These aren’t my pants…
Sure buddy, never heard that before.
Mike is a full-time police officer and tactical medic. He has experience as a K9 handler, SWAT team member, and Law Enforcement Instructor. Mike started Tactical Tangents as part of his fundamental purpose to save lives. His goal is to enhance the survival of police officers and concerned citizens by helping them become better, smarter, faster, and more efficient. His opinions are for informational purposes only and do not reflect those of his employer or any other government agency.
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Traffic stops are dangerous and unpleasant. A lot of forces converge to make traffic stops dangerous: cops get killed on traffic stops, so they are anxious about them, some communities feel unfairly targeted and perceive a risk from the police, and everyone is at risk to distracted and drunk motorists passing by the stop. No one likes being pulled over, especially if they don’t trust the police. There has to be something we can do to make this whole thing safer and easier for everyoneread more
One of the topics that law enforcement academies don’t usually have the time to teach in a useful and articulable way is how to sift through human behavior. The way we feel about a person or situation is driven subconsciously, and the rational part of our mind is slow to catch up. We don’t itemize subtle pieces of information before our subconscious determines how we feel about an interaction. With emotions at the wheel, it is easy to start steering the chain of events without a lot of deliberate effort. We have to be careful about that in police work, because we need to be able to explain what we did, and why we did it. Falling short on this sort of training is detrimental to our relationship with the public, because as soon as we struggle to describe someone’s behavior—and our response to it—someone else will start driving the narrative. The subtle, contextual cues that guide our instincts are often tough to put our finger on, but they are also the reason we might approach one person or situation differently than another. The last thing we want to do is leave those decisions up to someone else’s interpretation.
Since the role-players are faking it, it is difficult to teach what stress, deception, and threatening body language look like in training. It is important that we find a way to give new recruits the working expertise to not only recognize it in real-time, but also explain it to a Judge and jury down the road. Like any skill, it takes practice. Think back to when you learned how to drive a car. You had to apply deliberate effort to scan your mirrors, predict the moves of other drivers, and anticipate traffic signals. Now that you have some experience, you do most of those things intuitively (…sometimes while texting or eating a burrito).
Human behavior is a lot more complex. Suppose that you think your spouse is cheating on you. Maybe you have a couple pieces of circumstantial evidence that you can refer back to, but it started with just a feeling—we’ll call it a suspicion. It’s hard to explain, but the feeling is unwavering. You acknowledge that you don’t have any proof yet, but now you’re watching carefully, deliberately. As you travel down the path to explore your suspicion, conflict is likely to arise—there will be arguments, and new points of contention will rear their heads. Maybe that friction will be the detriment of the relationship by itself, or maybe new information will come to light that either dispels or confirms your suspicion. What if you had to make a “stay or go” decision in the very beginning, without any more information? Imagine that you have to justify everything you saw and did in writing—not always an easy task! Sometimes your suspicions are pretty straightforward, and sometimes they are not.
Working with your intuition is especially difficult in the dynamic interactions that police officers face. We need to recognize and adjust for changes in those interactions as they are happening to be effective. We also need to make a mental note of those details for the aftermath. Part of being able to describe those feelings in a clear and persuasive way is to anticipate the needs of our audience. Some police officers fall back on “nervousness” or “furtive movements,” catch-alls that try to sum up how an officer felt without specifically explaining why. Police officers need to be able to write and speak well enough to convey those impressions, especially in use of force situations or public interactions that start amicable but later deteriorate. That is not as easy as it sounds, because we are trying to tell a chronological story of an event that happened in real-time and was cluttered with emotion and instincts. Just like learning how to drive, figuring out how to mesh all of these things together requires deliberate practice and experience. Jim recently wrote a note about report writing—and he hit on several great points. One of those tips was to separate facts from conclusions. This strategy isn’t just good for report writing, it is also a good way we can apply deliberate effort to shape our decision-making. Any time you find yourself feeling a certain way, try to identify the stimulus. Look back at the details to separate observations from emotions and you will reinforce those lessons for the next time you see them. Don’t delay in taking actions necessary to ensure your safety—remember that logic is slow, and it is important that you trust your instincts—but be sure to ask yourself the important questions after each incident. You might even start catching things you didn’t notice before.
