Interpersonal Communications and Officer Survival: How Understanding The Boyd Cycle and Non-Verbal Communication Can Save a Law Enforcement Officer’s Life!
Republished with permission.
According to FBI statistics, over 50,000 law enforcement officers are assaulted
each year. One out of every three officers assaulted is injured, and
approximately 70 officers make the ultimate sacrifice in the performance of
their duties, losing their lives. While safety and survival issues have made
great strides over the last twenty years, we are still missing a vital link to
that survival training: the understanding of interpersonal communication and how
it relates to police officer survival. We study interpersonal communication in
an effort to get more productivity out of organizations and more satisfaction
out of our personal relationships. An important link, however in interpersonal
communications is the relationship between a law enforcement officer’s encounter
with a citizen and how that communication—read properly or improperly—relates to
survival on the street. The subtle signs of danger that are often missed by
officers are key to an officer’s winning conflicts on the street, whether
through verbal persuasion, hands on defensive tactics, or deadly force.
To insure that the reader has a full understanding of what law enforcement
officers face when handling dangerous encounters, we will first look at the law
and what information law enforcement officers must know and understand
thoroughly in order to reduce friction in decision making. Second, we will look
at an actual incident that I have used training law enforcement officers. This
incident starts off as what we in law enforcement call an "unknown risk
incident." It is a car stop initially that slowly turns into an all-out assault
on the officer, an assault that I believe could have been prevented if proper
observations, orientations, decisions and actions were made and taken. Finally
we will discuss the Boyd Cycle, how it relates to this particular case study and
its overall importance to law enforcement officers when understood and used
properly. The Boyd Cycle will give law enforcement the edge it needs to win on
the street, the edge necessary to take the initiative and defend themselves
physically from dangerous encounters. For those reading this article it is
important to understand that this paper is specifically related to how
understanding the Boyd Cycle and non-verbal communication can save a law
enforcement officer’s life!
We look to the law in the area of use of force to gain a better understanding of
the types of issues law enforcement must contend with in dynamic encounters. In
the U.S. Supreme Court case, Graham v. Conner (1989), the Court mandated that
the correct test to measure the appropriateness of an officer’s actions is by
using the "objective reasonableness" standard. The reasonableness of an
officer’s actions is not subject to interpretations from others outside of the
profession but is to be judged from the prospective of a "reasonable officer."
The Supreme Court went on to say that officers’ actions should be judged without
regard to the intent or motivation of the responding officer. Further, such
decisions should be made "from the perspective of a reasonable officer coping
with a tense, fast evolving scene, rather than with 20/20 hindsight" (Graham,
1989, p. 1872). The Graham decision provides a basis that can be used to examine
the role and factors that are important to the legal determination and
evaluation of the "reasonableness" of an officer’s actions. However, the
decision clearly states that "reasonableness … is not capable of precise
definition or mechanical application" Graham, 1989, p. 1981). It is evident that
no policy or other organizational procedure is capable of providing precise
definition as to what appropriate force is or how much force should be used.
Thus, the only approach that can approximate this standard is one that roughly
estimates the situational context in which force incidents occur. Kappeler
(1997, p. 72) states that these factors include:
Whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the officer or others;
The severity of the crime;
Whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest; or
Whether the suspect is attempting to escape custody.
The importance of the factors stated by Kappeler (1997) and the Graham decision
cannot be overstated. These factors represent the apparent danger or element of
risk both clearly evident and perceived by officers as they arrive at a scene
and interact with citizens and suspects. Skolnick (1966) spoke of "symbolic
assailant" factors, which are elements of encounters possessed by the suspect.
There is a combination of individual, situational, and environmental elements
that contribute to the totality of the circumstances. We must examine all of the
Kappeler elements, stated above, which identify the perceived risk to the
officer or others in the immediate area.
