Holding Gaze Is Critical When Police Confront Hysterical Citizens
By Lori Wright, Media Relations
April 11, 2007
Holding eye contact, or “gaze,” with hysterical citizens is
one of the most effective methods police officers can use to calm them
down, according to new research conducted by UNH that relies on footage
of the FOX TV show “COPS.”
The study by Mardi Kidwell, assistant professor of communication, “’Calm
Down!’: the role of gaze in the interactional management of hysteria
by the police,” was published recently in Discourse Studies.
According to Kidwell’s research, regulating gaze is central to face-to-face
interaction. For police officers, it’s an important factor in gaining
compliance from and calming hysterical citizens.
“A great deal of police work involves encountering people who are
in crisis, people who are distraught, agitated and sometimes hysterical
over the circumstances that have necessitated a police response. Moreover,
as police departments nationwide transition from a more traditional model
of policing, with its emphasis on catching law-breakers, to a model of
community policing, with its emphasis on prevention, they have sought to
adapt more humanistic, more dialogic approaches to their communications
with citizens,” Kidwell says.
Kidwell’s research relies on police-citizen interactions obtained
from the FOX TV show “COPS,” now in its 19th season. She used
footage from “COPS” because most research on police-citizen
interaction does not rely on a real-time, in-the-moment unfolding of events.
In addition, police departments are reluctant to provide footage of their
In the “COPS” segment discussed in the study, two police officers
are trying to calm down a woman whose grandson has been shot. The six-minute
segment shows the officers arriving on the scene of the shooting, inspecting
the victim, questioning witnesses, discussing the case with other officers
and, finally, seeking to calm the victim’s grandmother, who herself
has been shot at.
The officers are forced to use increasingly stronger verbal tactics – called
directives – to get the woman to look at them as they try to calm
her down. The woman repeatedly looks at the officers and then looks away,
and continues to be hysterical. Finally, one officer gently touches the
woman’s face and turns it toward him, forcing her to look at him.
Eventually, the officers are able to keep eye contact with her long enough
so as to calm her down, help her regain a normal breathing pattern and
compose herself so she can drive to the hospital to see her grandson.
Kidwell has found that officers treat citizens’ (usually suspects’)
refusal to gaze at them as resistance, and they will continue to pursue
the citizens’ gaze in order to gain compliance. “In situations
of someone’s extreme distraught-ness, refusal to gaze is associated
with being ‘out of it.’ In other words, with being unable to
attend to, or participate in, in any normal or competent way current interactional
activities,” she says.
Kidwell analyzed more than 35 hours off footage and hundreds of police-citizen
interactions as part of her research. She found that police rely on holding
gaze to calm individuals in a number of situations, including getting them
to cooperate during questioning, keeping them from interfering with emergency
workers, and gaining their compliance during arrests.
“There is another, perhaps less institutionally obvious responsibility
that the officers are undertaking in this case. This is a responsibility
that has to do with being a ‘helper,’ here, specifically with
emotional work. This case and others that involve, for example, a small
child whose parents have been arrested and a woman who has been abused
by her husband, demonstrate that police responsibilities also include simply
soothing people who are in crisis and trying to ameliorate their emotional
suffering,” Kidwell says.