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10 pre-attack behavior cues

Officers should be familiar with easily observed warning signs that often precede an attack


Suspects sometimes seem to blank out just before they strike.


Assaults on officers are running at more than 60,000 a year, according to FBI statistics. Marcus Young is convinced that many of these could be averted if targeted officers were alert for certain common cues that indicate an attack may be imminent.

Formerly a patrol sergeant in northern California, Young himself is a survivor of a horrendous assault. While dealing with a seemingly low-risk call, he was viciously set upon by an ex-con neo-Nazi and shot five times before killing his assailant. His remarkable fight for life is detailed in the book “Blood Lessons.”

Young recently taught officer safety courses offered by the FBI’s LEOKA (Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted) section. Included in his interactive presentations is a roster of easily observed warning signs that often precede an attack.

“These are compiled from FBI studies of violent offenders and officers they have assaulted, as well as from officers who’ve discussed their personal experiences and observations at the LEOKA classes,” Young explained.

“Any veteran street officer will recognize these behavior cues, but we all get complacent from time to time and need to be reminded that in many cases threats are signaled in advance. If you’re vigilant and understand the implications of what you’re seeing and hearing, you may disrupt an offender’s plans before he or she can move against you.”

Here are 10 indicators of a pending attack to watch for. Please comment at the end of this article if you have others to add, and consider periodically reviewing the list below at roll call or during in-service training. “These are ideas to consider,” Young said, “but when it comes to street confrontations, there are no absolutes.”

1. Overt Threats

This seems obvious, but too often when a suspect says, “I’m gonna kick your ass!” or, “I’m not going back to jail!” he’s dismissed as “just runnin’ his mouth.” Actually, Young said, “this is a time you should seriously consider what a suspect is telling you.”

Similarly, beware the offender who urges you to use force against him, daring you, for example, to, “go ahead and shoot me” when you have your gun pointed at him. “This may be a suicide-by-cop situation or just an irrational determination to fight against all odds,” Young said.

2. Non-compliance

This can take many forms:

  • Failing to obey repeated direct commands from you;
  • Repeating back simple questions that you ask (“What’s my name?” “You want me to sit down?”);
  • Being argumentative or trying to bargain with you.

“These all can indicate stalling for time to formulate a plan of attack or escape,” Young said. “People may get upset when you ask them to do anything in their own home, and there the danger of non-compliance can be especially high. There are always potential weapons throughout their own environment that they are familiar with and could use to attack you.”

To raise your consciousness of this threat, Young recommends walking through your own living quarters room by room and ask yourself how many items are in each within easy reach that could be used as improvised weapons.

3. Removing Clothing

Subjects who are peeling off clothing or are stark naked are sometimes regarded as amusing by officers, but that can be a grievous error. The person may be reacting to a highly elevated body temperature. That’s a common symptom of excited delirium, a psychological meltdown also associated with enhanced strength, paranoia, and assaults on authority figures.

Other suspects may take off jackets, remove jewelry, or set aside clothing they especially value – “like a $200 cowboy hat” – as a prelude to mixing it up, Young said. “They may be freeing themselves to move more effectively against you or to protect their personal property.”

4. Tactical Maneuvering

“Be particularly on guard for this when attempting to deal simultaneously with multiple suspects,” Young warned. “They may triangulate to split your focus, or one may engage you in arguments or conversation as a distraction while others move out of your peripheral vision to flank or circle behind you. In effect, they may use some of the same tactical moves law enforcement officers like to use against them when working with a cover officer or partner.”

On traffic stops, an attack cue may be one or more passengers exiting the vehicle along with the driver and moving quickly toward you and your unit. “That scenario is beyond the norm,” Young said.

5. Furtive Communication

Another possible tip-off with multiple subjects. This can include hand signals, gestures, or code words you don’t understand, possibly talking in a foreign language. “You may be giving clear communication that a subject should be responding to, but he’s more focused on communicating with a companion – be careful!” Young cautioned.

6. Mental Alteration

“When subjects are under the influence of drugs, alcohol, and/or have a mental health issue, such as being off their meds, they may have a diminished capacity to think clearly and comply with lawful commands,” Young said. “They may have good core values, but in their altered mental state they may act impulsively without thinking of their behavior and consequences.

“You never know what level of desperation someone may have on a DUI stop, for instance. They may be fearful of losing their license, losing their job, going to jail, being publicly humiliated – or something you can’t even imagine. In their diminished state of mind, attacking you may seem like a reasonable way out of their situation.”

7. “Boiling Point” Physiology

More than 80% of suspects who attack officers use personal weapons – hands, feet, head, other body parts. So watch for signs that an angry subject is reaching his boiling point and getting ready to fight or flee.

Cues may include:

  • Blading into a boxer’s stance;
  • Quickened breathing and flared nostrils;
  • Dilation of pupils from an adrenalin dump;
  • Clenched fists;
  • Excessive animation, like the flinging of arms;
  • Profuse sweating.

“Someone with a martial arts background or a lot of fighting experience or a sociopathic personality may not exhibit many outward signs,” Young said. “They may just bide their time, waiting for the right moment. Sometimes an indicator with them may be excessive cooperation. They may be more polite and apparently compliant than what you know to be normal, trying to lull you into dropping your guard while they close distance toward you.”

8. Target Glances

Is a suspect staring or repeatedly glancing at your gun, your chest, or some other particular part of your body or duty belt? “Why? There’s no legitimate reason for that,” Young said. “They may be evaluating your weapon for a grab or fixing a target for a physical attack.

“If a subject is obviously looking around or sneaking furtive glances while you’re talking to him, he may be checking for an escape route or to see if any witnesses are present. If he’s planning to reach for a weapon nearby, chances are he’ll look there first and not just blindly grab for it.”

9. Thousand-yard Stare

“Suspects sometimes seem to blank out just before they strike,” Young said. “They get a vacant, ‘nobody’s home’ stare that looks right through you and shows they’ve disengaged mentally from reality. When they ignore you and don’t respond to questions as if you’re not even there, it may be indication of a behavioral problem.”

10. Violent History

Intel from your computer may alert you to a subject’s violent criminal background, if you don’t already know about his fighting proclivities from prior contact. Watch, too, for visible indicators such as gang-type clothing, jailhouse tatts, and distinctive shoes issued in some states to inmates who have just been released. “A subject wearing long sleeves and buttoned up collar in hot weather may be hiding prison tattoos on his arms or neck,” Young said.

He advises asking a critical question early on: “Are you on probation or parole?”

“If he repeats the question or hesitates at all, you can be pretty sure that the next thing you hear from him could be a lie,” he said. “After you ask his date of birth, ask how old he is. If he’s trying to deceive you, the numbers may not jibe. Someone with something to hide should always be considered a potential flight or fight risk. Likewise when you’re dealing with someone with outstanding warrants whose freedom may be at stake.”

For more information on LEOKA conferences and training, visit

This article, originally published on 12/15/2010, has been updated.

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.