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Dealing Safely With Prone Suspects: In Context

by George on August 29, 2010 03:37

In January, 2009, the Force Science Research Center (FSRC), headed by Dr. William Lewinsky, came out with another excellent but preliminary study that certainly will increase officer safety.  This study alerted law enforcement to the dangers of an unrestrained prone suspect with his hands tucked under this torso.  However, as can happen with any study, misunderstandings regarding the study’s published conclusions seem to be popping up.  The FSRC will soon come out with the findings of their completed research project, conducted with the assistance of Sgt. Craig Allen and the excellent Force Tactics Instructor team of the Hillsboro, Oregon, Police Department.  These misunderstandings involve responding with force that will likely prove to be difficult or even impossible to justify. 

I first became aware of study, and saw a preliminary draft of the article by Dr. Lewinsky while teaching a DT instructor (Effective Combatives Problem-Solving Instructor:  TRAIN-THE-TRAINER) course for a large agency.  Various officers stated they felt the topic of problem-solving a subject’s hands out from under him following a takedown was now irrelevant in view of the new study’s findings.  They now believed the study justified shooting any suspect whose hands disappeared under his torso. 

I also received several e-mails from officers throughout the country asking my take on the study.  Each of these veteran officers were asking essentially the same question:  “Any time a suspect’s hands disappears under his torso, he may be armed and can move faster than I can respond.  Am I justified in shooting him because of well-known reaction-response disparities?”

Given the number of inquiries, there seems to be some level of confusion about the study’s conclusions and what officers may take away from its findings.  Bottom line, the FSRC’s study did not suggest that every prone suspect whose hands disappear is an imminent threat who needs to be shot.


In an e-mail newsletter entitled, “FORCE SCIENCE NEWS: Transmission #113," the lead-in was:  “New FSRC study explores threat posed by prone suspects.”  The first paragraph states, “One of the most dangerous positions a suspect can assume on the ground is prone with his hands tucked under his body, either at chest or waist level.  What’s hidden in those hands?  And if it’s a gun, how fast can he twist and shoot if you’re approaching him?”

It continues, “The prone study…is expected to further pinpoint the formidable reactionary curve that officers are behind when attempting to prevent or respond to potentially lethal assaults.”  Importantly, the e-mail notes, “Role-playing a prone, armed offender with hands tucked under his body, he repeatedly turned to present and fire a gun as if shooting at a contact officer approaching him from the feet or side (emphasis added).”  “The average time it took him to make his threatening moves was ‘about one-third of a second…This speed would likely be faster than an average cover officer could react and shoot to stop the threat, even if the officer had his gun pointed, his finger on the trigger, and had already made his decision to shoot.’”

Simply put, approaching a prone subject (or anyone) who refuses to show his hands is very dangerous and may lead to the suspect spinning and shooting an officer.  This is the same principle as the “Folsom Roll” that I introduced to law enforcement a couple of decades ago, revealed by a paroled "associate" of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang who did not know I was a police trainer.  He moved so quickly from a standard “spread eagle prone” that I was unable to react (other than to grimace) before he hit me (very hard), pulled me over him, and simulated taking my holstered handgun.  He then simulated shooting the cover officer using me as a shield, and then me in the head.  This happened in a blink of an eye.

Dr. Lewinski’s study now documents what was practically and painfully demonstrated by this prepared offender.  Someone can move faster from a prone position than you can react.  If he has a gun, he will be able to shoot you faster than you can respond, even if you “think” you are ready.


Every force response depends upon “context.”  The police force response can only be reasonable when the officer is able to explain the context of his or her perception of the suspect’s behavior within the totality of the circumstances upon which the officer’s decision-making reasonably depended.  Broadly applying the FSRC prone suspect study to all prone suspects whose hands disappear is taking its findings out of context.

Situation:  if you are attempting to arrest a subject and he resists, the first (and best) option is to take him to the ground in the prone position.  Before and during the takedown, you will have noted that his hands were free from weapons.  On the ground, this suspect decides to continue to resist, delaying the inevitable by pulling his fists under his chest in the classic “Nuclear Turtle Position.”  

What is the context?  You are probably kneeling (or lying) on his back, using your body weight to hold him in place.  There is likely at least one other officer on top of him—or soon will be.  From this position, it will be very difficult for him to roll or fight his way to freedom.  His hands were clear of weapons during the fight, and he has simply locked them into his chest with no obvious pulling or grabbing motions. 

Solution?  Slow down.  Wait for at least one other officer to back you up.  Do not tase him (unless you can articulate a threat of violence).  Once there are at least two officers present and using their weight to hold him down, extend a baton, and shove the tip to the ground between his armpit and chest wall.  If he squeezes his arm against his torso, preventing the baton tip from being pushed to the ground, give him orders to “stop resisting” and stir the baton vigorously while pushing down.  Once the baton is deep enough, use it to pry the arm out from under the subject.  Upon seeing the wrist pried out by the baton, cuff it.  This gives you a handle, helping you force the cuffed wrist to the small of his back.  If he’s not paying attention and again fails to comply, repeat the same on the other side.  Then bring the arms together, and cuff the handcuffs to each other.  Once he is compliant, adjust the cuffs so that one pair of handcuffs are securing him.  If he won't calm or cooperate, he can be transported in two sets of cuffs--make sure you double-lock all four cuffs to avoid injury to the suspect.

