cent of the commands given were alpha commands,” Houlihan says. “But in violent situations, only 16 per cent were alpha. The vast majority were beta. I was not expecting the results to be this extreme.”
Moreover, the “emotional context” of the language officers used was decidedly different in violent encounters, Houlihan says. “Instead of noninflammatory, specific commands there was a more intense emotional tone, much more swearing. The ‘f’ word was flying all over the place.”
The closer a given situation came to the flashpoint of violence, the more frequent both beta commands and profanity became, Houlihan says. Lewinski suggests that the transition to beta commands may be related more to an officer feeling he is losing control of a situation than just to the confrontation’s increasing dangerousness. “Officers who believe they are still able to control the event may be able to maintain alpha commands even though the threat is intensifying,” he says.
Although Houlihan is not willing on the basis of these limited studies to conclude that a beta communication style coupled with high emotionalism will actually cause violence, he does believe that a tense confrontation can be made worse by an officer forsaking alpha commands and resorting to foul language. “That type of language appears to enhance the probability of a negative outcome,” he says.
Based on his work with autistic children and others who show resistance in classrooms, he knows that “beta commands are very ineffective and inefficient. They leave people guessing.” When teachers switch from beta to alpha commands, they experience greater compliance even from mentally and emotionally disabled students, Houlihan says. “With the change, you almost immediately see better teachers and better kids.”
He cites an incident from the law enforcement studies in which an officer was in a stand-off with a suspect who was gripping a knife. “The officer told him 5 times, ‘Don’t make me kill you’ before he finally did shoot the suspect. A terrible command! He might have thought he was conveying an order to put down the knife, but that’s not what he said. It was left up to the suspect to interpret what the officer meant and what action was expected. In effect, the suspect was put in the position of having to control the officer’s behavior.
“When you’re dealing with subjects who may be mentally impaired or under the influence of drugs or alcohol or even just emotionally keyed up, ambiguous commands throw all kinds of possible confusion into the situation.”
Dr. Jonathan Page, a Minnesota State psychology professor and a member of FSRC’s Technical Advisory Board, offers an interesting speculation regarding beta commands like “Don’t make me shoot you.” An officer uttering that kind of order, Page suggests, “may really be stating what he doesn’t want to do or what he doesn’t want to happen,” having gotten sidetracked from expressing exactly what is needed for the subject to comply.
In future research Lewinski hopes to confirm the suspected link between the type of commands used and the probability of compliance. He also hopes to uncover ways in which officers can be trained to stay in the most effective communications mode regardless of the stress intensity they may be experiencing. Houlihan says he is putting together as many as 9 different studies to expand on what’s known about street communications in law enforcement.
“Obviously language alone cannot prevent or defuse all violence,” Lewinski says. “Often there is nothing an officer can say or do to prevent a shooting. But these studies suggest that language style can be an important element in where many encounters end up.
“These studies open the door to learning much more about what officers can say to gain control and compliance and to do their best to protect their safety and the safety of others.”
For their generous cooperation on these studies, FSRC would like to thank its research partner, Mankato DPS, as well as Chaska and Lakeville PDs, all in Minnesota.
Note: A thesis prepared by Julie Vandermay on her research is expected to be submitted early in May for publication in FSRC’s on-line E-Journal, accessible free of charge on the Center’s website. Go to www.forcescience.org and find “e-journal” on the pull-down menu under “Publications.” [At this writing, no E-Journal papers are posted but a number are currently under review.] Emily Schwarzkopf’s research will be submitted for publication to Police Quarterly after it has been successfully defended before a university review committee. Later it will also be posted to the FSRC E-Journal.]