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Verbal and Non-Verbal Indicators to Assault
By Tracy E. Barnhart
Published: 04/27/2009

Prisoner thinking2009apr07 When we speak about the “use of force,” I notice more and more that officers either need or want the green light to be given to them before they act. Correctional officers deep down have an intimate fear when it comes to the use of force of either reacting too soon, or too late resulting in injury of someone, or not at all. They have a natural ingrained fear of the criminals themselves, their administration not backing them for their actions or decisions as well as their peers not having their backs because of those very same reasons. They have terms thrown at them such as, “Reasonable,” “Excessive,” and “Liability,” with no clear cut explained definitions as well as no clear cut directions or leadership by the administrations. It is often said that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than to request permission, but in today’s litigious society this may be true, but painfully unforgiving on your career.

In this article I will attempt to give you those “green light indicators” as well as behavioral indicators that you may be assaulted or attacked. If all inmates had a green light indicator above their heads that when activated meant you could immediately utilize force we would all be better off and sleep better at night. I have gone through internal and criminal investigations relating to the use of force I have used and let me tell you, they are not fun. You lose sleep; you become irritable towards your family because of the internal stress and your mind plays tricks on you as it relates to the armchair quarterbacking of the incident conducted by the administration and your peers. You may even start to doubt yourself and question your reasoning for using force before it is all over with, at the least, your zest toward using force will diminish after your reasoning and motivation are questioned. You will start to hear officers say, “I am not touching anyone!

In the court case Graham v. Conner the Court gave no definitive answer for law enforcement or corrections on what is reasonable as it pertains to excessive force. Consequently; it is possible for an officer to follow his training, departmental policy, and the standard operating procedure of the supervisory staff. In following all of the aforementioned steps the officer can still be charged criminally, sued civilly, and find that the judge and jury will find that his responses to the resistance still deemed inappropriate. This can prompt the responses to incidence of force by officer such as, “They are going to screw me anyway so I’ll make it worth my while.” Officers will make the use of force vengeful and vindictive. Officers may even choose to not get involved in the incidents or look the other way as it is occurring. Of course either course of actions is inappropriate.

No matter what you have done during your shift you can pretty much bet that your agency will not be disbanded for your actions or the actions of others. But you on the other hand are a dispensable entity, and your career may end because of your decisions. You may lose your credibility with your peers, your supervisors, and the administration. You may be disciplined and even terminated and that may not be the end but just the beginning of your issues. Depending on the incident you may be criminally charged, or at the least, civilly sued for that thirty second decision to place your hands on an individual. During this emotional and stressful time your marriage may fail only adding to your anxiety and turmoil. Sounds like fun, don’t it? Makes you wonder why we do what we do for a living doesn’t it.

The current Supreme Court legal decisions and judgments that have been made regarding the use of force state clearly that you are to be given a fair amount of latitude in your reasons to utilize force. Those allowances are to be made for the fact that the split second judgments that you make are in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving. Armchair quarterbacking should not be utilized in the investigation phase as hindsight is 20/20 as well as the application of others judgments for consideration of criminal charges but yet we all know that you will definitely be judged by others from the onset of the force that you use.

With all of this on your shoulders your own personal safety and survival mentality must be always on your mind. I see video tapes of officers who were assaulted by inmates and those inmates, prior to the assault, clearly exhibited verbal and non-verbal signals of their aggressive intentions that were either missed or ignored by the officers. The prevalent attitude exhibited by those officers was that, “It will never happen to me.” This mentality is observed throughout the institution in some officer’s daily routines. I want to give you some verbal and non-verbal indicators that you can place into your use of force reports and use by observations throughout your daily activities which the inmates may exhibit prompting you to utilize force or request assistance before the need for force arises.

Inmates will rarely attack you without letting you know what they plan to do. Their aggressive statements are meant to prompt some sort of a fearful submissive response from you, hopefully fear and intimidation. Their ultimate goal is to have you fear them and hold you as their pawn to move and place across the board as they want. Possible inmate verbal and non-verbal behavior indicators to attack need to be constantly observed and documented in your reports as they will save your butt and prevent your surprise injury.

