Keep Your Eyes on the Prize: Active Police Threat Assessment Training from Observation to Interdiction

Training is great. It teaches us new ways of doing things and should make us better at our jobs. However, we know that simply training someone on a new technique and expecting them to use it safely and effectively in their job is not necessarily a straightforward process.

Police Threat Assessment Training & Facial Expressions

I would like to share an experience with you from some work I did with a law enforcement agency in North Carolina. As part of a project, we trained a group of law enforcement instructors on micro and macro-facial expressions. If you are not familiar, micro and macro facial expressions are small movements in the face which can be used to identify the seven universal human emotions (happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, anger, disgust, and contempt). These facial expressions can be used to assess emotion during an interaction and can be used in interviews in controlled settings

Full disclosure, I was not a trainer. I was a trainee. I took the class with these officers and was terrible at it. While I was bad at reading micro and macro-facial expressions, the officers enjoyed the training and reported they liked the techniques and found them useful. Later, one officer (an experienced patrol officer and tactical trainer) told me that although the these techniques were useful it would not necessarily be safe to use them on traffic stops or street encounters.

Why? Because the officer would be watching the subject’s face, rather than their hands and body movement. Looking for micro and macro-facial expressions requires careful observation. Knowing someone is showing contempt during a road side interview is helpful, but not if the officer MISSES behaviors that show the subject might be carrying a concealed firearm. This is a big deal.

In police threat assessment training, and any form of training that involves interaction with people, it is important that the training incorporates the human interaction and safety component associated with an interdiction. This doesn’t necessarily apply to all forms of threat assessment, but is relevant in active threat assessment, defensive tactics, interdiction, verbal communication, use of force or any other training that your officers receive that involves interaction with people.    

Threat assessment can come in many forms. If you are not sure which type of threat assessment is relevant to you or your agency, we encourage you to take a look at our Guide to Threat Assessment Approaches for Law Enforcement. This guide will help you identify which type of training or resources you might need.

Police Threat Assessment and a Spectrum of Interaction

When training on police threat assessment, or any technique used during an interaction with the public, officers need to be able to use the technique safely and effectively throughout an encounter.

What exactly do I mean by this?

Let’s take a moment and watch this video, if you have seen our blogs before, likely you will recognize it by now.

This is a demonstration video involving a subject showing a threat indicator known as a Dead-arm Swing. The Dead-arm Swing is associated with someone carrying a concealed firearm. This is a great demonstration video and would help someone to know what a dead arm swing looks like if they saw it.

But what should an officer do if they saw this behavior on the street?  

It depends. An experienced law enforcement officer should know how to interdict with this individual in a safe and effective manner. An officer may not decide to interdict right away, rather they may decide to watch the subject further to decide a course of action. Either way, addressing this potentially armed subject is something for which this officer should be prepared.

For a novice (like me) who has limited tactical training or experience in safe interdictions, it would be an open question as to what they should do with this information. Call the police? Maybe. Go talk to that person? Hopefully not.

More generally, seeing the person who may be carrying the concealed weapon is only the first step. We also need to make sure trainees are prepared to safely use this information and take the appropriate and safe course of action.

Stages of Interaction Revisited

In our police threat assessment training, we use the Spectrum of Interactions as a foundation for what is trained and when. There are five stages of interaction: unthreatened, present, watching, initial contact, interdiction. They refer to the extent a subject believes they are under surveillance by a threat (such as law enforcement).

We have two courses related to active police threat assessment. Our 8-hour Threat Awareness and our longer Interdiction course. In the Threat Awareness course, trainees learn active threat assessment techniques during observation, but not their use during an actual encounter. This is what happens in our interdiction course.

Our Threat Awareness course is focused on systematic observation and assessment of someone who may not know they are being observed (Unthreatened) or someone who may know law enforcement is around but does not feel they are being watched (Present). It is not possible in an 8-hour class (especially an online one) to train active threat assessment during an interdiction. This type of training requires in-person practice and role plays to ensure mastery of the techniques while keeping officers safe.

Table 1: Police Threat Assessment Across an Interaction

Table 1: Police Threat Assessment Across an Interaction

During an interdiction, as part of active threat assessment an officer should be looking to see if subjects are showing any threat indicators. Threat indicators are behaviors that indicate someone maybe a threat or carrying a concealed weapon. While many officers watch for threats while communicating with a subject, we know it is hard to do two things at once.  Another pair of eyes is always helpful. If one officer has a job of communicating with a subject during an interdiction, it would make sense to have a second officer watching the subject for threat indicators and looking for threats external to the encounter.

We do not just teach active threat assessment; we teach active threat assessment in a way that allows trainees to safely and effectively assess threats during an interaction with the public.  

Want to Learn More?

If you would like to learn more about how active threat assessment is conducted during an interdiction, please don’t hesitate to contact us. Whatever form of technique being trained, it is important that the technique and methods be taught in a way that allows the trainee to safely use them while performing their duties. As you know, any new technique or piece of equipment needs to be deliberately incorporated into your officer’s work.

Nathan Meehan Ph.D.