5 things police officers should know about their body language
Are you as mindful of the nonverbal communication you project on the job as you are about the body language of the people with whom you interact on the streets?
By Justin Freeman
Law enforcement officers know about body language and nonverbal communication – that human beings process more visually than verbally and that a majority of communication comes by means other than the spoken word.
Cops know to apply this knowledge to the analysis of others in terms of watching suspects’ eyes and hands, looking for signs of flight, deception and even simple nervous tics.
But are you as mindful of the nonverbal communication you project on the job? Here are some questions I asked myself as I interacted with people out on patrol.
1. Is my appearance a head start or a hurdle?
How we look in our uniform sets a tone when we enter a situation. If someone senses a cop to be unkempt, they may infer it to be indicative of our general sense of discipline. In fact, it well may reflect a cop’s readiness.
We’ve all seen an officer with neglected hair, wearing an ill-fitting, poorly kept uniform with green brass, or boots that look like they have been dragged behind a vehicle. That’s the extreme, but even small things can be distracting.
Give yourself time before your shift to get squared away. Be critical when you look in the mirror. None of us will prevent our shirt ballooning in the back on occasion, but as a whole, remember that you never know whose home you’ll be in – what call you’ll be on – that might make you regret not taking those extra few minutes.
2. Do I think the people I work with (and work for) are worth my time and effort?
This seems to be a question of psychology rather than body language, but I guarantee one will inform the other.
If you show up to a call already exasperated about having to be there, your nonverbal communication on scene will show it. If you’re impatient with people as they give statements, look bored or irritated, or greet every discovery on scene with exasperated sighs and rolled eyes, you will not get all the information you need to do your job effectively.
People may withhold information after seeing your demeanor, or your impatience may make you miss something you should have caught. Mentally check yourself on occasion. We’re all going to have those shifts when things don’t click, but don’t punish the people you’re sworn to serve because you’re frustrated.
3. What am I doing with my hands?
This bears importance on a call in two ways: Where your hands are when they are idle? What they are doing when they are moving?
Where you rest your hands is something you may not think about, but something that might create a communication barrier if you’re not careful.
At the beginning of my career, my field training officer noted my hand was naturally coming to rest near my gun and said if I let that become a habit, I would unwittingly intimidate people. This is true for any of the control devices on your duty belt. My solution was to reconfigure my belt to create some open space to rest my hands when I was talking to someone.
Some cops hook their fingers under the top of their ballistic vest, steeple their fingers or use one hand to grasp the opposite wrist. Nonverbal intimidation will have a place for each of us at points, but it needs to be something we are cognizant of and in control of.
What are your hands doing when they’re moving? Do you do a lot of “talking with your hands” when speaking? Moving your hands can reinforce communication when used effectively, and can confuse and distract people when used haphazardly. I try to use distinct hand motions when I’m trying to drive home a specific point and to not let my hands just float around randomly because they’re restless.
4. What am I doing with my head and eyes?
This is something I failed to consider early in my career.
Consider a domestic call. You are the primary officer and have split the parties to talk to them independently, though each can still see the other because of scene dynamics. If I start by speaking to the alleged victim and am leaning my head to the side, taking on pained looks of sympathy and so on, I am going to anger the other party and shut down communication when I get to their side of the story.
Conversely, if I start with the supposed aggressor and am nodding continually as I hear the account, the other party will assume I have bought into that side of the story and give up on the situation. I try to listen as impassively as I can to competing accounts – at least initially – and to not let head movement falsely betray conclusions I have not arrived upon.
This dynamic can also extend – for my brothers and sisters who work in daylight – to how you use your sunglasses as a tool on scene. For someone you want to keep at arm’s length, leaving your sunglasses on can serve to keep them from feeling comfortable or establishing rapport with you.
Making a point of taking your sunglasses off and letting someone look into your eyes can help open them up and make them feel comfortable enough to talk openly with you.
5. Am I conscious of my handshake?
Our natural tendency when presented with an offered hand is to shake it in return. However, when in uniform, a handshake conveys much more than when we’re off-duty.
Some handshakes are a no-brainer – business owners greeting us on foot patrol, colleagues in parallel agencies and related fields (loss prevention, security and so on), and citizens gathered at a community function, but handshakes change drastically when we are on a call for service.
I try to avoid shaking hands on a call for service, especially initially, until I can sort friend from foe – handshakes are too powerful a sign of acceptance to dispense casually.
This is far from an exhaustive list of considerations we need to make when on scene, but I believe these questions served me well to be effective in uniform. I hope they prompt you to ask your own questions and check yourself as you serve and protect with excellence.
About the author
Justin Freeman is a former police officer with the Springfield (Missouri) Police Department, and former public safety officer at Missouri State University. As a prior pastor of a small church and current board member of multiple non-profits, Justin seeks to bridge the gaps that can sometimes develop between law enforcement and the community at large by addressing them in his own context and writing extensively on law enforcement and other issues online.
This article, originally published on 10/22/2014, has been updated.