When an opportunity opened up with the RCMP National Weapons Enforcement Support Team (NWEST), which provides support to police officers on anything and everything to do with firearms investigations, Cst. Chris Young jumped at the chance. Since then, he's assisted with hundreds of files across Newfoundland and Labrador. Deidre Seiden spoke to Young about training police officers in the characteristics of an armed person.
How did you become a trainer in the characteristics of an armed person?
I've spent the last five years dealing strictly with firearms-related investigations. I received training courses specifically on this topic from other law enforcement partners in Canada and the United States. In my role with NWEST, I'm responsible for delivering presentations on the topic, which I've done for my own agency as well as police agencies from other countries. I always say at the beginning of the characteristics presentations that we actually teach very little new material to the officers. Really what we're doing is reminding them to be aware of many of the characteristics or peculiarities of armed individuals that they are already familiar with as experienced police officers.
What are some of the characteristics of an armed person?
One of the characteristics I go over in the half-day presentation I give for police officers is the frequent touching of firearms by individuals who are concealing a gun or any other weapon.
Criminals carrying firearms rarely use holsters because they serve as evidence that they are carrying a firearm or that they were. So they have to carry firearms on the parts of their bodies such as in their pocket, waistband or tucked in their belt behind their back. For example, people subconsciously check if their firearm is still there by touching it with their elbow, especially when exiting a vehicle, which is something police officers often do without even realizing it.
Other common traits stem from the subject's clothing. Criminals will often choose what they wear strictly with the sole purpose of better concealing firearms. This can be displayed by excessively baggy clothing or overdressing for the weather.
What should officers look for when they arrive at a scene, such as a traffic stop?
In the context of identifying characteristics of armed individuals with respect to vehicles, one thing to be aware of is the movement of the vehicles occupants. It's impossible for a subject to pull a gun out of his waistband or pocket without causing their shoulders to rise. As well, the shoulder will drop as the subject attempts to place the gun under the seat or in a hidden compartment behind the seat. All of these are things that officers notice before the training, but we try and take it further and ask why the people might be doing this.
Does it matter if you're wrong?
The primary use of this body of knowledge is to promote officer safety and to remind officers to notice the characteristics and reduce chances of being caught off guard by an individual that may be armed. It isn't a science, so nothing is 100 per cent accurate all the time. These characteristics aren't meant to form the basis of criminal prosecution, but they can be combined with other factors to form part of that probable ground to conduct a search.
How does it help a police officer?
Ultimately, it could save an officer's life. It's a tool to be used for officer safety first and foremost. If you're going to pick up on these cues, not only will it tell you that perhaps this guy has a firearm so you should be extra careful, but if you do a search of the subject and find the gun, you should be writing in your notes the kinds of characteristics that you noticed in the individual that triggered in your mind that the person was carrying a gun.