There are at least three elements that need to be included in any examination of
the correct police response. The first element is threat. Threat includes
situational clues that are given by the suspect, as well as environmental
concerns. The second element is the severity of the offense to which the officer
is responding. Past experience of the officer may put the officer on guard as to
what type of person or situation he or she is dealing with. Severity of the
offense may be considered part of the overall threat perceived by the officer,
but in this study, we looked into the non-verbal communication as a
predetermining factor of overall threat. In an ideal world this should be the
key element that determines if an officer acted correctly in using physical
force. However, given the nature of society and the unpredictability of human
beings, other situational factors must be considered.
Law enforcement officers spend months training at the academy, learning criminal
law, criminal procedure, use of force, firearms, defensive tactics, community
policing strategies, investigations and officer survival tactics, etc. This
training is necessary and critical to how they perform their jobs in their
communities once out of the academy. Most states and municipal agencies also
have ongoing in-service training to keep officers refreshed in the same areas
considered vital to the law enforcement mission to protect and serve.
All this training is what is considered the critical tasks of a law enforcement
officer. There is, however, one task missing in the law enforcement profession
as a whole. That is the understanding of interpersonal communications and
officer survival, especially the non-verbal and verbal cues that relate to
danger in a law enforcement encounter.
We spend countless hours training our criminal investigators in how to read body
language (kinesics) to detect deception and illicit admissions and confessions
out of criminals. History and experience has shown that this study of
communication in the area of non-verbal and verbal that relate to anxiety and
deception is just as if not more critical to the law enforcement officer on the
street as it is to the investigator in the interrogation room.
Example: On a cool, clear November night an officer is on routine street patrol
in a small town. The officer has made several stops and issued garden-variety
citations; no arrests for operating under the influence until he clocks a small
Nissan pick-up truck at 70 miles per hour in a 55 mile an hour zone. The driver
takes a bit longer than normal to pull over once the officer ‘lights him up’,
which sets off a small bell in the officer’s mind. However, thinking the
motorist was simply seeking a safe place to pull over; the officer gives it
little thought. Once stopped, the motorist exits the Nissan, and the officer
asks for his driver’s license. However, the motorist cannot find his license
despite much fumbling with his wallet. His two small sons are also in the
Nissan, and finally one of them pokes his head out the window and informs his
father that mom (for whatever reason) has the license. So, the officer using the
subject’s social security number calls dispatch which subsequently informs him
there are no ‘wants’ or ‘warrants’ out for the subject. The officer transmits to
dispatch in front of the subject and the return information from the dispatcher
also is broadcast in front of the subject. The officer later says that had there
been any negative information on the subject, his dispatcher would have told him
to ‘clear for traffic’, and he would have moved to a location away from the
subject. In addition to the subject fumbling, the officer has detected alcohol
on his breath. The subject says he had nothing to drink--other than two or three
beers earlier in the night. The officer makes the decision to give the subject a
‘breath test, and the test indicates that the subject has a point-12 to point-13
blood alcohol content; legal limit is point-08. The officer decides to arrest
the subject and goes back to his cruiser to request back-up, but in the
transmission only requests that back-up ‘ease on over’. His nearest back-up is
some six miles distant.
As the officer reads the subject his implied consent rights, the subject
obviously (in the camcorder tape) begins to ‘turn off’ the officer. The subject
becomes very agitated and (paraphrasing) tells the officer that if he’s arrested
he’ll lose his job and he won’t be able to pay support for his two sons. He
reiterates that several times, but the officer has already committed to the
arrest. The subject begins to walk away from the officer, and the officer,
surprised, grabs the subject by the shirt collar. The subject and officer
nose-to-nose now; the subject tells the officer not to touch his "goddamned
shirt" --- "don’t touch me..." --- etcetera. The officer is just as immovable:
"Mr. Anybody, I’m not going to let you go back to that car..." The officer lets
go of the subject and is explaining himself to the subject. The subject is
standing there with his hands on his hips, looking away from the officer. As the
subject and officer are exchanging words, the subject is rolling his shirt
sleeves up and then blades his body away from the officer. Suddenly, within a
fraction of a second of the subject stepping back positioning his body, the
subject throws a tremendous right hook at the officers left jaw knocking the
policeman unconscious, to the ground. The subject then leaps onto the officer’s
prone figure and inflicts a terrible beating (later determined to be 33 blows).
