How do your police practices equate to officer safety? What do you do to maintain the upper hand during a detention?

For purposes of this article, let’s assume you, the police officer, have a stabilized legal detention. It could be as simple as a ped check or diverse as a homicide scene with a suspect present.

Once law enforcement professionals have the upper hand, they need to maintain it. There are a myriad of things we could list, but I want to focus on two elements. First, what perception have you given the detained suspect? Second, what perception does the suspect have of you?

Since perception drives action, these fundamentals are worth discussing. I’m going to overlay them into combined elements.


The officer detains a pedestrian for a minor infraction. The detainee is a career criminal with a felony warrant. Since the officer perceived this was a life-long criminal that just happened to jaywalk at 2:00 a.m., the officer is far more concerned with the unknown past than the current infraction.

For those who recognize this as a pre-text stop, you would be correct, and it’s legal, so let’s move on.

The violator believes he’s simply getting jacked around by the cops. However, police officers know that career criminals running amok at 2:00 a.m. usually means they’re up to no good. And regardless of the hyperbole reeled off by naïve “watchdog groups,” good citizens sleeping peacefully in their beds want law enforcement to check on these characters, regardless of ethnicity.

The ped assumes he has a warrant for his arrest since he’s ignored the notices that have been mailed to his LKA (last known address), which is his mother’s home. Therefore, he is thinking about fight or flight.

So as our career criminal analyzes his options, what are his perceptions thus far?

Officer Laissez Faire Laundry Bag

Did the con, uhh, . . . citizen see an unfit officer that not only appears out of shape, but his uniform looks more like a laundry bag than anything else? Furthermore, she is almost wheezing while walking 15 paces toward the crook. And finally, he or she displays a milk-toast demeanor to appease a chastising society rather than demand respect from a thieving, conniving, disrespectful, opportunist prowling the streets in the middle of the night?

Or . . .

Officer Super Trooper

The officer exercises on a regular basis and looks professional in a tailored uniform. She crisply exits the patrol unit with a gait that communicates, If you run I’ll chase you down like a dog. He professionally, yet undeniably, asserts authority. He or she exudes respect, confidence, and control. Whether the officer is “large and in charge” or “compact and in command,” doesn’t matter. This officer drips command presence from the pores.


In the first example—Officer Laissez Faire Laundry Bag—the officer almost begs the person to split. However, the career criminal is taking a few seconds to consider the risk/reward when involved in the second example—Officer Super Trooper.

Perceptions play a significant role. Police officers should always offer perceptions of control that extend beyond their specific physique, appearance, and demeanor, i.e. command presence.

When police detain a suspect, do they unwittingly offer an open door? Is there action, or inaction present that might tacitly invite the bad guy to seek the upper hand through fight or flight?

Cover Officer

As a cover officer, do you pay attention to the crook or interject yourself in the investigation to the detriment of the safety of others?

Are there so many people at the scene that everyone assumes someone else is watching the bad guy? And suddenly he’s gone?

How many horror stories do we need hear regarding a suspect getting away after being detained?

Officer Safety Means Retaining the Upper Hand

Step out of your shoes for a minute, and objectively analyze how a suspect will view you, as well as the surrounding circumstances. Is there an option for him to regain the upper hand? Can you close the loop?

Remember, people become desperate when they are about to lose freedom, These examples barely scratch the surface when discussing perceptions as it relates to maintaining control. Yet they are vitally important if you expect to retain the upper hand.

Personal Apology

On a personal level I apologize to those offended. Normally, I am not this big of a jerk. But when your life, and the lives of others demand these requirements, then so be it. Whether it’s practicing assertiveness for your safety, or denying your preference for a bacon, double cheeseburger, with gorilla fries and large Coke, do it! Close the loop so you maintain the upper hand regarding officer safety.

Jim McNeff, editor-in-chief, Law Enforcement Today