How 'profiling' can save your life

Psychological profiling is something we all do on the street to stay alive.

As a former advanced officer trainer, and after having worked in patrol for almost 20 years, I had to ask myself this question daily: “Is this person going to try and hurt me?” They know who I am, but I don’t know who they are. I know they are: angry, drunk, under the influence of something, mentally ill, traumatized, brain injured, or all the above.

Simply put, I conducted what I defined as “psychological profiling.”

Based on all the rhetoric, observations, mannerisms, and verbal and non-verbal cues, I had to make split-second decisions on everything my senses — including that “sixth sense” that all cops have to survive — to decide if it was worth it for me to take on this guy/girl.

Saving Your Own Skin
Part of the problem is that for all police officers, psychological profiling can differ. It is one thing to be a male, rookie officer, 6’ 2” and 225 lbs. who has been a college football player, compared to a male, 25-year veteran, 5’ 8” and 232 lbs. who has had two shoulder surgeries and had far too many double cheeseburgers. Or the same can be said for a female officer, 5’ 2” and 106 lbs.

We all have different strengths, weaknesses, experience(s), knowledge, expertise, health issues, etc. Given the totality of these skill sets, we then come to conclusions about how we can best handle someone on the street who poses a potential threat to the public safety or ourselves.

To save your own skin, you must conduct psychological profiling. Essentially you have to be able to sum up someone’s intentions in front of you and decide, quickly, how long it would take to get a cover officer there and whether you should try and take this guy on before that. Is he younger, obviously faster and in greater shape than you?

Or perhaps the moment you make contact the fight is on. If you want to add that he is agitated, possibly on methamphetamine, cocaine, alcohol, or in manic phase of bipolar disorder, — or, let’s make it interesting, all the above — you’re in trouble no matter, how big, how strong, what shape you’re in, if you study martial arts, etc.

An Old War Story
I’d been working for SJPD for about six years at the time and I was 35 years old. I was 5’8”, 181 pounds, and could dead lift nearly 600 lbs., squat 515 pounds, and bench 300 pounds (since I was training for a power lifting contest).

One night on the east side of town, I was on patrol when I saw a car ahead of me driving erratically, speeding up and slowing down, over and over. I activated my forward reds, and hit the siren for a second and the car pulled into a large, almost closed, shopping center parking lot.

I got out of my patrol car and conducted all of the officer safety measures but before I could say anything the driver began to get out of his car. I told him to get back in the moment I saw his driver door open but it was too late. He was out. He stood alongside his car door and my spotlight illuminated him, so I knew he couldn’t see where I was.

As I began to approach him, I could see he was either very agitated or under the influence of meth or coke, or was manic. He was all over the place. He was a white male, probably 25 years old, about 5’6” and 145 lbs. He was obviously not an amazingly huge specimen, but I started my psychological profiling check list.

I decided to immediately put him through the FSTs. As I started to put him through the tests, he wasn’t doing all that well. I really couldn’t smell any alcohol coming from him. I had to repeat the directions over and over again, which for a typical drunk is challenging, but somehow this guy was different.

His speech was fast and forced, almost like his brain was moving faster than his mouth could get the words out. I could feel that “inner voice” we all have getting more and more annoyed, then agitated, then bordering on angry and close to becoming stupid angry (when you say something that you know you shouldn’t).

I placed him under arrest for DUI. I gave a momentary thought about getting a fill unit, but I thought, “Nah, I could take this guy. He’s far smaller than I am.”

My gut was talking to me the entire time telling me something was wrong, but I didn’t listen to it.

I should have. As I began to cuff him and using the various control holds, as strong as I thought I was, it didn’t make any difference in the next few moments.

Seconds later, we are rolling around on the asphalt. When this type of thing happens we all have one of those nanoseconds of incredible clarity: “I could lose this [bleeping] thing.

I decided to stop messing around. I got to my shoulder mic and yelled Code-3. A moment later, just as the fill unit was screeching into the parking lot, I handcuffed the “little dude” which is exactly what my fill unit called him.

I transported the “little dude” to jail and like most agencies I radioed ahead to tell them I had a “live” one. As I drove into the Sally Port area, the deputies converged on my car and said, “This little guy did that to you?”

