When you say, 'Let me see your hands!' are you ready for what might appear?

By Officer Pete Assenmacher

Consider this scenario: While on routine patrol, an officer observed a car circling a clothing store around closing time. In preceding weeks, there had been two robberies of similar stores in the area. The officer stopped the suspicious car for an equipment violation and found two males in the front seat. The officer, who has approached from the passenger side, takes note of the fact that the driver keeps trying to put his hands between his legs during the initial contact. He has to repeatedly order him to stop doing so.

A back-up officer arrives to assist and approaches the stopped driver who he thinks he recognizes. As he’s about to make contact with the man, the first officer yells to the driver from the passenger side, “Let me see your hands!”

The driver complies, but when he pulls his hands into view, he’s holding a gun, which he begins to fire at the back-up officer who is just behind the driver’s door. A gun battle follows, ending with the driver escaping on foot and no one being hit.

This is an actual incident that occurred approximately 20 years ago involving officers in my department. It has numerous training issues that we have shared with our officers.

One of the problems we often encounter centers on the idea of officers demanding that subjects show their hands. This is a desired tactic because the hands are what can hurt you, but often, there isn’t enough thought that goes beyond that command. In training and on the street I see officers routinely tell people to remove their hands from a pocket or under their jacket, but I’m not sure they’re ready to deal with what the person may be holding. It’s important for officers to remember that seeing the hands is only a part of the whole tactics issue when dealing with a subject…it’s what’s in the hands that adds more to the story. As was described in this particular incident, the subject did what he was told. He showed his hands. The problem was that he wasn’t empty handed. He had a gun and he was firing.

It’s rare that officers encounter someone who is concealing a weapon they’re ready to use against them. This rarity can breed complacency. However, when an officer does run into an armed subject, he or she needs to be on top of their game and ready to handle that life-threatening event. Mental preparation for an armed encounter is key. When you ask to see the hands, are you ready to face what might be in them? Be sure you are.

Visualizing a deadly encounter like the above is a step in the right direction. Mentally rehearsal, at minimum, gives the officer an outline of what to do in this critical situation. It decreases the likelihood of freezing because of lack of rehearsal or experience on which to draw. Continually rehearse various scenarios while on patrol and the proper reactions to the scenario.

Something to watch for is body language, which can often reveal a subject’s intent to conceal a weapon from you or to launch an attack. There are numerous indicators people display when concealing a weapon. Many of them are the same as those that law enforcement officers display when carrying a gun off duty. An example are specific movements indicative of carrying a gun, like the security check to see if the gun is still in place, or pulling the shirt lower to conceal the firearm, or constantly adjusting pants due to the weight of the gun. Wear a gun in the waistline of your pants – unloaded of course – and see what you do. Then keep an eye out for these same movements being illustrated by suspects.

Having people remove their hands at your direction, under conditions that are in your tactical favor is good doctrine and a principle that must be ingrained in the academy. Conversely, telling someone to remove their hands while standing four to six feet away as they look at you is not tactically wise. If there is a gun in the suspect’s hand, the officer is in essence giving that person permission to “draw” and because the officer expects the movement, he or she will sense no initial cause for alarm.

Point shooting is not difficult at this range. Reaction time being anywhere from three tenths to sixth tenths of a second, plus the draw from a holster, puts an officer at a severe disadvantage when attempting to deal with an armed suspect drawing down on him from that position.

Officers should be working in a contact/cover environment when dealing with armed individuals. The subject should be put at a disadvantage by turning them away from the officers before they remove their hands, one at a time, from the concealed position. By turning the suspect away, you’re obviously making it more difficult for them to turn and accurately acquire an officer as a target should they decide to shoot.

Also, the suspect’s movement can be an early indication of a pending attack. By having suspects face away from the officers, it provides valuable time to react. Practice these techniques in scenario-based training to develop the skills needed to react to threats.

Officers must be taught early in their careers that they must control the hands of suspects. However, they cannot simply continue to order the subject’s hands from concealed locations without thinking of the ramifications.

About the author

Pete Assenmacher has been a police officer since 1990 with the Lower Merion Township Police Department in PA. He has been assigned to Patrol, Bicycle Patrol, Special Operations, and currently, the Training Unit, where he is responsible for firearms qualifications, EVOC, handcuffing and various less-lethal qualifications. Also, he is the lead instructor and team leader for the Emergency Response Team. He holds a BS in Business Administration and an MS in Public Safety Administration from St. Joseph’s University.

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