Naked Suspects: No Laughing Matter

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When you’re dispatched to a call of a naked person out in public you’d be like a lot of officers if you thought the matter was amusing.

But you’d probably be wrong-and in the worst of circumstances, dead wrong.

Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato, has been tracking encounters between officers and naked adults for more than 20 years.

“Every year or two, an officer is killed by a naked person,” he says. “If someone is naked in public and is not drunk, not making a radical political or social protest, or not a paid professional like a stripper, the chances are overwhelming that they’re in the midst of a full-blown psychotic episode. In the vernacular, they’re really, really crazy…and potentially very dangerous.

“The vast majority of police contacts with mentally ill subjects, of course, are nonviolent. But naked people are among those categories that are particularly difficult.”

Lewinski, a behavioral scientist with a strong interest in mental illness, became intrigued by this category of offender in the early 1980s after reading about an officer who was called to deal with a naked man singing from atop a street sign. “Flip remarks that the officer made back to his dispatcher indicated that he took the incident as a joke,” Lewinski recalls. “A lot of officers would consider it humorous.”

In a matter of moments, the subject was down off the sign and the officer was in a fight for his life. His attempts at empty-hand control were ineffective. When he drew his impact weapon, the suspect grabbed it away and beat him with it. When he ran toward his patrol car, the naked man pursued him, disarmed him of his gun and killed him. “Things weren’t so funny any more,” Lewinski notes.

“Some of the most dangerous people cops run into are naked offenders. They’re usually beyond your ability to influence verbally. They have a heightened capacity to resist OC, impact weapons, even a Taser. Indeed, where Tasers have failed it is most often in circumstances where the subject is severely emotionally disturbed and/or chemically altered.

“If you don’t acknowledge nakedness as a danger cue and approach the situation with a strong officer-safety component, you are placing yourself at great risk. More likely than not, these people are in a delusional state and may perceive you as a threat to themselves.”

Lewinski recommends a strong show of force at the outset by having multiple officers respond. “The more officers you have present, the safer the subject and the officers are likely to be. More officers equal fewer injuries,” assuming, of course, the cops are tactically astute. If your agency has a mental health communications team, a member of that unit ideally should be among the first to arrive.

“Stay away from the subject initially,” Lewinski stresses. “Cops tend to want to close distance, but people in the midst of a paranoid or schizophrenic episode need greater space. Moving close puts you at greater risk because it heightens their agitation and fear.

“Get some object or barrier between you and subject which can slow him down and buy you time if an assault against you erupts.”

Unless there is immediate danger, you’ll want to attempt dialog, although you will probably need an unconventional “intervention strategy” in order to break through the subject’s psychosis to a better level of rationality.

“One of the simplest and most effective techniques was worked out at a mental health facility in Michigan,” Lewinski says. “If you’re the primary contact officer you let out a sudden, loud scream while dramatically clapping your hands, creating a loud burst that causes the naked person to focus on you. This may momentarily distract him from his psychosis and snap him back to reality. You may then be able to engage him in conversation, build rapport and coax him into cooperation and compliance.

“The only chance this has of working, however, is if you can present a calm face and gentle demeanor by the time the suspect focuses on you. This change has to be immediate, so that by the time he looks at you you appear placid and nonthreatening.

“This may not work. There are no guarantees. At best, it will open a brief door for intervention, which may close again without warning.”

Ultimately a use of force may be necessary. Gary Klugiewicz, a popular DT trainer and a member of FSRC’s National Advisory Board, teaches an empty-hand control method called the Star Technique for controlling EDPs. But this requires training, teamwork and practice and is not currently available in most departments.

Given the high risk of injury with unpracticed group hands-on methods, the unpredictability of aerosol and electronic weapons, the incapacity for meaningful dialog characteristic of psychotics, and their known capability for explosive violence, realize that deadly force may end up being necessary.

“Although a happier outcome is hoped for,” Lewinski says, “the mental and physical preparation to use lethal force should be present in these circumstances from the beginning.”

(For a gripping account of how 2 officers dealt with a naked father and his 3 naked children on a major thoroughfare in Kenosha, WI, one morning last week, go to www.PoliceOne.com and click on the article,” Officers Share Dramatic Details of Deadly Encounter With 300-lb. Naked Ex-Con” in Chuck Remsberg’s column area listed on the right side of the front page. This report, based on an exclusive interview with one of the officers involved, vividly illustrates the dangerousness and unpredictability that Lewinski describes. It was written by Charles Remsberg, a member of FSRC’s National Advisory Board.)

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