Web Site Index and Navigation Center
Communicating Effectively with Police
Disclaimer: Use this information at your own risk. The information presented in this article is not intended as legal advice, nor should it be considered as such. We accept no responsibility for the use or misuse of the information contained herein. Readers are encouraged to contact a private attorney to obtain specific legal advice.
One of the least discussed topics of personal defense is how to communicate effectively with police when youve encountered criminal activity directed at you or others. The advice given in books and magazine articles almost always focuses exclusively on what you should say to police after youve shot an attacker. While the guidance and information given are usually sensible, there are many other situations in which you might become involved where your ability to successfully interact with police will have a substantial bearing on the outcome of a criminal incident, in which you, a member of your family or a neighbor is the victim or intended victim.
Dialing for Emergency Services during a Life or Death Crisis
If you havent already done so, its vitally important that you post the telephone number(s) to dial for police, fire and medical emergencies directly on, or near, your telephone. During times of crisis you might not be able to retrieve the telephone number from memory. "9-1-1" seems like such a simple telephone number to remember, but when youre stressed during an emergency the part of your brain responsible for memory doesnt function well. This is because the area of your brain responsible for large motor movements, needed for fighting or fleeing, takes over. Without having the telephone number posted nearby to refer to, your brain could go blank while you desperately try to bring to mind the correct telephone number, or your brain might stubbornly keep telling you that the number to dial is "5-1-1."
Its easy to delude yourself into thinking "this wont happen to me." Even if youve already experienced the extreme duress of a life or death situation, dont underestimate your reaction to stress. The effects of stress are unpredictable. Rather than leaving things to chance and risk possible failure, you should plan ahead and do everything possible that will contribute to mission success.
Peel and stick "9-1-1" type labels to apply to your telephone are usually available for free from your police or fire department.
Location and Direction of Travel
If you call 9-1-1 to report an attempted crime, a crime in progress, or a crime that has just occurred on your property or in your immediate neighborhood, can you supply police with more information than just the street address of your home? If the suspect flees down the road in front of your home, can you inform dispatchers of his direction of travel? Could you perform this task right now if you had to?
Police refer to locations and direction of travel in terms of north, south, east and west. For example, depending on where you live, if your street address ends in an even number police officers will know to look for your home on the north or east side of the street because that might be how your city or county assigns street addresses. Whereas addresses that end in an odd number might always be located on the south or west side of a street. If your street address ends in an odd number, chances are pretty good that all the houses and lots on your side of the street have addresses that end with an odd number too. This is very basic information indeed, but its news to many people.
How do you report a suspect who fled down your street? In what direction did he flee? Its a good idea to sketch a map of your immediate neighborhood. It doesnt have to be elaborate. Your map should include the street you reside on, the names of intersecting streets, the cardinal points of the compass, and the street addresses of the houses/businesses in your immediate vicinity. Your map can also list the telephone numbers of nearby neighbors so you dont have to waste time thumbing through the white pages. Laminate this map and keep it by your telephone. Its best to have at least one map near every telephone in your home.
During times of stress, your homemade map will provide you with essential reference information that might be hard for you to recall at the moment. The best way to make use of the map, while youre on the phone with police, is to position the map in front of you and physically align yourself and the map so that youre both facing toward the street directly in front of your home. You want the line that youve drawn on your map which represents your street to be parallel with the street in front of your home, so as you look down the street to your left and right, your map is oriented to depict the same directions. In doing this, the map will be lined-up with the street and surrounding landscape making it easier to refer to.
An uncomplicated sketch-map allows you to efficiently provide information to police using their language. For example, if you saw the suspect run down the street to your right and then he turned left at the second intersection, you have all the information at your immediate disposal to report to police that the suspect: "fled south on Elm Street and turned west onto Walnut Avenue." This provides dispatchers and police with more useful information over the phone than: "the suspect ran down the street to the second intersection and turned left."
Its 3:30 A.M. and youre awakened by unusual noises coming from another part of your home. Youre not sure if its one of the kids, an animal or an intruder. You arm yourself with a shotgun and take a cover position while your spouse silently checks the kids bedrooms, and finds them all in bed sleeping. The noise continues. Your spouse awakens the children and quietly escorts them to the familys safe room. You take a defensive position of advantage, and using a command voice you call out into the darkness: "Whos there!" You hear sounds that make you believe an intruder is scrambling noisily to get out of your house. You hear someone or something run across the back porch, climb over the fence and into the night, and then its quiet.
In the meantime your spouse has called 9-1-1 on the cellular telephone and police are on the way. He/she has told the dispatcher that youre armed, that the family has taken refuge in a bedroom on the second floor, and it sounds like the intruder fled out the back door. The dispatcher directs your spouse to keep all family members in the same room together until officers arrive.