The officer is unconscious for most of the beating as the subject is exclaiming:
"I tried to tell you...I tried to tell you...I tried to tell you..."
Then, by a seeming miracle, a passing truck driver and his wife see this drama
unfolding and stop by to render aid. The truck driver has a large Mag light and
proceeds to strike the subject over the head as hard as he can using both hands.
The subject stops beating the officer at this point and rolls over to his left
side. The truck driver’s wife has taken control of the subject’s two young sons,
who have both leaped out of the truck begging their father to stop beating the
The officer regains consciousness just as the subject rolls over to his left
side and although badly beaten and losing strength is somehow able to handcuff
the subject and exclaim "10-17" (urgent call for help) into his shoulder radio.
During the beating, eyewitnesses will later testify, the subject furiously tried
to wrestle the officer’s gun from its holster, but apparently due to a double
thumb safety lock was unable to get to the weapon. The officer is spitting out
blood and teeth and is obviously losing strength quickly as back-up arrives and
takes control of the subject. The subject is non-cooperative, and just as the
back-up officer reaches down to pick the subject up, the handcuffs open. The
back-up officer is obliged to use spray on the subject, before he can try to
cuff the subject again. Still, though, as the officer is attempting to put on
the same cuffs they give way and open a second time. The pepper spray contains
the subject, however, and finally the officer uses a pair of his own handcuffs
to control him.
There is a lot going on in this set of circumstances. It is already known that
these types of law enforcement encounters are dynamic and rapidly changing events. Also it must be noted that these encounters are analyzed and judged by
the totality of the circumstances. However for this case study let’s focus on
the highlighted area above, step by step, which illustrates the non-verbal cues
that can be read as signs of anxiety or danger signs.
Hands on hips:
Again ignoring you. He is done with whatever you have to say.
Possibly looking for witnesses, escape routes, preparing to fight or run.
Rolling shirt sleeves up:
Blades his body away (fighting stance):
He is taking a fighting stance and is more than likely about to assault you.
It could be a push, a pull, or a punch.
The subject becomes very agitated and (paraphrasing) tells the officer that
if he’s arrested he’ll lose his job and he won’t be able to pay support for his
This is verbal communication that should send a non-verbal message that
things have taken a turn for the worse.
Most people do not want their children
involved in the interaction between themselves and law enforcement.
is dragging his children right smack into the middle of this problem.
This is a
tell-tale sign of high agitation and anxiety.
This example and these non-verbal communication signs listed above are just a
few of the many signs that could be construed as dangerous or indicate a person
in high anxiety. When the subject is in this state it is possible for an officer
to be attacked, as in this case, or the subject may take flight. No one sign
alone means much, but clusters of these non-verbal cues are critical to an
officer and his survival on the street. Here ms a list of some more non-verbal
signs that fit into these criteria. This list is compiled by former Illinois
Police Chief Steve Rhoads, who is a three-time medal of valor winner with the
unfortunate experience of being in four gun battles. Rhoads takes his program
for ‘Detecting Danger’ on the road both nationally and internationally. The
program is cored around two main elements:
What do officers need to learn about themselves, to lessen the likelihood of
What do officers need to know about subjects that could lessen danger?
Head angle indicates fight or flight
A dropped chin means fight
A raised chin means flight
Confirming gesture of fight is a fixed stare
If flight, look for darting eyes
Watch area around neck for possible attack (upper body muscles)
"Happy feet" could be a strong indicator of flight
When an officer sees a threat potential, call subject’s attention to it
May get him to reconsider threatening action
Short, choppy gestures/verbal communication, the threat is real
Hands inward/anger inward; hands outward/anger outward
Palms in mad at himself
Palms out mad at you
Watch deadly hands; drying of hands, hands stroking to get dry for attack
Multiple gestures and deadly gaze mean likely trouble
Knuckle-popping, loosening of fingers, flexing of fingers mean likely trouble
Watch setting of hands
Confrontation gesture: hands on hips, elbows outward
Remember: What behavior should you expect in a given situation?
