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Beware of talking a suspect to death

How long are you willing to keep talking to a resistant and potentially dangerous subject in an effort to get him to submit peacefully to arrest?

For some officers, the answer is “too long.” In fact, they may end up, in effect, talking a suspect to death, according to Greg Meyer, former head of the LAPD Academy and now a prominent law enforcement litigation consultant.

“As police work has drawn more scrutiny by the public, the media, and within law enforcement agencies themselves, many officers have become reluctant to use legitimate force to end one-on-one standoff situations,” Meyer told Police1 recently.

“I’ve seen it over and over in my career: An officer and a suspect are across a room from each other in a standoff. The suspect has a knife in hand or an angry look and clenched fists. The officer issues lawful commands, which are ignored. The suspect stays angry and agitated in a threatening manner…and the officer keeps on talking.

“Ironically, the reluctance to use an appropriate level of force early in an encounter can result in a higher level of force needing to be used later on. Through an officer’s continuous talking, the subject figures out that the officer isn’t going to actually do anything and this empowers the suspect to continue resisting and, in some cases, to escalate into launching an attack. Then it may take lethal force to end the encounter. In that sense, the suspect has been talked to death!”

Because details of encounters differ, it’s hard to cite a hard-and-fast rule, Meyer says. But generally, he believes, if a suspect hasn’t complied after a command has been issued “twice or at most three times,” further verbalizing is likely to be “well-meaning but inefficient.”

It’s time now to forcefully control the subject, he says, through physical tactics or through the use of non-lethal weapons such as OC or a TASER.

“The risk/benefit ratio favors non-lethal weapons,” Meyer says, because the chance of injury to either subject or officer is substantially less.

Of course, Meyer stresses, if the subject is presenting an immediate deadly threat (with a gun, for example), there may be no time for verbalizing whatsoever. On the other hand, in a barricade situation where no hostages are involved, extended negotiations with a suspect may be warranted, with no one at risk except the perpetrator himself.

In most street situations, “We should still talk some,” Meyer says. “But assess each situation on its own merits for how long you’ll talk without acting. Keep in mind that delaying can give a subject more time to formulate a plan to his advantage. And once you do decide to act, do it emphatically, not half-heartedly.”

Charles Remsberg has joined the Police1 team as a Senior Contributor. He co-founded the original Street Survival Seminar and the Street Survival Newsline, authored three of the best-selling law enforcement training textbooks, and helped produce numerous award-winning training videos.