Assessing behavior and preventing a physical assault should be accomplished whenever possible. It is critical for an officer to recognize and assess aggressive verbal and physical actions of a person. Recognizing verbal and nonverbal aggressive behavior signals will aid the officer in preventing and de-escalating situations. Also, it prepares the officer mentally and physically to take immediate counter actions should a physical assault occur. Before physical action by an aggressor occurs, that individual usually begins to threaten to attack, in an attempt to intimidate the opponent, through a process sometimes called posturing, ritualized combat, or affective aggression.
  • The individual may tell you what they are about to do, “I’m going to kick your ass!”
  • Visible overt awareness - visible weapons/unusual bulges/unusual nervousness/hands in view.
  • Their face may show tension and will tighten or twitch, the jaws and lips will tense into a biting position as well as quiver and mouth expressions will frown and tighten over the teeth.
  • Their body posture will display broadside with their hands on their hips or clasped behind their head. They subconsciously will take a bladed boxers stance and will rock back and forth or bob up and down on the balls of the feet. Stands taller, sets head and shoulders, moves away/moves closer, points, forms fist and/or loads the arm.
  • Their hands will pump open and closed and then clench into a fist so much that their knuckles will go white. Always look at the hands and what they are doing with them.
  • They will deepen their voice tones and the volume increases. The more threatened or aggressive an individual becomes the lower, harsher and louder their voice turns thus the bigger and tougher they seem. The deeper the voice the more authoritative they seem.
  • The eyebrows will come down as if to shield the eyes. This makes them look more aggressive and intimidating.
  • The nostrils will flare and their breathing will become rapid and deep. Lips separate to show teeth.
  • Aggression redirected to something/someone else, such as breaking pencils, kicking, chairs, yelling at bystanders.
  • The individual will seem to be looking through you; their eyes become glazed over with an empty stare. The individual will take on an uninterrupted stare with alternating eye stares and the eyelids will tighten down. They may attempt to get chest to chest with you.
  • They may start sweating and beads of sweat will form on the forehead.
  • Eye blinking; the blink rate reflects psychological arousal. The normal blink rate is about 20 closures per minute. Significantly faster rates may reflect emotional stress.
  • Individuals will show exaggerated movements such as pacing, finger pointing, and threatening fists with bent arms. Their verbals will be relentless and rapid to get you to change your mind or change your last orders that have sent them over the edge. They want to win the confrontation.
  • The individual may shed clothing such as taking off their shirts or jackets bend down and tighten their shoes or remove items of value such as watches and hats and set them aside.
  • The individual will start to look around to assess witnesses, back-up available, escape routes or will start to target glance at the places they want to strike on your person.
  • Vasodilatation and vasoconstriction or flushing of the face will also be evident at the tops of the ears by a darkening redness due to the release of adrenaline and noradrenalin into the bloodstream.
There is an inherent danger associated with the corrections profession. Whether an officer is in a county jail or a closed security segregation facility, wearing a uniform will put them in dangerous situations. Threat assessment is the act of becoming aware of a situation directly through the senses, including hearing and seeing, thereby making a reasonable determination about the risks involved. Any inmate potentially can be assaultive and use deadly force. However, approaching every inmate in a high-risk mode would be unreasonable. There can be many articulable facts that support threat assessment. Some of the facts used in this judgment decision are listed above; it is not a comprehensive complete listing.

How the Officer Should Respond to the aggression Nonverbally

Nonverbal indicators are probably the most important aspect of dealing with potentially aggressive inmates. When dealing with an agitated inmate, even more is conveyed nonverbally by the officer and less verbally.
  1. Respect personal inmate space - Personal space is the area around a person in which he/she feels safe. For most inmates and situations, it is about 2 to 3 feet. Entering an upset inmate’s personal space intensifies their emotions. As a general rule, keep at least one arms length away, about 36 inches, to prevent escalation and to increase your own safety.
  2. Maintain an open stance - Slightly turn your body at an angle to the other person. Keep your hands open and in plain view in front of your chest or at waist level. This stance is less threatening and offers a great advantage to stop an assault. Do not cross your arms or point your finger.
  3. Eye contact and facial expression should be appropriate to the situation - Your face and eyes convey a direct message to the other person. Maintain general eye contact, but do not stare through the other person. Know inmate cultural habits. Some ethnic groups consider it inappropriate to directly look at another when upset or being disciplined. Your facial expression should be serious but not angry or fearful. You want to convey concern and control.
The bottom line is that you need to do your job, keep yourself and other staff members safe, while making good decisions that you will be able to defend legally. Use these examples of inmate’s threatening statements and behavior make the right decision and to justify your use of force response. Remember, it is often not enough to do the right thing – you must be able to explain in your reports and testimony why your actions were the right thing to do. Win the fight or force encounter and then win the war, court decision... Do not take the interaction personally because it may not be. Think of the interaction as a game, they are on a team where they will be attempting to circumvent your commands and resist your authority in every way. It is your job during this game to remain professional and apply just enough pressure to accomplish the task without introducing personal vendettas, abuse or attitude toward the individual.