Does the behavior make sense?
The face can be a barometer of a subject’s intentions
Underneath eyes opposite rest of skin surface
Fixed, dilated stare
Real danger may not be coming from loudest mouth
Watch the one not talking
Mouth tense, lips down at corners
Mouth breathing indication of nervousness, anger
Flared nostrils, setting of jaw indication of nervousness, anger
Eyes wider during periods of intense emotion
Loudest mouth may not be able to take physical action (No adrenaline or oxygen getting into muscle tissues; all being burned elsewhere)
The solution is to train law enforcement officers in the art of detecting danger
signs by reading body language and understanding its meaning. The instruction
and demonstrations of the signs is the easy part. You see the signs in every
situation you are in that goes bad as a law enforcement officer. The good news
is that the overwhelming majority of law enforcement contacts end in a civil
manner. Most people do what law enforcement asks them to do. The statistics
according to the FBI are 97% of police contacts end civilly without any force
being used, about 10% of the remaining 3% end in assault situations. The hard
part is to get law enforcement to understand the importance of knowing these
signs and how they relate to their survival.
Enter The Boyd Cycle
So what do we do? How do we get law enforcement officers to read the signs so
they can safely and legally defend themselves on the street? The answer in my
mind is obvious. The Boyd Cycle! The Boyd Cycle, otherwise known as the O-O-D-A
loop, is a decision making cycle developed by Col. John Boyd U.S.A.F. He
developed the cycle over the skies of Korea in the mid 1950’s, while flying
combat missions. He determined that conflict was timed, competitive Observation,
Orientation, Decision and Action Cycles. The essence for Boyd was human
perception, not weapons or circumstances. He once said, "Machines don’t fight
wars. Terrain doesn’t fight wars. Humans fight wars. You must get into the minds
of humans. That’s where the battles are won." The O-O-D-A loop put in simple
terms is as follows:
Is the complex set of filters of genetic heritage, cultural predisposition,
personal experience, and knowledge.
Mental image or snapshot of the situation.
Is what’s happening good or bad?
According to Col. Boyd the key here is to understand that walking through this
process is critical to winning conflict. The Boyd Cycle and how it relates to non-verbal communications is simply stated as situational awareness. Being aware
of the signs of danger, looking for them with attention to detail, and most
importantly once you see the signs, orienting yourself to the signs,
understanding what they mean to you as a law enforcement officer. According to
Boyd the orientation phase is the most critical. You must make observations, but more importantly you must understand (orient) what your observations mean. What
is what you’re seeing telling you? Then based on this, make decisions and
finally take action based on the O-O-D-A cycle. The notion of the loop, the
constant repetition of the O-O-D-A cycle, is the essential connection that is
repeated again and again. Because our actions will have changed the situation,
the cycle begins anew and repeats itself throughout the tactical situation.
In the above scenario the importance of the Boyd Cycle and its relationship to
survival is obvious. The officer in the scenario is complacent and not expecting
anything other than the so-called routine stop. We have all been there. As the
situation unfolds the subtle and not so subtle signs are obvious and therefore
controllable. However they were not picked up on by the officer. This allows the
subject to take the initiative and launch a vicious assault on the officer. In
my opinion this lack of awareness is found in most incidents where officers are
assaulted or killed in the line of duty. The Boyd Cycle equals situational
awareness and situational awareness gives us the edge we in law enforcement
need. The Boyd cycle must be practiced on every call, every call and proactive
response law enforcement officers handle.
