Rethinking “Show Me Your Hands!”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Officers know that “hands kill” and that they should “watch the hands.” These well-founded concerns are what prompt demands for suspects to “show me your hands!”

The irony is that an order to “show me your hands” or “take your hands out of your pockets” may invite the same movement from a compliant suspect as it does from an assaultive one. Meaning, compliance can look like pre-assault behavior—and pre-assault behavior can look like compliance. Neither is good.

Unfair Fight

In deadly force encounters, we know that action beats reaction, and that police are at a disadvantage when trying to identify and respond to pre-attack cues. This is because it takes time to perceive a suspect’s movement, identify an object, interpret an action, decide on a response, and execute the response. While an officer is going through this “mental chronometry,” the suspect continues to take advantage of the officer’s delayed or defeated response.

We see this in our traffic stop study results, where officers were able to identify and react to an armed threat in less than .5 seconds but still took nearly two additional seconds to move, draw, and respond with aimed fire.1 Compare this to “suspects” from our previous research who were able to pull a concealed weapon and fire in an average of .25 seconds—with some firing at .15 seconds.2

To put these speeds into perspective, it takes about twice that long (.30 seconds) just for the brain to perceive and react to a visual stimulus. With these speed advantages, suspects could conceivably fire before the officer perceives any movement and could continue to fire ten or more rounds before the officer can return fire. Edged-weapon attacks can be even faster, with research showing knife thrusts at speeds of .10 seconds!3

Stop. Don’t Move.

To avoid these disastrous odds, officers learn to recognize and value threat cues and suspicious patterns of conduct. They give orders and prioritize tactics that take advantage of time and space to reduce a suspect’s ability, opportunity, and willingness to assault them. Simultaneously, they set conditions to help clarify a suspect’s intent, which will play a large part in judging the reasonableness of the officer’s response.

For those of you who analyze threats through the “intent, ability, means, and opportunity” framework, you’ll likely agree that intent can be the toughest to discern. Unless a suspect expressly threatens an officer, officers are forced to look to the suspect’s behavior and their willingness to comply with lawful orders to find evidence of their intent.

The challenge then is to give orders that create and maintain a tactical advantage while simultaneously creating opportunities to assess compliance. Simply put, it is more reasonable to infer a threat from a person’s movement if you’ve told them not to move.

On the other hand, directing a person to show you their hands is inviting movement that strips you of a valuable threat cue. It can risk accelerating an armed confrontation before you’ve established a tactical advantage and, if they intend to assault you, leaves you virtually no time to identify or respond to the threat.

Compliance or Imminent Threat?

The difficulty in assessing intent is not limited to cases of concealed weapons. After shooting an armed suspect who had recently shot at the police, officers held the severely injured suspect at gunpoint. With the gun still visible in the suspect’s hand, one officer ordered the suspect not to move, while a second officer ordered the suspect to “show me your hands!”

When the suspect moved his hand (still holding the gun), the second officer shot at him. Unfortunately, after the officer’s order to “show me your hands,” it was no longer clear whether the suspect’s movement was evidence of an imminent threat or a desperate attempt to comply. In either case, the cross-examination seems obvious: “You told him to move. He moved. You shot him.”

Lessons Learned

“Show me your hands” orders will always be an option for officers seeking to confirm or alleviate their safety concerns. The goal is to ensure these orders result from deliberate tactical decisions and haven’t become the product of thoughtless habits.

Selective attention and auditory exclusion remain legitimate concerns and can prevent the suspect and other officers from hearing or understanding directions. To mitigate these risks, training and team tactics should include clear commands that secure the suspect’s attention, avoid contradiction with other officers, and eliminate confusion.

Most importantly, any decision to issue “show me your hands” orders must consider how speed and the inability to distinguish compliance from pre-assault behavior impacts officer safety. A quick search of the internet will yield a disturbing number of videos to help make this point.4

  1. Lewinski et al. (2012). The influence of officer positioning on movement during a threatening traffic stop scenario. Law Enforcement Executive Forum. []
  2. Lewinski, B. (2000, November/December). Why is the suspect shot in the back? The Police Marksman. []
  3. Id. []
  4. See the attempted murder of Estill, South Carolina Police Officer Quincy Smith (2016). []
33 Responses
  1. John Converse

    Agree completely! I suspect “Keep your hands in your pockets” needs to be added to our lexicon of commands. While people can shoot through many pockets, they are more likely to draw and fire. Better to keep their hands in the pockets, move forward to frisk, and then get their hands out under control.