Tracy Barnhart is a Marine combat veteran of Desert Storm / Desert Shield. In 2000, he joined the Ohio Department of Youth Services at the Marion Juvenile Corrections Facility, a maximum security male correctional facility housing more than 320 offenders. Barnhart works with 16 to 21-year-old, male offenders with violent criminal convictions and aggressive natures.

Visit the Tracy Barnhart page


  1. not-the-enemy on 07/30/2009:

    Mr. Barnhart, I have been in the position of the "armchair quarterback" for the past 12 years as an investigator who conducted investigations inside of our state's juvenile correctional centers, first as a local DSS child abuse investigator and currently as a special agent for our state Dept of Juvenile Justice. i conduct administrative and criminal investigations of allegations that arise. Whereas I have never worked as an officer, I do not impose judgements on an officer's actions as much as trying to get answers from them to understand why they made particular decisions in any given circumstance. What I have found in my experiences of hundreds of investigations is that in a large percentage of cases, officers either ignored or missed a lot of the "green light" indicators that you have referenced. Ignored would probably make up the majority. Because these signals were missed or disregarded, the situation at times escalates to a physical incident where the use of force becomes unavoidable. Secondly, policies, procedures and training seem to "disappear" in these situations in how the officers address/handle situations, such as calling for assistance or notifying supervisors as a situation escalates. Restraint techniques become questionable and documentation, well that's a whole page by itself. This is not the case in all investigations but enough to be a concern. During my investigations my focus and task is to gather the information and report the facts to the facility superintendent for them to use as needed. Or in some circumstances to the Commonwealth Attorney for prosecutorial opinion on whether to file criminal charges. In either situation, I work to make sure that the decision maker will have the most accurate information as possible so that whatever decisions are made, hopefully, it is a just decision based on the facts of the situation without bias. In addition to investigations, I also do training with new and seasoned officers on our role and the importance of following policies, good documentation, and avoiding confrontations that are avoidable. I also talk with officers sometimes,during and after interviews/investigation about what i see as areas of concern regarding actions/decisions hoping it may educate or at least have them thinking critically to possibly avoid the same problems. A few officers over the years have asked me if I have ever worked "behind the gates" and somehow smugly imply and conclude that I do not possess the heart or the skills to their job. Whereas as i possess both, I try to convince all officers that I am "not-the-enemy", but I have a function to do. If they are innocent when an allegation is made, they should be glad when i show up because I'm working to find the truth of what happened. If they are not innocent, well, expect my investigation to find that too. I can't speak for all investigators but I do want those officers out there to know that not all investigators are "out to get you". A lot of us are objective and fair in how we conduct investigations. The closer officers stick to training and policy, the better the chances of favorable outcomes. I have been involved in preparing cases for litigation for civil suit as the result of an officer's actions, and I can tell you, the attorneys that represent the complainants are going to hold the agency and officers to the policy and training manuals word for word. I understand the theory of force, the application and that techniques are not always done perfectly in a realistic situation (i do have training and experience doing them), but in court: if the manual says it---they expect it to be done as the manual says it. So I applaud you guys for the work that you do, and respect you for doing it as well, just try hard not to end up across the other side of the table from us if you can. Good luck and stay safe.

  2. Editor @ Corrections.com on 04/28/2009:

    Reader Response: http://www.corrections.com/news/article/21403

  3. charst46 on 04/22/2009:

    I like your statement of it being a game. In many of the interactions we have with inmates, it really is a game. Sometimes we win, sometimes they win. In each case, hopefully the stakes do not increase to where your list of indicators of an oncoming assault come into play. Good article with solid reference points.

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