The Boyd cycle and its importance to law enforcement in the realm of officer
survival and winning conflicts, whether through the use of verbal persuasion or
hands on defensive tactics or deadly force, are obvious. Its importance to the
observation (reading) and orientation (understanding) of body language or
non-verbal communications is critical to the decisions and actions taken by law
enforcement. Not only so they may justify these decisions legally, but also they
may live to go home at the end of their shifts. That is the number one rule in
The critical aspect of getting law enforcement officers in the right mind set so
they can utilize the skills necessary to read, interpret and make appropriate
decisions based on interpersonal communications is training. The development of these skills is critical to survival of law enforcement officers on the street,
survival, both in the context of living and dying, and survival in the context
of the legalities of the circumstances. Training is the way to get this done,
but how do we train? We must train first in the basic fundamentals of
interpersonal communications, the dynamics of conflict and how we process the
information as in the Boyd Cycle. The training tools used in the development of
the basics are classroom environment and tactical decision games or written
scenarios where the officer must give a written response with a how and why he
handled the situation the way he did. The responses are reviewed and discussed
amongst members of the law enforcement agency. They identify ideas of how the
circumstances were handled, with both the positive and negative aspects being
openly explored. This tactical decision game is an outstanding way of developing
the decision making cycle and developing the working knowledge of non-verbal
Once the basics are understood we move on to interactive training, which
involves role playing with a real, living, breathing and thinking opposing
force. Train as you will fight as the military says. This type of training is
critical in the development of the above skills. It puts the student into
simulated stresses of actual situations and they learn to react appropriately to
the threats perceived. This observation, orientation, decision and action cycle
is tested in the simulated environment and reinforced through the repetitive
The final way to reinforce and continue the training of our officers in the
above disciplines of interpersonal communications, specifically non-verbal
communications and its importance to officer survival, as well as the decision
making Boyd Cycle, is the use of after action reviews. There is no better way to
reinforce lessons learned than to sit down and talk about an incident that
actually took place. To conduct the after action review process correctly,
candor and honest feedback are imperative. The officers have to understand that
it is a tool for training and not a tool to be used against them in a
The after action review process is a must if we are to seriously move forward in
the development of our tactics on the street. Using the incident above, where
the officer was assaulted, try to see yourself as the officer involved sitting
down and discussing the incident with fellow officers. Break the incident down
step by step honestly. Picture the circumstances unfolding in front of you.
After you have critiqued yourself in an after action review and have discussed
all the lessons learned, I guarantee you will not handle the situation the same
way the next time. You should pick up on the signs of danger and make faster
decisions based on what you see and take the initiative necessary to put you in
control of that situation.
Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War 2,500 hundred years ago. A quote from that book is
"If you know yourself and know your enemy in a hundred battles you will not be in peril, If you know yourself and not your enemy for every battle won you will suffer a defeat, If you know neither yourself nor your enemy in every battle you will be in peril."
The meaning of this quote by Sun Tzu is obvious as to how it relates to
interpersonal communications and decision making in the law enforcement
profession. It does not, in my estimation, need to be explained.
The importance of understanding interpersonal communication and its relationship
to proper decision-making and officer survival is obvious. If you learn to read
the situation and understand that non-verbal communication is somewhere between
65% and 80% percent of the total communication process, you’ll see that it is
imperative that law enforcement officers must understand this process. The
officers have to be able to read the signs of anxiety and danger if they truly
want to win in hostile encounters. Predicting behavior is something that cannot
be done 100% of the time; if it could we probably would not need the law
enforcement profession. The system has to move forward and develop individual
officer’s skills in the art of reading non-verbal communication and
decision-making. Training in this discipline and mastering the skills of reading
people is a continuous process that is difficult, but the attempt must be made
if we want to lower the number of names being placed on the law enforcement
memorial each year.
*Fred Leland is a lieutenant with the
Walpole, Massachusetts, Police Department. He joined the department in 1987 and
is currently the Patrol Commander. He is also an instructor for the
Massachusetts Criminal Justice Training Council and specializes in use of force,
firearms and officer survival issues.
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