  2. John O. Stewart

    I can only say, Finally! For years I have been teaching that, “Show me your hands,” as an initial command is exceptionally … unwise in most high threat situations. During one training simulation an experienced deputy kept yelling the command at a man who had both hands fully visible with a gun lying on a stand next to him. He had clearly fallen into an automatic, unthinking mental loop that was totally inappropriate for the situation.

    1. John Placette

      I have been in law enforcement for 44years. At one point it was fashionable to tell a suspect to “freeze, don’t move!”. Made sense then and now.

  3. Steven Gibbs

    Long retired but completely agree. Don’t move, leave that hand in what pocket-at least until I can grab it and see if there is gun-shaped object in it.

  4. William Parkomaki

    I couldn’t agree more with giving the command “don’t move” verses “show me your hands.” It was explained to me years ago as “presumed compliance.” The subject is doing what you are telling them to do, thus lowering your vigilance, because they are complying with the command. We include identification with challenge, “police, don’t move.” As opposed to “police, don’t move” and they begin to move thus raising your vigilance.

  5. Timothy j kelly

    “Don’t Move” was taught to us in Rochester NY Police Academy 30 years ago! We were told NEVER instruct “let me see your hands”…NEVER! It was always Police ” Dont Move”…

  6. Thomas Lillagore, Jr.

    Back in the 60’s and 70’s the command was, FREEZE. Then as we “evolved”, it became more correct to say “SHOW ME YOUR HANDS” because the hands kill. I guess those Neanderthal Cops without technology were doing something something right LOL! Stay safe out there and keep your guard up!

  7. Good information. In addition to what the article states, if an officer gives someone a lawful movement command (i.e. “Show me your hands”), the officer has to allow the suspect time to comply with the command. If the suspect’s intent is to cause harm, the officer has just provided them that necessary time needed to carry out the assault by virtue of the command.

  8. Todd Armbrust

    Great article, great point, tactically sound and correct. I would take it a step further that we, as LEO leaders, instructors, etc., try to eliminate “Show me your hands” from the police terms used. All of the things discussed in this article are spot on and I think this is much the same as the old using “help” on the radio. HELP is exactly that, a HELP call. I am old timer, 27 years on the job and counting. This is language we must discuss early on in police careers and should be taught and discussed clearly, openly and honestly in our academies. I have preached this for many years as others have commented, but we MUST make this a thing for all agencies, nationwide, even worldwide, if possible.


  9. Arthur Bodhi Chenevey

    The more and more we understand about how the neuroscience of how the brain processes the external, physical reality, everything we think we see is actually a functional, carefully controlled hallucination based on past experiences stored as memory. Our brain is taking in light waves, sound pressure, and interoceptive data from within (i.e., heart-rate, breathing, blood pressure) and then selecting a past successful prediction that seems most accurate. Essentially, the brain re-creates the past from memory with the data it is currently receiving in a prediction of what is happening and how to address what the brain thinks is happening. the brain predicts almost everything we do.

    This is why realistic training with actual contextual accurate threat cues are essential, and why real-world past experiences assist an officer to make the appropriate responses. There is more to demanding a suspect show his or her hidden hands, especially under the duress of potential lethal force. How we need to position ourselves tactically, how we approach any suspect, and how our verbal skills instructs a potential threat to reveal hands possibly holding a weapon ready to use.

    If a subject is armed and the hands are hidden, he will decide to shoot or stab us before we make the accurate, predictive decision to properly address that lethal threat.–even with gun drawn. AND, if we inaccurately predict his or her hands hold a weapon and we shoot–well, we know that story too often. If we are expecting to see a gun, then our brain actually will more likely predict what it is seeing is a gun, even if it is a cell phone. Remember, what we think we are seeing is nothing more than a controlled hallucination formed in our brain from the external stimuli from light waves. Duress makes this process even more difficult to do accurately.

    The key is to instruct the subject to: “Stop! Now slowly show me your hands–elbows out to your side–no sudden movements.” This can be done professionally and politely.

    The more neuroscience explains how human brains work, the more the criminal justice system is going to have to revamp its grossly outdated 19th and 20th century procedures, practices and policies for law enforcement training, selection, recruiting and even writing the laws protecting society.

