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10 things you can do to improve your voice commands

Your goal is to be the calm in the eye of every stormy situation


We often see multiple officers yelling at the same time or worse, giving conflicting directions. If one officer is saying, “Don’t move” and another “Hands up,” who is the subject supposed to obey?

During the arrest of Tyre Nichols, officers issued 71 commands in 13 minutes. Many of those commands were profane, unclear and contradictory.

Communication is an important component of law enforcement. Clear communication becomes even more critical when you are giving verbal commands, which typically happens during tense situations that are filled with uncertainty.

To avoid communication confusion, here are 10 tips to help you improve your verbal commands:

  1. Control your level of stress: En route to stressful calls, breathe and rehearse. Tactical breathing will help keep your heart rate down allowing you to perform better physically and mentally. Visualize what you need to do to handle the call. Doing those two things allows you to arrive on scene calmer, with a plan already in place.
  2. Keep it low and slow: Know when to raise your voice and when to lower it. Screaming isn’t a sign of command presence, it’s a sign of a loss of control. When you are excited you tend to talk faster. In high-stress situations I always tried to speak three times slower than usual. Speaking slowly allows the subjects you are dealing with time to hear, comprehend and hopefully comply with your commands.
  3. Start low and then go loud: Don’t give commands any louder than is required for the subject(s) to hear you. If that doesn’t work, raise your voice to be heard. Once you establish communication and/or compliance back your volume down. A command can be given in a whisper.
  4. Keep it clean, simple and clear: Stress can cause your brain to shift into fight mode. Where the brain goes, the mouth follows. There are those who disagree about the use of profanity. How does it look in the Memphis video? Simple words work best under stress. Saying, “Turn slowly in a circle” is simpler than, “Rotate 360 degrees.” Give commands one at a time to give the subject a chance to comprehend and comply. Multiple commands can result in the subject getting them out of order or forgetting what they were told.
  5. One voice: We often see multiple officers yelling at the same time or worse, giving conflicting directions. If one officer is saying, “Don’t move” and another “Hands up,” who is the subject supposed to obey? The first responding officer is in charge unless that role has been clearly relinquished. Under stress everyone wants to join in, leading to confusion and chaos in hectic, stressful situations. If that happens, saying, “one voice” or some other practiced cue can shut it down.
  6. If it isn’t working, try something else: Giving the same command 47 times isn’t establishing compliance. Force Science’s de-escalation class recommends that if you have given the same command 3-4 times, switch what you are doing or saying. Stop talking and take some action to improve the situation or change what and how you are saying things. Those actions might include moving to take physical control if necessary or creating distance and finding cover. You might change the volume of your voice or stop issuing commands and start asking questions in situations that allow it. Creating distance might lessen the subject’s stress level, allowing them to better communicate with you if they are in a mental health crisis.
  7. Ask yourself “Am I establishing contact with the subject?”: If they are mentally removed at that moment and are incapable of hearing, let alone complying with your commands, your words are wasted. Missing the cues and escalating your verbal commands may only make the situation tenser for everyone involved.
  8. Remember to listen: When things are potentially dangerous; you should be doing most of the talking. However, remembering to listen will lead you to cues of a language problem or a mental or chemical impairment in communication. When you identify them adjust your tactics accordingly.
  9. Be clear: If they are under arrest, tell them.
  10. You are a professional, look, sound and act like one: Your goal is to be the calm in the eye of every stormy situation.

The Memphis incident started with poor communication and went downhill from there. On every call, you are the professional responding on scene. That requires your commitment to ongoing training and practice. Model the behavior of those officers you work with who exemplify professionalism. When you are new, rehearse the commands you will likely need to use. Practice can only improve your game. After an incident ask yourself these three questions:

  • What went well?
  • What didn’t go well?
  • What do I (we) need to do to improve?

Then make the changes needed to improve your performance. That’s what professionals do.

NEXT: Why loud & repetitive verbal commands can hinder compliance

In February 2014, Duane Wolfe retired from his career as a Minnesota Peace Officer after more than 25 years of service (beginning in 1988). During his career, he served as a patrolman, sergeant, S.R.T., use of force and firearms instructor. He was a full-time law enforcement instructor at Alexandria Technical & Community College in Alexandria, Minnesota for 28 years. Duane has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Criminal Justice from Bemidji State University and a Masters Degree in Education from Southwest State University.