Change of situation:  that same unsearched individual in a prone position with officer(s) on top of him begins digging in his waistband or chest/armpit area.

What is the context?  There is no plausible reason for a person in this situation to dig and grab at something in the waistband or armpit areas other than to arm himself.  This is quickly approaching an "imminent threat" situation. 

Time to quickly change gears.  With you on top of him, it will be problematic for the suspect to surprise you by sharply rolling.  Target the limb that is apparently being armed by quickly pressing your weight with your closest knee through his upper inner arm, pinning his shoulder and, more importantly, his elbow to the ground.  A second officer, if available, should similarly pin the other arm.  If additional personnel are present, immediately assign an armed cover (not "lethal cover") officer.  This officer should be far enough away from the pile to have a “big picture” view but still close enough to take a single step and deliver fight-ending “proximity shots” if reasonable.  If you are alone, draw your handgun. 

In either case, order him to, “Stop reaching!”  Tell him clearly and loudly that you will shoot him if he does not stop.  Make shoot/no-shoot decisions based on the totality of the facts known to you at the time.  Remember, you are not required to verify an actual weapon exists if you have a reasonable fear of imminent threat based on his behavior, provided you can articulate your reasonable belief sufficiently.

If you are a lone officer, and he then permits you to pull his lower arm and hand out from under him, use your non-dominant hand to pull while maintaining weight with your knee on the upper arm, preventing any independent action by the suspect.  As you take hold and maneuver his arm, be very aware of sympathetic grip response issues that might create an unintentional discharge, and maintain the muzzle in a direction that doesn’t endanger any human.  If the hand is empty, holster and cuff that wrist, taking him into custody.


Change of situation.  You have an unrestrained prone subject with his hands under his torso, and refusing to show his hands.  This may be where you (and hopefully multiple officers) are directing him into a known-risk/felony prone position and he chooses to bring his hands under him, or it may be following a shooting where his medical status or consciousness level is unknown.  Whatever the case, this subject is in a prone position and is not complying with orders to show his hands.

What is the context?  There is a reason this suspect is not showing his hands.  Just like any subject who refuses to show his hands, do not approach him.  He is not cooperating.  He must have a plan.  And part of his plan might include you walking up to him to force him to comply. 

Slow down and be patient.  This is a multiple officer problem.  An “L” shaped contact is safer (officers contact him from two separate positions approximately 90 degrees apart).  From positions of cover and ensuring clear fields of fire and background, the subject should be made aware that multiple armed officers are present.  Orders are given to show his hands.  Give him time.  It’s uncomfortable lying on concrete, asphalt, or even grass for an extended time.  Eventually he will adjust his position, possibly giving you visual access to his hands.

Failure to comply now creates a new tactical problem.  At some point, after numerous orders and sufficient effort to gain his compliance, someone will be required to go “hands-on.”

Ideally, a ballistic shield approach with four officers (one on the shield, one with a Taser©, and two contact officers) will be made, protected by at least one cover officer behind something that stops bullets.  Approach is from the side least likely to have a muzzle pointing at the team.  When the contact team is in position, the cover officer gives one more command to comply.

If there is no compliance, tase him from an optimal distance.  As soon as it appears he is under Taser© energy, the two contact officers immediately move forward to quickly pin both upper arms to the ground with their knees while he is under power.  The shield officer ditches the shield and uses his body weight through his knees on the suspect’s shoulders.  Any subsequent tasing should be employed only if he is about to get out of control again—not to gain his compliance with orders to move his hands.  Now that both arms and his torso are pinned, slow down, work the problem, and get him cuffed. 

If the “multiple officers with shield” option is not available, call for a K9.  If this isn’t an option, it remains a multiple officer problem.  Once backup is on-scene, the traditional selection of the contact officer through “the-least-time in-grade-goes-first” method still works, with the senior officer(s) protecting from behind cover.  Approach from the side least likely to have the muzzle pointing at you and get those shoulders and his upper arm pinned immediately. 

If he spins upon approach and you reasonably believe you are in imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury, respond per your training.  The information that Dr. Lewinsky and his FSRC staff gained through their initial study will be extremely useful when articulating your decisions and defending your actions.


The Force Science Research Center has again made a serious and positive contribution to the safety of officers and a better understanding of the threats to life they face through the study of the capabilities of an unrestrained, prone suspect who has his hands tucked under him.  As I learned in the late ‘80s, a prone subject can move much faster than I can react.  Happily, all I suffered was a bruise and wounded pride.  If that had been real life and that parolee had been armed, I might not be here today.

The Force Science Research Center has again made a serious and positive contribution to the safety of officers and a better understanding of the threats to life they face through the study of the capabilities of an unrestrained, prone suspect who has his hands tucked under him.  As I learned in the late ‘80s, a prone subject can move much faster than I can react.  Happily, all I suffered was a fairly significant bruise and wounded pride.  If that had been real life and that parolee had been armed, I likely would not be here today.

Responding to the varying threats posed by proned suspects, just like every situation officers face, is a matter of context.  The latest FSRC study is very narrow in its scope, and should not be broadly applied to all situations involving a non-compliant suspect who tucks his arms under his body and refuses to be handcuffed.  It’s all a matter of context.