    For anyone who finds my response informative and/or challenging, for more in-depth research on the items I have stated, seek out the HANDBOOK OF EMOTIONS, 4th edition (2016), edited by Feldman-Barrett, Lewis and Haviland-Jones, publsihed by Guilford Press. There are numerous contributors, all top tier cognitive neurobiologists and neuroscience professions addressing numerous components of the human condition.

  10. Joseph Paskvan

    If hands are in pockets start by having them “Show me your thumbs” and then go finger by finger. If non-compliance occurs(whole hand comes out)C’est la guerre.

  11. Don Black

    Robert Koga taught officers for over 50 years to not tell suspects to take their hands out of their pockets while you have no cover and are in close contact. You should tell them while you have cover and before you approach them. If you are already close to them, you should slide behind them and trap their hands in their pockets and use your hands to pull his out one at a time. I sent a video to Police One of Robert Koga demonstrating the danger years ago. I would not tell them to keep their hands in their pockets. This tells them what is coming and your concern and alerts them that they need to use their weapon as soon as possible. You have to have cover or get behind them and control the hands in their pockets. If I have cover, then obviously, at some point, I have to tell them to show me their hands. You see a lack of thought in many situations where the officers execute a warrant and run in yelling “Get down”. Obviously, I want everyone not to move, so I can pick out the one who is diving for a weapon. The appropriate command would obviously be “Police, don’t move”. The one diving now draws my attention and gives me greater justification if I have to shoot. But, all over cops are still yelling “Get down” and creating a situation where they might shoot him for doing what you told him to do.

  12. Steven Norton

    The late Robert Koga (Koga Institute) taught this concept decades ago. Now it’s some kind of revelation. If in close contact he taught to spin the subject and get behind him/her, trap the hands, and remove them one at a time while placing the subject into a frisk position. At distance he taught to utilize cover, have the subject turn away from you and remove the hands one at a time. I guess this is good for officers not taught this before, but nothing new to us.

    1. Von Kliem

      You are spot on…nothing new under the sun. The mandate now is to steward the best of yesterday to the new generations of cops being added everyday.

  13. Great article. The standardized “Police Challenge” in British Columbia (and most of Canada I believe), has been: “POLICE, DON’T MOVE!” for 20 years or more. It is incorporated into ALL firearms training and into the formal “qualification” process. We have been training officers for many years to tell subjects of police interaction to “keep your hands in your pockets (or wherever they are observed to be at the moment) until I ask you to move them” – for all of the above well-articulated reasons. Yet we still see officers yelling “SHOW ME YOUR HANDS!” or “GET YOUR HANDS UP” – I believe this to be the power of the Hollywood effect – even on trained police officers. “POLICE, DON’T MOVE!” needs to become the ingrained, go-to command in all potentially-threatening situations.

  14. Daniel Benbrook

    Tremendous article which brings the perspective of past practice training into a more practical way of training. More than ever before, unfortunately, we need to train as if we are not only saving our lives but saving our careers as well. The perception captured by the public eye, the cell phone videos, is often not the complete truth. By this approach not only are you removing that sudden element of surprise you are providing clear and concise orders to follow with less room of misinterpretation. This should be the standard practice is all academies as well as FTO programs. Great Job

  15. Roderick Van-Zeller

    These scenarios are “asocial” encounters , talking is communication used is “social ” situations,
    the problem is not being able to discern “social” vs “asocial”.

  16. Teaching firearm home defense/self defense in a dynamic simulator since 2013, it’s been clear from the start that citizen defenders, when first uttering verbal commands as a defensive tool–when useful in defense–always start with what’s heard on TV: “Show me your hands!” We’ve always taught that this then requires acceptance of movement that may not provide for surviving an attack–that being the goal of defense. When apprehension is involved in the goal(s), crisp, simple, and continuing commands must come from a trained menu that is situation dependent (assuming that the situation even allows for the use of verbal commands).

  17. If we approach a suspect with their hands in their pockets, we do not tell them to remove them.

    We talk to them as we approach and grab their hands in their pockets from the outside. We can then move one hand at a time to feel if they have weapons in their pockets.