Deception is a behavior near and dear to every police officer’s repertoire of personal experience. Like parents, cops are used to getting lied to. If you have ever interacted with kids, you’ve probably caught them in a lie. If I asked you to go back and explain how you knew, it might be the way they covered their mouth with their hands, or a shy smile, or it might have been the way they turned their body away from you when you asked them a pointed question. In law enforcement, someone you think is lying might only have something to hide, but they might also be dangerous. The behavior you are looking at is not much different than the sort of sympathetic nervous response motivated by self-preservation, and you know what that means: Fight, or Flight. These are the sort behaviors we need to be able to describe in our reports, because lies lead to arrests and arrests often lead to the use of force—your case, your job, and our collective trust with the public might depend on how well you communicate those observations, and “just knowing” is not enough. Recognizing deception might not be evidence of a crime by itself, but it could steer you in the right direction and help you uncover details you might otherwise miss. My goal today is to share a couple of tactics in deception to help you recognize them sooner and better explain your intuition to your audience.
Identify the Baseline
Traffic stops and interrogations make people nervous, and that manifests in different ways for different people. One detective I know used to always tell me that you know someone is lying if their arms are crossed. Since then, I’ve caught myself crossing my arms around him more than once. Either I’m a pathological liar, or it was just a comfortable position for my arms. Crossed arms might be a defensive behavior, and it could mean someone is lying, but it could also be that I just don’t know what to do with my hands. When it matters most is when there is some change in body language in response to a stimulus, like a question or reference to something that makes the person uncomfortable. In a polygraph, examiners use all that fancy equipment to amplify body language, then watch for changes. When interacting with someone, identify a baseline—then look for anomalies. Sometimes one piece of information is enough—but if you ever identify a cluster of behaviors, you’re probably on to something. Accept the behaviors that are persistent, then look for the ones that are new. Let’s look at traffic stops in general: Drivers who I contact on a traffic stop are usually somewhat nervous—what I would consider a baseline or “normal” level of nervousness for most people in that situation. If an individual’s level of nervousness at the outset is significant by comparison to what I consider normal, that might stand out to me. If I ask them to step out of their car and that led to some sort of conflict or an arrest, I want to be able to describe how many stops I typically do in a day, how those stops usually look from my perspective, and how this one was different. The same is true in a more specific sense: I am also looking at that individual’s baseline throughout my contact with them, and anything that might trigger changes in their behavior along the way.
Charming and Convincing
Think of these terms as verbs, not traits. If someone tells you a good story, you can assume there was some effort to make it that way. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are lying, but there was effort applied, nonetheless. The key here is the motive. The story might be convincing because it is intended to justify an action they took, or because the person is trying to impress you, or maybe their goal is to entertain you (in which case, it only has to be about 10% true). But it could also be because they have something to hide. If I asked you, “Do you have anything illegal in your pockets?” Your answer would probably be something fairly succinct: “No,” “Not at all,” or “Of course not.” But if you responded with, “No officer, I don’t do that kind of stuff, I am a good person, I have a kid, I pay my taxes…” That is certainly something I’d pay attention to. You might also see someone display an inappropriate level of concern for a situation—they could make a situation seem more serious to them than it is, or maybe they laugh and smile like it’s some kind of joke. Especially important here is that not doing these things doesn’t mean they are telling the truth—some people are better liars than others. The goal is to recognize when someone is trying to convince you.
