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When to Hold Them & When to Fold Them
By Tracy E. Barnhart
Published: 08/23/2010

Cards sevens When I refer to the Hold Them and Fold Them analogy what I am talking about is knowing when its time either to engage or disengage physically from a potentially assaultive inmate. I responded to a call for assistance a few weeks ago and I observed an officer attempting to verbally de-escalate an inmate who was visible angry and violent. The officer made several mistakes in the de-escalation process but was incredibly determined to talk the inmate down without the need to use physical intervention. So determined, in fact, that he continued verbalization even after the inmate assaulted him and struck the officer in the side of the head.

The inmate was never physically engaged and taken to the ground after the blatant assault took place. Incredibly, I can not blame the officer totally for his actions during this critical incident. Instead, the cultural climate within correctional institutions need to take much of the blame because of their often times hands off policy. Correctional officers are constantly cautioned not to touch the inmates and to continuously verbalize to attempt to gain voluntary compliance even after it has become unsafe to do so. The problem is that the type of clientele that we deal with often considers this type of action as weakness and fear. Many correctional institutions have adopted the liberal plaintiff attorney’s point of view that physical intervention is never appropriate and we have painted ourselves into a preverbal corner with our hands off policies and practices.

Understand; voluntary compliance is the desired result. The accomplishment of voluntary compliance is preferred because of staff and inmate safety, as well as the legal and administrative pursuit to reduce conflict whenever possible. How we attempt to accomplish this goal is a source of debate throughout the correctional and law enforcement cultures.

Correctional facilities have almost become the Al-Qaeda terrorist style criminal training camps and finishing schools which lead to the increase level of violence inside and outside our correctional institutions. Too often, our officers are assaulted and have become punching bags for the inmates – even as become more dangerous with the addition of Mixed Martial Arts training to their fighting skills. Yet, with all these assaults, the excessive recidivism rate, and increased inmate manipulation that leads to staff degradation, we are often told that we just need to take it and remain professional because, “it’s part of our jobs.”

We need to remember the S.A.F.E.R. Concept developed by Dr. George Thompson that states that although our goal is always to generate voluntary (verbal) compliance that there are times when words alone don’t work.

When SECURITY is violated, an ASSAULT takes place, an inmate FLEES from an officer, there is EXCESSIVE REPETITION, and/or REVISED PRIORITIES exist, that action is needed. This Action may include disengaging, calling for and waiting for more backup to arrive, and/or escalating to physical control techniques – but action, not inaction is needed.

Prerequisites for Use of Force Escalation: What factions need to be considered before escalating to physical intervention techniques?
  • Is the action worth the risk of injury to yourself or the aggressor?
  • Does the individual have the opportunity to comply with your lawful commands?
  • Is the current course of action (verbal or non-verbal) accomplishing the desired results?
  • What is the totality of the known situational circumstances?

Ultimately your safety must be your first concern with your administration’s legal umbrella second. With that said, we want to talk about knowing when to engage or disengage from your opponent. There are several instances when you may be creating aggression and not even knowing it.

“Force is defined as the exertion of power to compel or restrain the behavior of another. Physical force implies the touching or prodding of a resistor to comply with the state agents demands. Non-physical force implies the use of threats or other verbalization techniques to gain voluntary compliance. “CONTROLLED VIOLENCE!”

There is a useful formula that assists you in evaluated a threat.

Does the Threat Have?
  1. The INTENT: Causing you or a third party physical injury, serious physical harm or death? The threat may be from non-compliance or your direction, or being defiant. In an explanation, intent is the expression through verbal threats or threats acted out physically, the intent of causing you or third party harm. “I’m going to beat your ass.”
  2. The MEANS: Causing you or a third party physical injury, serious physical harm, or death? In an explanation, means is the ability to cause you or third party harm. Means can include the physical size, skill or ability as well as possession of a weapon or improvised weapon.
  3. The OPPORTUNITY: Causing you or a third party physical injury, serious physical harm or death. In an explanation, does the individual have the opportunity to cause you or third party harm? Based on proximity and environment. Opportunity varies dependant on type of means being employed by the individual.

