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American Sheepdog Online CCW Resource Magazine - We Look, But Are We
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  • We Look, But Are We "Seeing" What We See?

    Following the excellent article by Sgt T regarding our color-codes, it struck me as to how important it is to actually "see" what your seeing after using the higher color codes to stay alert and look around.

    Because this is a carry-on comment to Sgt's T's article, I did not want to hang it on his piece.

    Following the FBI's 6-year, 800-case study of assaults on LEOs, many things were learned and there were many articles written on individual topics in the study. Anthony Pinizzotto wrote several, and he is one of my favorites. It is included here with full credits at the end. Although the article is a little dated, the information is timeless, only the clothes fashions change.


    "Dead right": recognizing traits of armed individuals.
    The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin - March 1, 2006
    Anthony J. Pinizzotto

    On a warm spring afternoon, two uniformed officers were patrolling a high-crime area in a marked police vehicle. After they turned from the main road onto a side street, the passenger officer suddenly told the driver to pull to the curb because he wanted to talk to a male walking in the same direction that they were traveling. As the officer exited the patrol unit, the male produced an SKS-type rifle from beneath his long coat and shot him. The 7.62x39 rounds from the rifle penetrated the officer's body armor, killing him instantly. The driver exited the cruiser and also was immediately shot. The man fled the scene, but was later arrested, charged, and convicted of killing the one officer and assaulting the other. Prior to the incident, the slain officer had attended a class on identifying traits of armed subjects. When he saw the male in the long coat, he thought that the man fit some of the characteristics. Sadly, the officer was "dead right" in his suspicion.


    This actual shooting incident accurately reveals that officers must be prepared for a violent encounter when confronting a suspected armed individual. To help officers avoid these deadly situations, the authors present their findings on the traits of armed offenders that they have gleaned from three studies they have conducted over the past 15 years. (1)


    As most officers know, they are not the only person legally--or illegally--carrying a weapon. What factors can alert them to the presence of another armed individual? What observable behaviors can officers detect when someone carries a concealed firearm? Recognizing their own actions can help officers answer these questions.

    Some Similarities

    Sworn law enforcement personnel carry weapons under a multitude of circumstances, not just when in uniform. Other work-related situations can include plainclothes, detective, old-clothes, and tactical assignments. Also, many nonduty-related circumstances exist in which they may carry weapons. So, how do they act under these and similar circumstances?


    Officers who work plainclothes assignments, as well as those who carry handguns off duty, are concerned primarily with firearm concealment, accessibility, and security. Would these matters not be the same for other armed individuals, including criminals? By reflecting on their own behaviors, awareness, and training, as well as refining their powers of observation, officers can enhance their skills in detecting the presence of armed subjects. They should examine not only their own actions but also that of fellow armed officers not in uniform. Do such officers dress in a certain manner that enhances concealment of their firearms? Would offenders do the same? When officers stand, sit, walk, run, or change body positions, do they exhibit specific traits indicating that they possess a firearm? Would armed criminals change body positions similarly? Officers also know that carrying a concealed weapon over an extended period of time may produce certain automatic body movements or gestures, which they may perform without conscious thought. Could offenders who have carried handguns for a long time also display such unconscious actions?

    Major Differences

    Of course, officers must account for some major differences between themselves and armed subjects. First and foremost, sworn law enforcement professionals usually obey the law and criminals generally break it. This implies that laws, administrative procedures, or moral ethics rarely constrain offenders. As a result, they can use more inventive and devious ways to conceal illegal firearms. For example, in one case, officers arrested a subject who had a firearm concealed inside a car seat occupied by an infant.

    Additionally, by regulation, most officers carry handguns in agency-approved holsters. Conversely, the offenders in the authors' three studies did not use holsters. This may have caused many of their traits to become more exaggerated and noticeable or made them express their behaviors in varied but related ways. Finally, if stopped and questioned, officers merely display their identification and usually continue on their way. Criminals who carry illegal handguns realize that if a law enforcement officer stops them, they may face arrest and a possible jail sentence. Because the stakes are considerably higher for them, could this increase their anxiety and cause them to act differently?


    While examining clothing characteristics and behavioral traits, officers also must consider the individual location, surroundings, and circumstances inherent in each encounter. They must ask why a subject is dressed in such a manner, moving in a particular way, or shifting body positions.

    Because the male offenders in all of their studies reported regularly carrying handguns in the middle torso area, the authors focus their discussion on this part of the body. But, they also present their findings relative to female offenders, which offer some interesting insights that officers may unwittingly overlook. For example, one female offender had a small .38-caliber revolver hidden in the pocket of her short skirt. Two officers attempted to arrest her and a male companion for armed robbery. She related that initially one officer approached each of them; however, without searching her, he left her and went to help his partner with the male offender. She promptly walked up to the officers and shot and killed both of them.

    Clothing Indicators

    Specific observations regarding a person's attire may indicate that the individual is armed. These may include, but are not limited to, what individuals are wearing during warm versus cold or inclement weather conditions, as well as accessory items and unconventional weapons designed and manufactured for concealment that they may carry.

    Warm Weather Conditions

    Is the individual dressed inappropriately for existing weather and temperature conditions? A person who attempts to conceal a weapon may wear or carry additional clothing other than that required or appropriate. This suspicious behavior is particularly observable in warm weather. Why would an individual wear a jacket, sweatshirt, sweater, raincoat, or overcoat on a bright sunny day when others are dressed in short-sleeved shirts? Is the individual wearing multilayered clothing, such as two shirts or a pair of sweatpants over a pair of jeans, on a hot day? Similarly, why does a man wearing a shirt and tie, suit trousers, and dress shoes have his shirttail hanging out? Less obvious are individuals in casual attire with their shirttails outside their pants. Such inappropriate apparel can cover areas of the body where criminals frequently conceal firearms. Alert officers, however, may notice a slight bulge or protrusion that raises their suspicions.

    Obviously, officers can visually detect firearms easier on individuals dressed appropriately for warm weather. They should look for unnatural protrusions or bulges in the waist, back, and crotch areas and watch for less conspicuous cues, such as shirts that appear rippled or wavy on one side of the body while the fabric on the other side appears smooth. Many offenders in the authors' three studies revealed that they purposely transported weapons in their crotch areas as much for concealment as the reluctance of officers to thoroughly search this location.

    Cold and Inclement Weather Conditions

    Are individuals with a coat, raincoat, or jacket draped over their arms unnecessarily exposing themselves to the elements? What about those wearing a hooded jacket or coat in the rain or snow without the hood covering the head? One offender stated that he had several friends who carried firearms in their jacket hoods. Also, in periods of extremely cold weather, why would people not fasten their jackets or heavy coats? Could it be that they want quick access to a firearm?

    When individuals have on jackets and coats, are these pieces of clothing visibly weighted to one side, giving the appearance of an unusually heavy object in the pocket? Normally, personal items, such as wallets, keys, pagers, and cell phones, do not weigh enough to cause a pocket to hang substantially lower than the one on the opposite side.

    Accessory and Other Items Carried

    In cold weather conditions, individuals may have a hand warmer attached to their clothing or person in some manner. If these people appear to have been outside for some time, why are their hands not inside the device? If they have on gloves, why do they need the hand warmer? Does it exhibit ripples or waves in the fabric, giving the appearance of containing a heavy object?

    What about individuals carrying such items as purses, knapsacks, soft briefcases, gym bags, folded-over newspapers, or paper bags that appear out of place? Do these articles display a protrusion? Is the outline of the frame of a handgun or a partial contour, such as the barrel or butt, visible?

    If a person is wearing a fanny pack, can a wallet be seen in a pants pocket? If so, what is in the fanny pack? Does it appear weighted with a heavy object? Most types can conceal a handgun and may include a draw string or a quick-release closure method added for rapid access.

    Unconventional Firearms

    Officers need to remain vigilant for a separate class of firearms designed for concealment. Generally constructed without sights, these weapons, referred to as "belly guns," usually are inaccurate unless fired at a very close range. Manufacturers also have produced handguns intentionally disguised as other objects, including pens, pagers, cell phones, belt buckles, and wallets. Offenders have related that they possessed such weapons to use against law enforcement personnel who may overlook them during arrest or transport situations. The use of a hand-held magnetometer can assist officers in detecting these types of handguns and other potentially dangerous metal instruments, such as knives and razors.

    Behavioral Traits

    In the authors' three studies, none of the offenders who carried firearms used holsters. They reported frequently touching the weapon with a portion of their hands or arms usually to assure themselves that it remained hidden, secure, and accessible. Such actions become most observable whenever individuals change body positions, such as standing, sitting, or exiting a motor vehicle. Their unholstered handguns tend to shift, causing them to adjust or reposition the weapon to its original position. Walking with a concealed, unholstered handgun requires subjects to occasionally use a portion of their hands or arms to prevent the firearm from moving or to adjust the weapon after it moves. When they run, their actions may appear more pronounced and may involve constantly gripping the handgun to maintain control.

    The majority of female offenders who carried their own weapon preferred small-framed revolvers or automatic pistols. Their choice place of concealment was in a pocket of their outer clothing, with quick retrieval as their primary concern. Females often carried a weapon for a male companion prior to or after criminal activity. But, interestingly, no female offender reported giving her weapon to anyone to carry for her.

    Law enforcement training teaches officers to keep their gun side away from individuals during street contacts or interviews. Armed criminals do the same in encounters with law enforcement professionals to ensure concealment and easy access to their firearms. As one offender said, "If they're on that side of me, they can't see it. I can also get to it quicker if I need to. Because they can't see what I'm reaching for, I get that extra second."


    Basic principles of safely stopping suspected armed individuals should include some primary considerations. Not intended as a comprehensive, stand-alone checklist, this information reflects the personal insights of the authors and other law enforcement officers who have studied or interacted with armed criminals. These perceptions, based solely on observing universal behaviors displayed by armed individuals regardless of age, sex, race, or ethnicity, are neither mutually exclusive nor all inclusive. So, when the authors discuss, for example, the importance of lighting conditions during a traffic stop, they are not diminishing or neglecting the importance of securing adequate and protective cover. Rather, their recommendations highlight the safety of the officer and the community, along with the adequate and sufficient force necessary to effect a stop and possible arrest of an armed offender. Officers must carefully evaluate the facts and circumstances of each individual incident and weigh the risks versus the rewards of making the stop. They should effect the stop of a pedestrian or vehicle in a manner that affords them the maximum tactical advantage and the greatest opportunity to have sufficient backup assistance present.

    Stop Location

    One factor frequently within the officer's control, the location chosen to effect the stop, does not have to occur at the site of the initial observation. Knowledge of the surrounding area proves extremely important in initiating a safe stop. Officers should think ahead and plan for the worst-case scenario. They should consider possible escape routes and the danger presented to other law enforcement personnel and the public should a foot or vehicle pursuit take place. (2) They also should take into account the possibilities of a firefight occurring. And, of course, they should attempt to effect the stop in a location that affords minimum exposure and risk to themselves and innocent bystanders. Most important, although officers usually can control where they initiate the stop, they cannot depend on subjects necessarily complying. When offenders fail to stop at the chosen site, they may be attempting to select a more beneficial location for themselves, considering options of escape and tactical advantage, or deciding whether to use their firearm against the officer. All of these factors may increase the potential for danger.

    Lighting Conditions

    Because, historically, most law enforcement line-of-duty deaths and serious injuries have occurred during hours of darkness, the preferred approach and stop location should include optimal available lighting conditions that favor the officer. (3) When possible, officers should position themselves to see the offender's hands better. Where low-light conditions exist, officers should attempt to stop the subject where they have the maximum amount of artificial lighting available. Officers also should consider shining light sources, such as flashlights, headlights, spotlights, and takedown lights, in the suspect's eyes to temporarily blind the person. Officers working in tandem can prearrange that one officer concentrates the light source on the subject's face, while the other illuminates the hands or torso area.

    Available Cover

    Officers should assess the availability of cover and attempt to take advantage of any that exists. If they effect a stop in an open area that has no shelter, officers should know the location of the nearest one available. They also should consider potential cover that the subject might seek whenever selecting a stop location. Officers always should choose areas that afford the subject the minimum availability of protection and themselves the maximum.

    Totality of Circumstances

    Officers must take into account the location, surroundings, and circumstances of the stop. Other than unmistakable knowledge that a subject definitely is armed, no single observation or trait will suffice to establish reasonable suspicion or probable cause to detain, frisk, or search an individual. Instead, these characteristics are merely indicators, and officers must consider the totality of the circumstances surrounding each of them.

    Wearing inappropriate clothing could be completely explainable, depending on the circumstances and surroundings. For example, a traveler who just arrived from a colder climate may have on an overcoat on a warm sunny day. Perhaps, the person has to carry luggage, making it necessary to temporarily wear the coat. This individual may be near an airport, train terminal, bus station, or subway or in the process of hailing a taxicab. Under these circumstances, the observation of inappropriate clothing for existing weather conditions probably would not constitute a clear indicator that the person may be concealing a firearm because such behavior could be completely understandable.

    In contrast, an officer patrolling near an exclusive restaurant on a warm, sunny summer day may know that male patrons are required to wear a jacket and tie. The officer observes a shabbily dressed man hurriedly exit the restaurant and walk away at a fast pace. He is wearing a heavy raincoat, and, while walking, keeps his right arm pressed against his waistline. These circumstances may indicate to the officer that the subject possibly is armed and may have robbed the restaurant.

    By focusing on traits, be haviors, surroundings, and the combined context in which they occur, law enforcement professionals should be able to articulate justification sufficient to effect stops and frisks whenever reasonable suspicion or probable cause are present. Moreover, officers must constantly remind themselves that a recovery of a weapon from a suspect never should prohibit the continued search of the violator for additional weapons. After all, the identification of armed criminals, the safe confiscation of their illicit firearms, and the arrest and conviction of these dangerous individuals are of paramount importance in ensuring the safety of all law-abiding members of society.


    Knowledge, awareness, clear thinking, and finely honed observation skills may give officers an advantage when confronting armed subjects who may emit specific and unique signals indicating the presence of a firearm. However, the absence of such traits and characteristics does not suggest that officers can let their guards down in any type of law enforcement situation. They never can assume that a criminal is unarmed until they have thoroughly searched the person and the surroundings themselves. Nothing can demonstrate this more clearly than the shooting incident at the beginning of this article. Officers must remain vigilant when dealing with individuals they suspect are armed. After all, no law enforcement professional wants to be proved "dead right."

    This article is an excerpt from a 5-year study on officer safety that the authors recently completed. Violent Encounters: Felonious Assaults on America's Law Enforcement Officers will be available in the near future.


    (1) Anthony J. Pinizzotto, Edward F. Davis, and Charles E. Miller III, U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Killed in the Line of Duty (Washington, DC, 1992); In the Line of Fire (Washington, DC, 1997); and Violent Encounters (Washington, DC, publication pending).

    (2) For additional information, see Shannon Bohrer, Edward F. Davis, and Thomas J. Garrity, "Establishing a Foot Pursuit Policy: Running into Danger," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, May 2000, 10-15; and John Hill, "High-Speed Police Pursuits: Dangers, Dynamics, and Risk Reduction," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, July 2002, 14-18.

    (3) For additional information, see Paul Michel, "Visual Perception in Low-Light Levels: Implications for Shooting Incidents," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, May 1998, 6-9.

    RELATED ARTICLE: Case Example #1

    Officers responded to a domestic disturbance call involving a woman who allegedly had threatened several people with a gun but had driven away prior to the officers' arrival. The police department broadcast a description of the woman and the vehicle. A short time later, officers found a woman sitting in the driver's seat of the suspect vehicle. The female officer searched the woman but found no weapon. She was allowed to use a public restroom where she removed a .38-caliber revolver from between her buttocks and shot the female officer. Although mortally wounded, the female officer returned fire and killed the subject.

    RELATED ARTICLE: Case Example #2

    An officer stopped a pickup truck with a male driver and female passenger for improper driving. The male driver, who had been drinking to excess prior to the stop, immediately drew a small revolver from his waistband and gave it to the female to hold for him. The officer arrested the male for driving while intoxicated and placed the female, who was not under arrest, in the rear of his patrol vehicle. A backup officer arrived and transported the male from the scene. When the officer returned to his cruiser and sat in the driver's seat, the female removed the revolver from her bra and shot him in the head as he sat behind the steering wheel. She was still in the rear of the patrol car when another officer drove into the parking lot and observed the victim officer slumped over the wheel. She made no attempt to use the gun against the second officer. When questioned, she stated that she had a sudden fright of going to jail and shot the officer. She did not have a prior criminal record.


    Dr. Pinizzotto is the senior scientist and clinical forensic psychologist in the Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy.

    Mr. Davis, a retired police lieutenant, is an instructor in the Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy.

    Mr. Miller, a retired police captain, is the Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted program coordinator and an instructor in the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Serivices Division.


    Citation Details
    Title: "Dead right": recognizing traits of armed individuals.
    Author: Anthony J. Pinizzotto
    Publication: The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (Magazine/Journal)
    Date: March 1, 2006
    Publisher: Thomson Gale
    Volume: 75 Issue: 3 Page: 1(8)
    This article was originally published in forum thread: We Look, But Are We "Seeing" What We See? started by Rossi View original post

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