Compliance: What does it mean, when do we want it?

We have all seen the social media comment that “the suspect should have just complied with the officer” or “if you just do what the officer tells you to do, you won’t get hurt”. Without getting into a big philosophical debate, though maybe we should…

Let’s look at what these comments say, and what they mean. Do they hold up based on real life events? It sounds simple enough, just follow the rules, follow the directions, and everything goes smooth. But what has been the reality and why?

In several past incidents people have followed directions, done what the officer commanded (complied) and still been shot, beaten, killed, and/or injured. We have seen videos of armed suspects complying with commands to drop weapons, only to still be shot. A common response by too many observers to this poor performance by police has been to simply place blame on the suspect/subject for creating the situation. The discussion of expecting serial criminals, teens, intoxicated people, or people suffering mental health breaks to be clear thinking and make good decisions is one for another day. For now, I will just say that makes no sense. I prefer to rely on good decision making by the highly trained, professional police officer.

What is compliance and what does it mean to us? Also, what are our expectations of compliance when we give commands to a person? I believe this lack of clear understanding is the source of several preventable tragedies. The first consideration is what we perceive to be compliance or noncompliance. The second involves the time it takes a person to demonstrate they are following our commands, that they are complying.

What is compliance? Is it raising one’s hands with arms locked out, palms spread wide open shoulders hunched up to one’s ears? Is it somehow a person immediately dropping a weapon upon command, almost preemptively? We must first have a common reference for what compliance looks like, or we will interpret different messages from the same display. 

In Tulsa, OK Terence Crutcher was shot and killed standing next to his SUV with his arms raised as commanded by the 4 police officers on scene. While one officer apparently tried to tase him for his noncompliance, another officer perceived it necessary to shoot him with a gun. She later said because of his actions at the time, she had never been more scared in her career than at that moment. What was his level of noncompliance? Video evidence showed him to appear to be complying (arms raised overhead) while one officer used a less lethal tool (more appropriate) and another her firearm (not at all appropriate).

Philando Castile was shot and killed as he reached for his wallet to obtain his driver’s information, as instructed by the officer who shot him. As required by law, he had already identified himself as a CCW permit holder in possession of a weapon. And Castile had also reassured the officer that he was reaching for his wallet and not his firearm. Yet the officer interpreted Castile’s actions, directed by himself, sufficient to justify a lethal response.

Identifying what compliance looks like and what we expect a compliant subject to do, as far as actions, is critical to good decision making and performance. We need to determine what is “good enough” for us to move through a process, whether its custody and apprehension or just getting someone to stop and pay attention to us.

Not everyone we deal with will have the same OODA loop capability as us. Nor will they perform like our training scenario role players. Our role players are never drunk, high, or having a psychotic break. They follow our directions, almost before we say them. We develop the false belief that the suspect should know what we want them to do and how we want them to do it.

I have seen students ramble off their instructions to a role player, not taking time to gauge if the role player is performing them correctly or not. I tell role players to do exactly what the officer tells them to do. Most of the time, the “suspect” ends up doing an action the officer interprets as noncompliance, or not what they wanted, even though it is exactly what the officer told the suspect to do.

The second consideration, time frame, is important because it takes into account our information processing paradigm, the OODA loop. Failure to accommodate for this processing loop is another contributor to using force when we may not be justified. The question here is how long should we wait for the person to demonstrate compliance? There is one major consideration here that I think has been misconstrued by law enforcement.

We often excuse police who shoot unarmed people or people who have a weapon, but not threatening with it, by saying the officer only has X tenths of a second to decide if the gun is real, going to be used, or whatever else. I understand the “split second decision” gambit, I have been shot at. It is not a comfortable feeling. However, part of the reason we train, train, and train some more, is so we get really good at making split second decisions. We should realize that we don’t actually make decisions in a split second; we merely interpret the need to implement a pre-conditioned response. We do not rise to the level of the occasion; we sink to the level of our training.

Back to our real versus training “suspect”. We get used to the pace or speed of compliance by our role players in training. They run through their OODA loop at about the same pace we do, and so we use that as a gauge for the real world. But our real suspects don’t function the same way. They have many other things on their minds during our interaction. In addition to the already described impairments, they may also be thinking about prison, that their supplier will be upset about the dope being confiscated, and other real-world stressors for them. Things that don’t bother us in the least may weigh heavily on the suspect.

This weight may slow their processing and action speed. If we expect the suspect to operate at, say, speed 5 but they are at 3, we may interpret this as a conscious effort to begin some resistance, escape, or attack. If we are hypervigilant and have been trained in fear-based tactics and decision making, we will perceive any action, other than mirroring our direction, as noncompliance. We will determine the need to step up our use of force, and not by just a little. Its intent will be to overwhelm and crush the attack we wrongly believe is imminent. This is what excessive force often looks like.

Gaining compliance is the goal of what we do as police officers. It is why we do traffic enforcement, drug interdiction, and why we take people to jail. Whether we are gauging an overall societal level compliance thorough camera radar or giving directions when taking custody of a criminal suspect, we must have a consistent and common understanding of our definition and illustration of compliance. We must also have parameters for acceptable time frames that accommodate various OODA loops. If we understand both definition and time for compliance, we will use force less and when it is used it will more likely be appropriate and defensible without qualifications or deflections.