Once you have INTENT, MEANS, and OPPORTUNTY, and have precluded all reasonable alternatives, you have the legal right and responsibility to physically act.

Closing The GAP: Officers often make the mistake of approaching a potentially assaultive inmate in an attempt to calm the situation. Closing the gap on an individual can bring about a verity of negative results.

When we talk about closing the gap what I mean is there are four different zones and a reactionary gap that surround an individual.
  1. The Intimate Zone (6” – 18”),
  2. Personal Zone (18” – 4’),
  3. Social Zone (4’ – 12’), and
  4. Public Zone (12’ – over.)

The reactionary gap as a rule, if we are within four feet of a person, and that person decides to punch, kick, push, spit, or stab us, there are few options available to prevent this action from connecting.

“Almost every animal is capable of self defense, from the smallest rodent up to the largest elephant. All will fight furiously when cornered and there appears to be no avenue of escape. The most violent fighting behavior is motivated by fear or rage which in turn can multiply a fighter’s strength ten-fold.”

When closing the gap on an individual in order to physically control, verbalize, reposition or make further interactions you must understand that you will leave the individual three options: Resist, Submit, or Flee.

In attempting to control an individual, there are four types of Cornering Tactics that officers make on an individual inmate during a contact that may generate aggression and a rapid decision-making in the inmate that may lead to violence:
  • Angular Cornering: physically boxing the individual in a corner or in a room where they now have no means of escape. Therefore anxiety has increased and their options have now diminished. They will feel as if you have trapped them and they have to respond to your authority.
  • Surrounded Cornering: this is an attempt to show force by two or more officers a semi circle around the individual or backing them against a wall. We see this often after a call for assistance and multiple officers arrive and zone in on the individual.
  • Contact Cornering: this type of cornering is the physical act of grabbing the individual. The person is cornered in the terms of limiting their available movement options. You must understand that there is an increased operability of a physical response once you place hands on.
  • Psychological Cornering: This type of cornering is when you give a direct order or command without any options and the individual must now respond appropriately. This forces a person to make rapid decisions to either obey or resist and face in front of their peers and face possible future repercussions.

We may be generating many levels of aggression without even knowing that we are causing the individual to make choice options.

When we talk about verbalization or de-escalation I have to stress to you, “that this action only works when it is Safe for us to do so.” If the individual is exhibiting aggressive or assaultive behaviors, it is not safe for us to get in close and verbalize with this individual. At this point the individual does not want to hear anything that you have to say. So, until he is at a point of understanding what you are attempting to do, your verbal attempts may be generating more aggression than calming. Keep your distance, call for assistance and while continuing to attempt stabilize the situation verbally. It is not safe for you to approach at this time and doing so may actually cause the inmate to assault you.

One of the biggest mistakes that I see is the excessive repetition and attention that we give to defiant inmates in an attempt to generate voluntary compliance. They will remain defiant because they know exactly at what point we have to go before we will force the issue. It is all viewed as weakness and when you swim among sharks, weakness is a detriment to your safety and the safety of the entire system. Remember Dr. Thompson’s caution that “On the Street or in the Institution (excessive) repetition is viewed as weakness.”

Draw upon the pride and knowledge of our predecessors before us and revel in the knowledge that you walk among greatness. True correctional professionals are not only great communicators but also skilled in physical intervention. The secret is to know when to change gears. Defensive Tactics, at its best, is truly a system of verbalization skills coupled with physical alternatives. Although we cannot control the cards we are dealt, we can control the decision making process of what we do with these cards. Your physical safety, as well as, legal safety requires that you know when to Hold Them and When to Fold Them. You need to develop these survival skills. Train as if your life depends upon it; because, someday it just might.

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