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How strong command presence can quickly resolve dynamic incidents

A sergeant for the Lee County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office arrived at a disturbance call and almost immediately took control of a situation that was wildly out of control

In the small hours of the morning, the manager of an IHOP restaurant in Fort Myers (Florida) called local authorities after a group of unruly patrons consuming alcohol in styrofoam cups refused to leave the establishment. A Lee County Sheriff’s Deputy arrived on scene, and the group then turned even more violent. Several women engaged in a physical altercation with a female LEO attempting to break up the brawl.

Fists were flying as additional deputies arrived and attempted to quiet the scene. Despite the increased number of officers present, the chaos continued.

Then... the sergeant showed up. That sergeant’s command presence alone ended the mayhem. In a matter of seconds and using nothing more than verbal commands and physical presence, he quickly had all the offenders on the floor and all of the chattering onlookers silent. It was an awesome display, and it offers some key lessons.

As has become the norm, a patron captured the entire incident on video, and as is to be expected, the video has gone viral — viewed more than 50,000 times on Facebook. Check out the video, and then resume reading below.

The sergeant’s words immediately upon arrival were not to be misunderstood or misinterpreted.

“On the ground now! Get on the ground! Everybody on the ground! Now! On the ground! Now! On the ground!”

A few seconds later, an onlooker at that IHOP could be heard saying in the video, “That’s unnecessary! Just tell them to stop!”

The sergeant’s response: “Stop talking! Stop [bleeping] talking! Who’s running this place?”

Some people have characterized the sergeant’s actions as excessive — even out of control. One man who commented on the Facebook post said, “The fat big mouthed Sargent (sic) was way over the top…”

Admittedly, the sergeant used some colorful language as he took control of the room. Some observers were none too [bleeping] pleased about that.

But critics of this sergeant’s performance are flat out wrong. Nothing was excessive. Minimal physical force was used to get those offenders into handcuffs. None of the bystanders were harmed. And whatever injuries the subjects sustained that night were inflicted by each other, not the police.

Even the man who recorded the video told a local TV station that he felt the sergeant resolved the situation appropriately.

“For him to take control the way he did — that was pretty top notch,” Rick Martinez told WFTX. “Everyone got out of there safe. They either went home safely or to jail safely.”

As offenders were identified by the restaurant manager, the sergeant issued clear commands:

“Take her to jail, now,” he said at one point.

“Put him in handcuffs,” he commanded later.

He had total control of the scene in an instant.

Lessons learned

At the risk of unfairly second-guessing the deputies on the scene prior to the sergeant’s arrival, an objective observer might conclude that they might have handled things a little better — that some additional force options were available to them to more quickly resolve the incident.

The female deputy had been the target of several haymakers. As the saying goes, “play stupid games, win stupid prizes” and any of those offenders were justifiably deserving of more than merely a stern word.

All of the combative, and most likely intoxicated, subjects failed at every opportunity to comply with commands. Nobody was in custody, and nobody appeared to have positive control of the scene.

The sergeant ended that problem within seconds of his arrival; he achieved almost immediate compliance and no one got hurt. Just 13 seconds after he entered the room, all of the primary subjects were on the ground.

As WFTX said in its report, “You can see people drop like dominos as the deputy takes control and orders everybody to the ground.”

How did the sergeant singlehandedly accomplish what a group of deputies were unable to achieve?

Two words: command presence.

Command presence communicates to everyone present that you are in charge — not just now, but right the [bleep] now. Not just sort of in charge, but totally and completely [bleeping] in charge.

In dynamic and rapidly unfolding situations such as what was seen at the Fort Myers IHOP, command presence is potentially the difference between a call ending without further incident and a call going well and truly sideways.

Command presence can be vital for the safety of officers, offenders, and bystanders.

In the past couple of years there has been a movement toward de-escalation techniques and that’s a good thing in many cases. But de-escalation requires that both sides, the subjects and the police, participate.

De-escalation in this case was clearly not working. The entry of a single cop who was clearly not to be trifled with changed the entire dynamic.

Is command presence a universally successful tactic or solution? By all means no. There are no universally successful tactics or solutions in all of law enforcement. But when things are spinning out of control, a little bit of verbal dominance can go a long way to quelling an unruly crowd.

Following the incident, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office issued a statement saying, “Soon after our arrival, we took and maintained control of the situation.”

In my estimation, that statement can be revised: “A confident and capable sergeant arrived on scene and almost immediately took and maintained control of the situation.”

I’m reminded of the legend of the Texas Ranger arriving on the scene of a large disturbance.

A bystander asked, “Why send only one Ranger?”

The Ranger replied, “You’ve only got one riot.”

Well done, Sarge!

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.