Staying professional despite provocation

Beware of trigger words in a suspect’s verbal onslaught because the man who angers you, conquers you!

“I know where you live, and I promise...I am going to get out of here and burn down your house with your family in it.”

How will you react when a suspect you’ve arrested and handcuffed looks you square in the eye and with a cold sincerity says those words? If it has not been said to you yet, it will be. For many officers, these could well be “trigger words.”

Most officers have been trained to avoid using trigger words when dealing with suspects. Because police professionals are aware of words that can trigger an unwanted and unintended response from a suspect, we avoid using them. Suspects, however, deliberately use trigger words to elicit an unprofessional or excessive response from their arresting officer.

Suspects will deliberately use trigger words to elicit an unprofessional or excessive response from their arresting officer.
Suspects will deliberately use trigger words to elicit an unprofessional or excessive response from their arresting officer. (Photo/Pixabay)

Street officers who deal with the crime-committing public, professional demonstrators and even the booze-soaked nightclub client on a Saturday night need to be aware of their own personal trigger words and put a safety on them.

To put a safety on these words you just need to recognize what your trigger words are and immediately do some when/then thinking.

Picture someone who is handcuffed and controlled after an extremely physical encounter saying your personal trigger words. Then picture yourself utilizing a professional response or non-response – all the while, maintaining your professional demeanor. You can either remember what Dr. George Thompson says, “He can say what he wants as long as he does what I say,” or you can remember what your mother said, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

Make no mistake about it, this is easier said than done, but you must do it to for your professional survival.

Entertain Yourself by Watching It Happen

One thing that may help is to watch how artfully suspects choose their words. You will not only be educated by it, but you may also be entertained by it – if, of course, you understand the motives behind it. You will also see they are willfully attempting to trigger a deliberate overreaction.

Here are some examples you will see if you watch.

  • To the smaller-stature officer they will say, “You think you are a BIG man with that badge. If not for your badge LITTLE man, I would kick your ___”
  • To the overweight officer, “If not for that badge, I would kick your fat ___”
  • To the officer with the wedding ring they will mention it and tell you what they will do to your spouse and family.
  • To the female officer they will liberally use the “B____” and “C___” words.
  • To an officer of color, they will use whatever inappropriate racial epithet they feel will trigger a response.
  • To any officer at all, they will question your sexual preference while you conduct your pat-down search.

As a last resort, when nothing else works, the determined agitator will hurl the ultimate insult. They will attempt to spit in your face. All of these are deliberate attempts to make you lose control so that they can ultimately win.

These are not attempts to trigger a fight – the fact of the matter is that they’ve already lost the fight. They are attempting to trigger an overreaction. They take the time to assess what they think your weakness is and then verbally attack, hoping you will return fire at least verbally, but preferably physically.


Why would they try to start a fight they can’t win? Because if they get any response, that plays into their hand.

If they can make you look even slightly unprofessional by getting you to exchange barbs, they have grounds for a complaint and this complaint will be held over the department’s head as the suspect’s legal team tries to bargain for charges to be reduced or dismissed.

If they can trigger an excessive use of force, they know it is like winning the lottery. There will be some sort of large monetary settlement and the criminal gets to play the victim.

What about the officer who takes the bait? They will experience the stress. Sometimes there are punitive damages the officer may be ordered to pay. The officer may be disciplined and even fired from a career they love. There is also the possibility the officer may find themselves the target of a criminal investigation.

Officer Override

There is a technique to save other officers before something bad happens called “officer override.” Work out a plan before this type of situation even happens, so when you see a partner starting to succumb to the verbal onslaught of a suspect, you’ve got something already set to defuse him or her.

Signal them by saying, “They are trying to reach you on the radio.” This is the pre-arranged signal to let you take over communication with the suspect and allow your partner to take a few deep breaths and refocus. By doing this you may rescue your partner’s career.

What Happens When a Partner Loses It?

Imagine how a bad situation – both tactically and legally – an officer is put into when a partner loses control and goes well beyond what is legal and necessary. You are put in a position to have to rescue a suspect and possibly to rescue your own career. An officer that does nothing to intervene in a clear-cut excessive use of force may be found just as culpable as the officer who loses control.

An officer who loses control puts their fellow officers in a terrible tactical position. It is not a position of advantage to have to attempt to gain control of a fellow officer while in the presence of a suspect and possibly the suspect’s friends.

Intensity vs. Anger

There is a wild inefficient flailing that occurs when a fight is taking place because of anger. It is difficult for the person motivated out of rage to know when to stop because the goals of the fight are not defined, and their training has not prepared them for this.

A fight out of necessity may be dynamic, but an officer will be able to focus their techniques and it will be easier to stop – when it is appropriate – because control is the goal for the officer. The officer has been trained for this type of fight from beginning to the proper follow-through at the end.

The officer may physically win both of these fights, but they will often legally and therefore professionally lose the fight motivated by rage.

It can be defensible to punch, kick, strike with a baton, employ a TASER and even shoot someone under certain circumstance. It is difficult for an officer to defend calling someone an “___hole.” It behooves officers to practice something called “courtesy up to impact and beyond.” You can show a suspect respect without respecting a suspect. Train while using not only defensible techniques, but defensible verbalization through the use of force.

To help maintain professional control in the face of very difficult suspects, remind yourself constantly that whatever suspects say to you and do to you as an officer is not personal. They are saying it and doing it to your uniform and your badge.

If you respond out of anger rather than necessity they win! If you respond out of necessity with intensity, you win!

The late Eldon Mueller, an FBI special agent and esteemed police educator said something to a classroom full of future cops back in 1973. At least one of them wrote it down and it served him well throughout his long career. Mueller declared, “The man who angers you, conquers you!”

This article, originally published 01/27/2010, has been updated.

Recommended for you

Copyright © 2023 Police1. All rights reserved.