How could I lie? I said, “Yup.” A moment later they got him just inside the Sally Port doors and, you guessed it, the fight was on. I didn’t feel so bad now. It took five, 200-plus pound deputies to subdue the “little dude.”

The Dopamine Receptor
As I look back, I know far more now about what to look for. Psychological profiling is something we all do on the street to stay alive. What many officers aren’t aware of is exactly how dangerous someone who is mentally ill or in manic phase of bipolar disorder can be.

After this incident, I started to assemble a checklist of behaviors to look for that could cause me or my brother and sister officers nightmares and, worse yet, injuries.

Having learned about the primary mental illnesses — schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and clinical depression, I started reviewing reports for my doctoral dissertation and ways that could benefit the officers on the street.

What I started seeing was a rash of reports that people who were under the influence of methamphetamine were very violent.

Additionally, people who were in manic phase of bipolar disorder were also potentially very violent. So, I started to research both of these conditions and I found that both these conditions affect the same receptor sites in the brain — the dopamine receptor site.

When I analyzed the behaviors associated to both of these conditions, they were virtually non-distinguishable from one another on the street. What you do need to learn to distinguish are those mannerisms and behaviors that can save your life.

The only way to accurately determine if someone is under the influence of a CNS stimulant like meth (crank) or in manic phase of bipolar disorder is to conduct a toxic screen of their blood — obviously something that cannot be done on the street.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking. You’re thinking, “Well that’s fine for you, but I’m not a social worker, or a shrink.”

You are absolutely 100 percent correct. But you are a father, mother, uncle, sister, or brother — and it’s your job to come home at night. So, that being said, if you know what to look for then you are far more likely to do your job more safely and the behavioral cues that could save your life.

We know that methamphetamine use on the streets has more than tripled in the last 10 years and that the conditions associated with that use such as paranoia, assaultive behavior, defiance go along with it.

My suggestion to street officers is that they learn the behaviors so they can readily spot them when they make that car stop, or pedestrian stop, or go to that family fight.

Regardless of how big, strong, tough, or the kind of shape you are in, when you come across someone who is an addict, or someone who is severely mentally ill in manic phase of bipolar disorder, you are in trouble.

However, being very tough individuals we always think we can handle ourselves. As I stated earlier, no one was worse than me in that regard. Don’t make the mistake I made and think you can do it on your own.

I don’t know how lucky I was that night. It wasn’t until I saw those five enormous deputies wrestling with the “little dude” that it all became painfully clear that I could have been killed.

A Checklist of Behaviors
Regardless of whether someone is under the influence of alcohol, drugs, mentally ill, or all of these conditions, what I hated most on the street was if I couldn’t contain someone in front of me. That is to say that if I told someone to stay in one place while I was conducting a field interview and they kept walking back and forth, fidgeting, making quick gestures with their arms, looking all over.

You know the kind of person I am referring to — your first inclination is to think, “Here comes the foot chase.”

Once again, your gut will tell you this person is “wrong.”

So after you have asked them to stay in one place, too many times, and you feel your anger meter rising, do the smart thing and call for a cover or fill officer immediately (if one is available). Put your ego aside and just do it.

Let me go into more detail on the exact behaviors and mannerisms to which I’m referring.

1.) An inability to remain focused for a very long when you begin to talk to them and ask them questions.
2.) An inability to recall what you have just discussed with them, thereby repeating yourself over and over again.
3.) An inability to stay in one place, i.e., constant movement with arms, legs, walking, head twisting, shoulder shrugging, looking all around.
4.) Extremely agitated, defiant, paranoid, elusive and not responding to questions or commands. They talk “down” to you like you are subservient to them. This is called “grandiosity,” where they feel that they even have special powers over you.
5.) Finally, does their behavior trigger your “sixth sense,” making the short hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

So let’s go back to the “little dude” I arrested (and how violent he was, and how it took so many deputies to take him into custody).

The toxic screen came back negative, no drugs or alcohol, but that he had severe mental illness and his diagnosis was bipolar disorder.

Just to reiterate. I cannot turn those of you who read this into shrinks or social workers — nor would I want to. I do want you to go home at night and be with the people who love and care for you.

Just remember some of those behaviors I mentioned and commit them to memory. You will know immediately in your gut what I am talking about — all I ask is that you listen to it and get some help there as soon as it happens. 

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