Several squad cars respond and the dispatcher keeps your spouse informed of the police activity outside. The officers check the exterior of your house and find evidence that an intruder entered a downstairs window by removing the screen. Your spouse is told that the K9 unit is on the way and that the police dog will be used to clear the house while your family remains hunkered down in the secure room. The dispatcher asks if theres a key available to give to the officers so they can enter the house through one of the locked doors. Youve thought of this situation ahead of time and youve prepared for it by attaching a house key to a Cyalume chemical light stick. Also attached to the chem-light is a small laminated map of your homes interior layout, downstairs depicted on one side and the upstairs on the other side. While you maintain security, your spouse removes these items from their storage place (first aid kit or tackle box) in the safe room, and uses a grease pencil to mark the map with an "X" to indicate the room that your family presently occupies. Your spouse tells the dispatcher that he/she will throw the key out the second story window on the northeast corner. He/she activates the chem-light, opens the window, cuts the corner of the screen with a knife from the tackle box and tosses the key, map and chem-light assembly out the window.
Shortly thereafter the K9 unit arrives. The dispatcher coordinates communications between your spouse and the officers. The K9 unit enters your home and begins searching while the dispatcher keeps your spouse informed of the teams location as they make their way through the house. Finally, the dispatcher tells your spouse that officers are right outside the door and that they want you to put your shotgun away. The dispatcher further explains that the officers will holler verbal commands for members of your family to exit the room one at a time while they maintain control of the situation. You and your family follow the instructions and youre safely evacuated from the room.
A spare house key thats kept in a first aid kit, tackle box or your guns lock box is a handy item to have if police want to enter and clear your home. Attaching the key to a chem-light (or a glow-in-the-dark key ring) keeps it from being lost when you toss it out the window.
A small laminated map of your homes interior can be used to show police your exact location, plus it provides the layout of your home to officers. Like the map of your neighborhood, it doesnt have to be the work of a gifted artist. It might help you to sketch it out on a full size sheet of paper and then reduce its size using a photocopier until its approximately the size of a credit card. Laminate it, punch a hole in it and attach it to the key ring using a small dog tag-type ball chain or nylon cable tie.
(While this isnt really a relevant part of the article, in this hypothetical situation the husband and wife worked together as a team using a concept called "contact/cover." It doesnt matter if one spouse is armed or both are armed. One spouse provides dedicated armed cover while the other performs "administrative" tasks, such as checking on the children, waking and guiding them to the safe room, and coordinating all communications with police over the telephone.)
Obtaining and Reporting Suspect Description
Some situations require you to obtain a hasty description of a criminal suspect. If theres multiple suspects involved, or you only have time to catch a fleeting glimpse of the suspect(s), start first with taking note of general details. This information gives responding officers very basic, but vital information they need to do their job. As they approach the location or scout the area in which the suspect was last seen, officers have the minimum information they need to identify a potential suspect and make contact with him.
General details include:
- Complexion/racial appearance (white, black, brown/Asian, Hispanic, Samoan, etc.)
- General age by appearance (adult, juvenile, child)
- Shirt or jacket color and general type
- Any obvious distinctive feature
- Location or direction of travel
A general description permits you to report basic information to police, for example: male, white, juvenile, wearing a green T-shirt with yellow logo, last seen running north on Sycamore Street.
Once you obtain a basic description you can follow-up by observing more distinctive details of the suspects attire and appearance:
- Hair or Hat (color, length, style)
- Color/Type of Pants or Skirt (blue jeans, khaki skirt, black shorts, red sweat pants)
- General height (tall, average, short)
- General build (slender, medium, heavy)
- Any other unique features (beard/moustache, designs shaved into hair, prominent tattoo, missing teeth, etc.)
You can report follow-up information to police, if needed, to provide a more discriminating description of the suspect. For example, the juvenile suspect reported above may be further described as: has long blonde hair styled in a ponytail, wearing a tan ballcap, khaki shorts, his build is tall and slender, with a goatee.
Obtaining and Reporting Suspect Vehicle Description
The same guidelines for obtaining and reporting a suspects description apply to vehicle descriptions. Start with general details first, then progress to more specific details as time permits.
A general vehicle description includes:
- Basic size and body type (large, mid-size, compact, 2-door, 4-door, automobile, station wagon, SUV, Jeep, sports car, etc.)
- Any obvious distinctive feature (custom rims, racing stripes, raised or lowered suspension, oversize tires, roll bar, etc.)
- Nationality of make (American, Japanese, European)
- Location or direction of travel
Example: 2-door mid-size American made automobile, black low-rider with chrome rims last seen going north on Elm Street from the intersection at Firetree Court.
