The Importance of Active Threat Assessment: A Focus on Vocabulary

Your officers have a “lingo” they use when communicating. This lingo, vocabulary, or glossary of terms allows them to quickly and efficiently talk to one another. Without this threat assessment vocabulary, it will take them longer to transmit information, give and receive orders, and may result in miscommunication.


Many professions have specialized terms and tools that they use when doing their job. The same should be true for how your officers describe and communicate about active threats. One benefit of utilizing a formalized and systematized active threat assessment process is the terminology that comes along with it.

An active threat assessment vocabulary will help your officers communicate about potential active threats AND help them to document what happened after an encounter.

Describing An Active Threat: An Example

Take a quick look at this demonstration video below and think about how YOU would describe the behaviors this subject is exhibiting before reading what others observed.

Person #1

“This guy in a heavy coat is walking really stiffly and kind of stilted. Like he is off balance or injured. One arm and one leg seem to be swinging oddly. His left arm is moving a lot and his right arm not so much.”


Person #2

“This guy is kind of limping when he walks. He has on a really thick coat too. He seems to move back and forth, and his arms are moving differently.”

These two people are watching the same video, but they are using different active threat assessment terms to describe what they see.

This subject in the video is carrying a gun concealed under his jacket. Imagine if Person #1 was trying to describe to Person #2 how this person was behaving. Things might be lost in translation or be misunderstood. This could be disastrous in the case of an active shooter or terrorist incident.

The Basis for an Active Threat Assessment Vocabulary

As part of the Just Doesn’t Look Right (JDLR) Project, researchers learned from experienced police officers about how they described and identified threatening behaviors. It was found that most police officers would all be able to identify potential threats, but they used different terms to explain what they were seeing. (Meehan et al., 2015) 

Let’s take this scenario: a police officer from NC and a police officer from Texas are working a security detail at a large public event (such as the championship football game). The Texas officer observers from a distance that a subject is quickly approaching the security checkpoint (where the NC officer is stationed) and is repeatedly tapping at their waistline with the palm of the hand and their fingers.

This tapping behavior is often exhibited by people who are carrying a concealed firearm at the waist. That tap is the subject reassuring themselves that they still have possession of the gun. This behavior is typical to anyone who carries a firearm.


But these officers have different terms for this behavior. The NC officer calls this a “weapon pick”. The Texas officer calls this a “safety touch”.

Now, let’s get back to our championship football game scenario. The Texas officer needs to relay to the NC officer that this subject might be carrying a gun.  If the Texas officer tells the NC officer that the subject (let’s call him Subject X) is displaying a “safety touch” at the waist, the NC officer might pick up on it. He might not.

It might take too long if the Texas officer has to say:

“Subject X is repeatedly tapping his waist with his fingertips and the palm of his hand, it might be a weapon”. 

Remember, seconds can be the difference between life and death.

Now, what if both officers used the same term to describe for this behavior? Let’s say they both describe it as a “Security Feel”.

Revisiting this same scenario, if the Texas Officer relays to the NC officer:

“Subject X is displaying a Security Feel at their waist”.

The NC officer knows the term and the meaning of that active threat indicator (that the subject may have a concealed weapon carried at his waist) and he will be able to more quickly react to this potential threat. Important huh? 

The Benefits of an Active Threat Assessment Vocabulary


For officers, using a common language for active threat assessment has many benefits before, during, and after an encounter:

  1. It allows them to communicate quickly and efficiently describe what they see to identify and safely interdict with potential threats.

  2. After an incident, it can help in drafting written reports and statements.

  3. It can help them to articulate how observed behaviors lent to their establishment of Reasonable Suspicion.

  4. It can help them to testify in the courtroom.

  5. It can help them describe how observed behaviors relate to the policies, rules, and laws that govern their job.

Imagine if your officers and prosecutors communicated using the same active threat assessment vocabulary when describing an event that leads to an arrest. The results would make a difference and help close important cases. Learn more about active threat assessment training and vocabulary from one of our specialists today!

References: (2018). Lexicon. Obtained

Meehan, N., C. Strange, and M. McClary. (2015). Behavioral Indicators during a Police Interdiction. Memorandum Report - NRL/MN/5508--15-9598. United States Naval Research Laboratory.

Meehan, N. and C. Strange. (2015). Behavioral Indicators of Legal and Illegal Gun Carrying. Memorandum Report - NRL/MN/5508--15-9597. United States Naval Research Laboratory.