  18. Mike Fadden

    Anecdotal but here goes. During annual training several years ago, we put officers through a building search scenario. A role player was hidden in a fairly dark room with his hands in the pockets of his bulky winter coat. In one hand he had an airsoft gun. We ran the scenario well over 100 times. 100% of the students had their airsoft weapons out and pointed at the role player once they saw him. I didn’t keep count but my best guess is that 95% of the time the first thing the student officer said was, “Show me your hands!”, often without taking a position of cover. In those cases, the role player would then draw and fire. The role player got the first shot off every single time. 5%(?) of the time the officers used the “don’t move” approach and the role player complied.

    In de-briefing we told officers to use the “don’t move” technique (possibly followed by “Keep your hands where they are.”) and get the suspect to face away from them before issuing any other commands. The tactical advantages are obvious.

    The “show me your hands” bit is so ingrained due to training (and almost as much, in my opinion, TV and movies) that officers fall back to it in stressful situations. We really started to emphasize “Don”t move” in the basic academy but haven’t done any follow up to see if newer officers are changing their tactics.

  19. Pete Ebel

    Von, I am chiming in on this late because of the holidays and other issues, but my compliments to you on this. We in law enforcement tend to get stuck in ruts (and the “show me your hands” commands is an example). It is standard for many officers, but doesn’t always fit the situation. An example of this came from a salty Atlanta PD captain who taught me a technique used in places where people wear heavy clothing because of cold weather. He was in charge of a street crimes team that dealt with gang members all the time. Their team became aware of an officer who gave the “show me your hands” command to a suspect, who did just that, but with a gun in his hand. They adapted to this action-quicker-than-reaction scenario by giving suspects with hands in pockets by issuing the challenge “show me your thumbs.” This prevented suspects from gasping anything. Anyone not showing their thumbs was treated with requisite caution and different tactics. I learned to like this tactic a lot. Secondly, I have preferred the command “Don’t move!” for a long time. It is simple for cops to yell out and leaves no doubt in the mind of the suspect as to what you expect from him/her. My two cents’ worth. Thanks for the good info.

  20. Joe Bell

    This is spot on information! Given the action/reaction time gaps, we are by virtue of our commands putting ourselves at a disadvantage. This concept should be taught in the academys and should become common practice.

  21. Jerry Peters

    If it is possible and there are 2 officers, use cover contact and have suspect turn around not facing the officers. If there is only 1 officer tell suspect, don’t move your hands, turn around, don’t face me. If the command is not obeyed, threat level increases move to any position of cover if possible. If possible always try to pick the location, when confronting a suspect. Distance ,time, safety. Don’t rush in to be seriously injured, or killed.

  22. Jim Crone

    Old dog here, retired for two years after 38 in a rural county. Was taught “Police, Don’t Move” back in the 80’s and it served well. This “show me the hands” thing seems to have come to law enforcement the same as cops holding their gun up alongside their head.
    I began telling young guys to stop using that phrase, but I guess it sounds cool and new guys coming to the job don’t know any different.
    I told officers, stop and think – officer confronts a subject and issues a command, “show me your hands!” Suspect pulls a gun and is shot. What will witnesses say when asked what they saw/heard? Officer told him to show his hands. He did and officer shot him.
    My last year in LE another officer and I shoot a homicide suspect in a Wal-Mart parking lot. What did most witnesses tell shoot team? Cop yelled don’t move and suspect jumped out of the car with a knife and got shot. But a couple others heard a younger officer who yelled “show me your hands” and when he did, they shot him.
    The “show me your hands” is dangerous tactically, as well as liability/legal-wise. The phrase can certainly be used as others have stated, when the officer has a position of advantage to do a controlled form of showing of the hands.

  23. Kathy Keifer

    Ok- citizen here. We were just pulled over because our car was similar to the one a recent drive by shooter was driving. My husband was ordered to step out of the car with his hands up and to turn around. Because he had no idea how heated this stop was- he grabbed his wallet and stepped out with it in his hands. Within milliseconds he had 5 officers screaming at him- with red dots from their scopes all over his body. He had turned around and had his hands up- complying with all the screaming cops. After dropping his wallet he was handcuffed etc etc. As the cops finally explained the situation- one cop apologized so much- saying he almost shot him. How about “put your hands up with nothing in them?” It was a terrifying night for sure.

  24. Thanks so much for explaining the purpose of police orders and what should be said based on the situation. I have a friend who wants to join the police force and help people not be so afraid of them. He’s been looking into finding some training programs he can attend to make sure he does his job as best as he can.

Leave a Reply