- License Plate Number (if possible)
- Number of Occupants
- Make/Model/Period of Manufacture (if possible)
Example: Partial Washington tag WEV3, driver and one passenger, possibly an older Monte Carlo or Cutlass.
Communicating with Police after Youre Involved in a Self-defense Incident
If youre ever involved in any incident in which you used force, or you were visibly prepared to use force, against another person in self-defense you must be very careful in what you say to police. These incidents involve situations in which you:
- Physically laid hands on another person in self-defense against criminal attack.
- Visibly handled a weapon (pepper spray, knife, firearm, club, etc.) in preparation to defend yourself against criminal attack.
- Used a weapon to actively defend yourself against criminal attack.
Whenever youre compelled to defend yourself against criminal assault its imperative that you personally report the incident to police as soon as possible. Your objective is to go on record as the complainant, because "the system" usually, but not always, regards the initial reporting party as the victim. You want the system to consider your story first, so you can establish the fact that youre the innocent citizen who was forced to defend yourself against wrongful criminal violence. If you delay, or fail to report the incident altogether, your adversary can seize the initiative and report you to police as the offender.
When you dial 9-1-1 you want to be prepared to tell the dispatcher the following:
- You were threatened or attacked.
- You used force to defend yourself.
- The location where the incident took place.
- Your present location.
- Request police to make contact with you.
- Request medical assistance for yourself and/or the attacker, if needed.
"A man just attacked me with a knife in the parking garage at South County Mall. I shot him with my gun to protect myself. There was another man with him who ran down the alley behind Pennys. It happened near the elevator on the first floor of the garage. Im calling you from the payphone in Pennys. Please have the police contact me here. You should also send an ambulance."
"A kid broke into my home and attacked me with a knife. I shot him with my gun to protect myself. He collapsed outside the door of my bedroom. Im calling you from the telephone in my bedroom. Please send the police and an ambulance."
"A woman attacked me in the parking lot at the Safeway on Sycamore Street. I sprayed her with pepper spray to defend myself. She fled into Safeway. Im calling you from the payphone outside Safeway. Please send an ambulance and have the police contact me here."
The dispatcher will probably query you for more details about the incident. To minimize the risk of giving conflicting statements to authorities you should avoid giving out anymore information about the incident itself. You can, however, provide the dispatcher with administrative information such as your name, address and telephone number, a description of any accomplices, and their location or direction of travel when you last saw them.
To minimize your risk of criminal and civil liability you should provide the absolute minimum amount of information in your initial statement to police so theyre informed of the basic circumstances:
- Briefly describe what you were doing at the scene immediately prior to the incident.
- Briefly describe the attackers criminal actions that wrongfully endangered your physical safety or the safety of others.
- Briefly state the reason why you used force against the attacker.
- Immediately invoke your Constitutional right to remain silent.
Your initial statement can be as short as three sentences: "The man over there attacked me with a club. I shot him to defend myself. I want to cooperate with your investigation, but I must first talk to my attorney before I can give you any more details."
Make only one initial statement to police before you talk to an attorney. If another patrol officer or detective begins questioning you, politely tell the officer something like: "Ive already given my statement to Officer Smith and I have no further comment. I want to cooperate with your investigation, but what I told Officer Smith is all that I can say until I talk to my attorney."
Here are several examples of initial statements:
"I was walking to my apartment from the grocery store. The man I described approached me and threatened to beat me if I didnt hand over my wallet. I sprayed him with pepper spray in self-defense to escape. I dont know where he went. I want to cooperate with your investigation, but this is all I can tell you until I talk to my attorney."
"I was washing my hands after using the toilet. A group of young men walked in, blocked the exit and threatened to beat me. I drew my knife in preparation to defend myself and they fled out the bathroom. I didnt see the direction in which they fled. I can give you a general description of them. Id like to be able to tell you more, but I have to talk to my lawyer first."
"Id just parked my car and was getting out when the woman over there approached me and accused me of taking her parking space. She crowded me against my car with her body, hit me with her fists and pulled my hair. I shoved her away from me and she fell to the ground. I want to cooperate with your investigation, but I have to consult with my attorney before I can tell you any more."
"I was walking to the stadium with my family. The man over there was with two others who surrounded us and threatened us with knives. I shot him to protect my family and myself. The other two men ran away. I can give you a general description of them. I want to cooperate with your investigation, but this is all I can tell you until I talk to my attorney."
"I was standing in line waiting to buy tickets when I stepped on the shoe of a boy who was standing in line behind me. He and several other boys attacked me, knocked me to the ground and began kicking and stomping me. I shot at them in self-defense. I want to cooperate with your investigation, but Ive got to talk with my attorney before I can tell you anymore."