Pay attention to the details
Another thing you might have noticed in that last example was the way the response offered a bunch of details not relevant to the question: I asked about stuff in your pockets, not whether you paid your taxes. You’re going to see some crossover in some of the examples here (clusters!). Let’s look at a shoplifting scenario: If I asked you to walk me through your visit to Wal-Mart, perhaps a “normal” account would sound something like, “My wife came to look at clothes for our 4-year-old. I was bored, so I wandered around the sporting goods section and looked at some tools.” If someone offers an exceptional amount of detail for an otherwise straightforward explanation, they might be trying to fill gaps to maintain consistency in a story that isn’t true. They are trying to convince you! Look for details that provide information that wasn’t essential to the statement or question.
Evasiveness is when someone avoids the answer to a question. My favorite example goes something like this: “Are there any guns in the car?” “Not that I know of.” …Not that you know of? When is the last time you drove around town and wasn’t sure if there was a gun in your car? Failing to confirm or deny, or otherwise answering a yes-or-no question with something less concrete but more elaborate, is evasive. Another way they might avoid the question is with something like, “Sir, I didn’t do anything wrong.” Well, that wasn’t my question—I asked if you had any guns in the car. Evasiveness can take many forms. Going back to our Wal-Mart example, an evasive response might give an account of a shopping trip that steers clear of the section of the store where the suspected theft occurred. You might ask, “Did you ever go to the electronics section?” and get this sort of response: “Like I said, I went to home goods to look at a coffee maker because my coffee maker is broken (details), then I went over to look at a fishing pole, …blah blah blah.” Yeah, but, did you go to electronics? If the person gives a response that never answers the question, you should be paying attention. The best way to respond to evasiveness is with specific, pointed questions. Those questions might encourage the person to shore up their lie, but they are also likely to show additional clusters of behavior that will strengthen your suspicion of deception. Stalling might also be evasive—someone who repeats the question before they answer, or asks you to repeat yourself, might be applying conscious effort to come up with a more advantageous response.
Just like charming and convincing, offering promises is an indicator that they are applying effort to earn your trust. Look at promises as a reminder that they haven’t earned it yet. They might also make a claim on religion, or “swear on their kids.” Not always a red flag, but worthy of your attention.
Responding to questions in an inflammatory way is usually a red flag. We aren’t necessarily talking about physical attacks, we are talking about a person who responds defensively to the question or situation. Aggression could be directed at a third-party, like when a suspect suddenly accuses a victim of wrongdoing in retribution, or they get angry with the person asking the questions and “harassing” them. Think of aggression in terms of defense mechanisms—if someone raises their hackles, it could be a strong indicator of a Fight response.
A critical component to detecting when someone is lying to you is to carefully look and listen for incongruent behaviors and signs of stress. Our more-truthful subconscious processes information faster than our deceptive self-conscious, and if we watch closely we can often see the lack of harmony between the two. You might pick up on someone shaking their head yes or no but giving a verbal response to the contrary. Look for barriers placed between you and the person—that could be an object (checking their watch or playing with their phone), it could be their hands touching their face, or crossing their arms. Barriers might be more mental than physical—such as averting eye contact or acting distracted. You might see adjustments or movements in the parts of their body anchoring them to the ground: Their feet, the backs of their seat, maybe their hands or arms if they are leaning up against something. Those adjustments might be directed away from you or towards an avenue of escape. Increased blinking and repetitive behaviors are also reliable signs of stress.
Obviously, this list isn’t all-inclusive. It important that we use this information carefully—human behavior is complex and we can’t learn everything we need to know in a day. Remember to apply critical thinking to separate facts from conclusions rather than speculate. Look for clusters of behavior, and identify the stimulus. Make a deliberate effort to scan for these signs and learn from experience. Not only can we apply our intuitive expertise of human behavior to recognize deception, we can also persuade uncooperative people into handcuffs, draw more information out of interviews and interrogations, and identify threatening body language early enough to take initiative and stay ahead of the reactionary curve. A better understanding of human behavior will not only help us be more safe and effective in our jobs, but it will also improve our ability to explain ourselves to our bosses and the community. If you are looking to learn more about some of the information we talked about in this article, here are a few places to start: