Self-defence in the police service Part 1

In his dissertation for the 3rd TG, Wolfgang Birkenbach (2nd TG WT) describes his experiences with self-defence strategies and body language during his many years of service as a police officer.

The following comments and statements relating to self-defence, self-defence strategies and body language in day-to-day police operations are based on many years of experience as a serving police officer. They are not based on scientific investigations and/or studies, but only reflect my own experiences and impressions during daily contact with very different people in very varying situations. I refer only to (conflict) situations in which I was confronted with an individual or smaller groups of people. In contrast there are also police operations covering events attended by a large number of people (e.g. football matches, demonstrations etc.) during which violence cannot be excluded or is even probable. Such operations always involve large numbers of police officers, and the procedure in terms of planning, tactics and briefing etc. is always different.

I am currently 42 years old and have been a police officer in Saarbrücken since 24th June 1985. Saarbrücken is divided into several police precincts, and I am based in Saarbrücken-Burbach. Since the beginning of 1993 I have also been a member of the newly formed Special Operations Unit, in which police officers are specially trained and equipped for operations where violence is likely or cannot be excluded. The activities in my precinct are characterised by the weak social structures in the suburbs of Burbach and Malstatt (above-average unemployment of approx. 25 %, high proportion of welfare recipients and foreigners, excessive consumption of alcohol and lack of space), which are mainly due to the once flourishing but suddenly defunct mining industry.

The precinct’s area of responsibility now “only“ includes the Saarbrücken suburbs of Burbach (approx. 16 000 inhabitants) and Malstatt (approx. 30 000 inhabitants). Until the end of 2001 is also included Altenkessel (approx. 6 300 inhabitants), Gersweiler (approx. 7 100 inhabitants) and Klarenthal (approx. 6 000 inhabitants). Together with approx. 80 male and female colleagues I work on a 3-shift basis, which often includes weekends and public holidays at the expense of a normal family life.

The desperate social structures mentioned above, i.e. the high rate of unemployment leading to a life on welfare, often give rise to an increase in criminal behaviour (a fact well known to social scientists).

Another very difficult factor is the current age and personnel structure in the regional police force. Owing to radical economy measures involving a halt to recruitment, the average age of the officers on general duties is increasing, with noticeable results in terms of physical and mental stress. Conversely one finds that “the other side“ is becoming increasingly younger and more aggressive. Violent incidents (including actual bodily harm and grievous bodily harm etc.) often occur for little or no reason, and increasingly often the culprits are women and girls!

There is also a significant increase in the willingness to show violence towards male and female police officers, especially during the course of day-to-day duties. While 58 officers were the victims of violent resistance in the state of Saarland in 2001, no less than 80 officers were injured – sometimes seriously – while on duty in 2002. The list of these injuries reads like an instruction book on accident surgery, with bites, stab wounds and cuts, bruising and rib fractures right up to serious spinal injuries. I find these figures very alarming in a federal state with an area as small as Saarland.

In our daily routine, whenever the precinct is asked to send out (uniformed) police officers as so often happens, a car usually manned by two officers drives to the location concerned. The information about the task at hand is often sparse, as calls are usually made by unclear telephone/mobile messages and/or under the emergency number, or are otherwise vague or incomplete. Most of our activities are however routine matters which most of us have handled hundreds of times before. But it is particularly during many of these run-of-the-mill, unimportant call-outs that the situation has surprisingly escalated, right up to physical resistance against police officers or even worse. Not infrequently, one or more colleagues are actually injured during these “routine” jobs. It should therefore be said that routine is one of the worst enemies a police officer can have.

Especially after many years of service, a police officer must be able to adapt to very varied personalities and situations within a very short time. With an alert mind and heightened senses, he/she should be in a position to assess the situation (in police terms), the persons involved and the surroundings accurately and at once.

The ”presence“ of the officer(s) is also important in this connection. He should neither appear provocative nor too “soft“. The latter is immediately construed as weakness, in many cases making any subsequent police action difficult or even impossible to enforce. The voice should be firm but not too loud (though increasing the volume is possible and sometimes necessary depending on the situation and behaviour of the ”other side”). Instructions should be brief and clearly expressed while looking directly at the other person, but without fixing him with one’s gaze.

While one officer takes the lead, identifies the people present and establishes the situation, his partner should attentively concern himself with personal security aspects. Lively gesticulation should be avoided, as one often finds that the person against whom police action is being taken may behave in the same way or similarly, which frequently increases his aggression. The conversation should be sensitive but direct and to the point. Whatever the situation a police officer attends, he has a duty to perform. Accordingly he takes the lead during the dialogue and specifies what is to happen next.

The ideal profile of today’s police officer is that of a polite, pleasant superhuman who is trained in psychology, professional aspects and effective speaking, is always there when needed, responds sensitively and above all deescalates matters even in the most difficult situation. Naturally such a police officer is against any form of violence, and therefore not a “thug“.

Presumably because of the social environment I have already described, there has been a definite decline in respect and minimum levels of politeness towards uniformed police officers in my precinct (and this is not just confined to my profession). Indifference, abuse, insults and provocative behaviour are part of the daily routine for us. There is now a definite attitude that only the law of the jungle usually counts (“an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, or ”do as you are done by”).

Nowadays my “customers“ are almost always people who are in my view not or no longer capable of communication with others. My impression is that such people have clearly never learned or are not willing to deal with problems on a verbal level. As soon as they are at a loss for factual arguments – if there are any in the first place – the “right of the stronger“ applies and the fists begin to fly. This constantly leads to aggressive behaviour and physical violence in all its forms. One good example is so-called ”domestic violence“, which is usually caused by the male partner whose injured pride will not allow him to accept the humiliation of separation, and who uses violence to prove his ”affection” – or whatever these people take this to mean – to induce the female to return or stay with him.

We are frequently called out to such incidents, where we are called upon to play ”referee“ and protect the victims (usually women and children) against further attacks by the boyfriend, husband or partner. Since such men often react emotionally and in anger, they tend to be aggressive and provocative when we make an appearance, or precisely because we are there. In such situations there is a high probability of a physical attack on a police officer.

On our subsequent ”arrival at the scene“ we almost always find the same scenario and situation. The ”weaker“ party, usually the woman, has been beaten up by the “stronger“ party (or simply the more brutal, less considerate party) – normally her husband, partner or boyfriend. The victim is crying, trembling all over and frightened, and is often bleeding. The children, who have often witnessed the entire dispute at very close hand, are extremely frightened, subdued and traumatised. I have seen many of these children grow up in this environment, and have followed their usually negative development. Often they turn out to be mirror images of the parental home.

If the perpetrator is present, it is usually he who us the subject of our attention. If he appears to be cooperative and calms down after an understanding but goal-oriented conversation, and – and this is the fundamental precondition – the victim (usually his partner) agrees, he is given the opportunity to remain on the premises or scene. If there is the least doubt about his contrition, he is at the very least instructed to leave. He is always warned that legal consequences may result and urgently advised to remain calm. Should further police action become necessary for the same or a similar reason, he will certainly be taken into custody. He will also be taken into custody if he expresses his lack of contrition with statements such as ”I can do what I like in my own home!” or ”Just wait until you’ve gone, then there’ll really be trouble…!”. Behaviour and statements like this reduce our freedom of action and discretion to zero and determine our further action in then interests of preventing danger and any further criminal acts that are likely to occur.

In some of these cases the parties involved develop a certain “solidarity“ when the police make an appearance. People who were in dispute and have even attacked each other suddenly play the whole thing down and state that “nothing really happened“. They suddenly stick together and even urge the police to leave. Not infrequently they will adopt a negative to aggressive attitude towards us.

What I always find remarkable and fail to understand is the behaviour of parents and/or carers if children are present when the police arrive. My impression is that many “adults“ tend to build up an image of the police as the “enemy”. Something negative is often very obviously suggested to the children on our arrival, e.g. statements such as ”When the police arrive, they’ll take your daddy away!” or ”If you don’t behave, the police will take you away!”.

In my long years of service I have repeatedly found that people/criminals who are on the run have a greater tendency to use violence against the police, and sometimes in very extreme form. The are many different reasons for this. It is mainly because people/criminals on the run will often do anything to remain undetected and avoid the police action and legal consequences they expect.

My own verbal and non-verbal behaviour

Many of the individual (perpetrators and victims) with whom we come into contact are in a heightened emotional state. One must be aware of this and take it into account. They react very emotionally, and rarely sensibly or rationally. In the majority of cases where we are called upon to intervene, the people involved are under the influence of alcohol, drugs or other stimulants (with an increasing tendency!). Victims of violent crimes are often in shock and very frightened.

Not least because of my many years of service, I have (thank goodness) also developed a great deal of human knowledge and the absolutely vital aspect of a ”sensitive touch” when dealing with these people and situations. This combination has so far proved very successful, and made things much easier during my day-to-day duties and when resolving many conflict situations.

These attributes are further refined and improved by many years of regular WingTsun (WT) training, which I have now been doing for almost 23 years with unbroken enthusiasm. In all the confrontations I have had with one or more opponents during this time, the fighting skills I have gradually gained as a 2nd TG have always proved adequate. As a positive side-effect I have noticed that I have developed a healthy self-assurance, particularly in critical and escalating situations. I can (almost) liken this feeling of self-assurance to what we WT-people know as ”relaxed confidence”.

Just by virtue of this confident behaviour, which we in the profession like to call “maintaining a professional distance“, I have been able to resolve many situations which would otherwise certainly have ended in escalation without the use of violence. For this reason it is very difficult to provoke me with words or otherwise make me overreact when I intervene in a situation. For me every fight avoided is a fight won! Not least for these reasons, I have accordingly gained an excellent reputation at the precinct with respect to dealing with people in difficult circumstances. My colleagues and superiors see me as calm and sensible (as do those who know me privately).

The most effective weapon of a police officer is still the spoken word! A police officer must be conscious of his duty in any situation, and should if possible achieve his aim by negotiating skill and tactics. Should a self-defence situation nonetheless arise (e.g. resisting arrest), the police officer may himself expect to be accused of causing bodily harm afterwards, which inevitably means an investigation and possible disciplinary action, with all that this entails. For these reasons the officer must remain strictly within the law.

In view of the relationship between the above factors, I have developed my own, well-proven intervention strategy and can vary this as the situation develops. I make especially sure that my actions are always within the law and reasonable (necessary).

Another important and helpful aspect is that I always try to treat people fairly and not “talk down to them“. Behaving in a schoolmasterly manner tends to produce negative results and is inappropriate. If it serves my purpose, I will use the same vocabulary as the other party when appropriate, and I never fail to take account of his surroundings. If his wife, girlfriend or partner and/or children are present, I always try to make sure that he does not ”lose face” in front of them. This is to prevent something I see fairly frequently, namely putting him in the unpleasant position where he believes he has to prove something to himself and above all his family, friends or acquaintances. I therefore avoid giving him the feeling that he is “cornered“, and many of those concerned have afterwards thanked me for this with a sigh of relief.