"I was standing over there at the bus shelter waiting for the bus. That man shoved me from behind by surprise and knocked me to the ground. He threatened to beat me with a padlock that was tied to a bandanna. I drew my gun and shot him to protect myself. I want to cooperate with your investigation, but I cant give you any further statements until I talk to my attorney."
"I was sitting on the bench over there reading my book when I heard my son scream. I looked up and saw the man over there dragging him into that van. I hollered at the man to stop, but he ignored me. He got into the van with my son and started the engine. I shot him to protect my son. I want to cooperate with your investigation, but this is the only statement I can give you until I consult with my attorney."
"I was awakened from my sleep by noises I heard outside. I went out to investigate and the boy over there attacked me with that screwdriver. I shot him to protect myself. He was with some other boys who ran away after I shot him. I caught only a fleeting glimpse of them and I was unable to get a good description. I want to cooperate with your investigation, but I cant tell you anymore until I talk to my lawyer."
"I was stopped at the side of the road changing a flat tire. The person over there was with a group of people who stopped their car and attacked me. He pointed a gun at me and I shot him to protect myself. The others ran to the car, got in and drove away. I can give you a description of the car they were in, and a general description of the other attackers. I want to cooperate with your investigation, but this is all I can tell you until after I seek legal counsel."
"I was driving home from the store when I ran into the back of that mans pickup with my car. I got out of my car to see if he was all right. He got out of his pickup and charged at me with a baseball bat. I shot him in self-defense. I want to cooperate with your investigation, but I must talk with my attorney before I can give you anymore details."
"I was working in my cubicle when I heard what sounded like gunshots. I left my desk to investigate and I saw the man over there shooting at my co-workers. I shot him to protect myself. I want to cooperate with your investigation, but this is all I can tell you until I talk to my attorney."
"I was home from work because I have the flu. The man over there broke into my home and tried to attack me. I shot him to protect myself. I want to cooperate with your investigation, but this the only statement I can give to you until I talk with my attorney."
"I was asleep in bed. The man over there broke into my home and attacked me. I shot him in self-defense. I want to cooperate with your investigation, but this is all I can tell you until I talk to my attorney."
"I was at the ATM withdrawing money. The man over there approached me and ordered me to give him my money. He implied he had a gun in his coat pocket and threatened to shoot me. I shot him to protect myself. I want to cooperate with your investigation and Ill give you a more detailed statement after I talk to my attorney."
Warning: The incidents described above are provided only as examples of brief verbal statements to give to police. The example statements do not describe the totality of circumstances involved, and they should not be considered as examples of lawful self-defense situations.
Be prepared to remain in police custody for investigation of assault, aggravated assault or homicide, depending on the circumstances, until you and your lawyer give police the kind of detailed information that theyre seeking. Keep your mouth shut about the incident until you talk to an attorney. This doesnt mean, however, that you cant honor requests for routine administrative information, or ask questions about whats going to happen to you.
Being involved in a violent situation is going to stir your emotions. You have to be careful not to let your emotions get the best of you while youre talking to police. Its very important to keep in mind that no matter how friendly and considerate an officer is toward you, hes a professional investigator and not your friend, and what youre saying is going on the record. It's also important to not view the police as your enemy. You just have to keep in mind that you're protecting your rights and self-interest.
Theres a time and place for everything and "thinking aloud" for the police while you attempt to sort out the events of what just happened to you can put you in extreme legal jeopardy. What you say is very important. You cant rewind and erase spoken words. The time and place to make misstatements is when youre alone with your attorney.
If you dont have an attorney when something like this happens, youll need to telephone a relative or friend and have them contact an attorney for you. Theyll probably have to contact the county chapter of the state bar association to be referred to a lawyer who specializes in criminal law.
Be careful of what you say over the telephone. Simply tell the person on the other end that you were involved in a self-defense situation and that youre being held for investigation of assault, aggravated assault or homicide and that you need help. Dont give out any more details, as others can overhear you.
Any criminal law attorney is better than no attorney during the police investigation. If youre eventually charged with a crime, you can seek an attorney who specializes in use of force and self-defense cases.
The ability to communicate effectively with police is important to ensure that justice is served. Planning ahead and being prepared to give the right information at the right time can have great influence on the eventual outcome. The tips provided in this article are designed to help you communicate vital information to police in a timely, effective, efficient and judicious manner.
Delivering you informative multimedia essays about the "battlefield problem-solving" tactical aspects of armed self-defense.
Web Site Index and Navigation Center
© 1998 - 2001 Firearms Tactical Institute. All Rights Reserved.
FirearmsTactical™, Salus In Periculo, and logo are trademarks of Firearms Tactical Institute.