Understanding the Body Language of Criminal Behaviour

Posted On 22 May 2018
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Dr Craig Donald

Dr Craig Donald

Do your security guarding teams and CCTV operators know what they’re looking for when they’re on patrol or sat staring at a bank of screens linked to an array of cameras? It may sound obvious, asserts Dr Craig Donald, but unless they’re able to spot the different and often subtle behavioural characteristics that accompany criminal behaviour and intent, they’re far less likely to be able to prevent it from happening.

You can deploy all the state-of-the-art systems and the latest video analytical solutions you like at your site(s), but at the heart of every effective security and law enforcement operation is the ability to read people and understand their behaviours.

If you look at how people behave in normal everyday situations, and contrast that with how individuals and groups present themselves when entering a criminal or pressurised situation, you will see a marked change in how they act. How they hold themselves, the way they look around, their hand movements, placement and gestures all provide strong indicators that further monitoring or action is warranted.

The clues can be subtle, such as a glance behind them that suggests they’re concerned about someone spotting them. However, if you know what to look for then the tell-tale signs soon start to stand out.

Body language is an essential aspect of human interaction. We rely on our ability to read it correctly in every aspect of our daily lives. However, as you will undoubtedly have experienced, some people are naturally better at it than others. The good news is that reading body language is a skill that can be taught and, with the right  training, CCTV operators, crime investigators and intelligence specialists can quickly learn how to focus on unusual behavioural characteristics.

Thinking like the criminals

One of the first steps towards nurturing an innate awareness in the context of safety and security environments is to ask security professionals to think like the criminals. Whenever I visit a Control Room, I always ask operators the same questions. Typically, the conversation proceeds something like this…

Me: “What exactly are you looking for?”

Operator: “Anything suspicious.”

Me: “What does that look like in this environment?”

Operator: “‘I don’t know, but when I see it I will know it’s suspicious.”

Me: “How do people steal from here?”

Operator: “We haven’t caught anybody, so we’re unsure.”

Me: “If you were a criminal, how would you do it?”

Operator: “I have never done it, so I don’t know.”

You don’t need to have criminal tendencies to put yourself in the mindset of a criminal. Imagine you were going to break into a house late at night. How would you make your approach? Probably slowly to give yourself a chance to look around. You may raise your posture to gain a better view over the fence into the garden. Your gait may change. Your head will be frequently turning. An arm may be held close to the body to conceal a tool or weapon. All of these are physical indicators that should raise an alert.

Essentially, what we are doing when teaching advanced body language is conditioning security professionals to always be alert for anything out of the ordinary. We all look at the same things differently based on our conditioning. For example, show different groups of people a picture of a street scene and ask them what jumps out at them and they’re all likely to notice something different. One person may notice a shop display, another a mother pushing a pram while another will spot a dog.

If we sensitise security professionals to look for body language that’s indicative of criminal behaviour, the aim is for them to look at that same picture and immediately spot the potential crime, assault or terrorist attack independent of their personal characteristics or interests. In doing so, they will be able to either prevent the incident or otherwise aid in the swift apprehension of the suspect.

Application in real-world scenarios

I’m always taken aback by how soon this conditioning can be achieved and subsequently applied in real-world scenarios. One of the quickest examples happened when a group of delegates spotted a covert drug deal taking place in a nearby car park during the lunch break halfway through the first day.

Of course, in the same way that some people are better at reading body language than others, some people are better at disguising it than others, yet while this is true to a degree (and certainly the more comfortable a criminal becomes at doing something it almost becomes normal behaviour), when someone is about to commit a criminal act, the sheer act of trying to cover up a behaviour can be very telling if you know what to look for.

The skills we look to instil are how the dynamics of crime produce body language and incident behaviour, observation skills, standout indicators for the recognition of incident conditions, the countermeasures used by criminals (eg hiding body language and detection avoidance), the nature of situational awareness and its role in detection, emotions and anxiety leakage as indicators of crime, the incident process, incident stages and how crime happens along with criminal behavioural strategies, observation and behaviour process analysis in reviewing CCTV, how behavioural patterns assist in analysis and detection and, last but not least, crime types, syndicates and how to identify criminal relationships.

Dr Craig Donald is a Director of Advanced Development Applications and Leaderware and Adjunct Associate Professor at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia. Dr Donald holds a PhD in Industrial and Organisational Psychology from the University of Cape Town as well as an MA (WITS) and is a Specialist Trainer with the Linx International Group

About the Author
Brian Sims BA (Hons) Hon FSyI, Editor, Risk UK (Pro-Activ Publications) Beginning his career in professional journalism at The Builder Group in March 1992, Brian was appointed Editor of Security Management Today in November 2000 having spent eight years in engineering journalism across two titles: Building Services Journal and Light & Lighting. In 2005, Brian received the BSIA Chairman’s Award for Promoting The Security Industry and, a year later, the Skills for Security Special Award for an Outstanding Contribution to the Security Business Sector. In 2008, Brian was The Security Institute’s nomination for the Association of Security Consultants’ highly prestigious Imbert Prize and, in 2013, was a nominated finalist for the Institute's George van Schalkwyk Award. An Honorary Fellow of The Security Institute, Brian serves as a Judge for the BSIA’s Security Personnel of the Year Awards and the Securitas Good Customer Award. Between 2008 and 2014, Brian pioneered the use of digital media across the security sector, including webinars and Audio Shows. Brian’s actively involved in 50-plus security groups on LinkedIn and hosts the popular Risk UK Twitter site. Brian is a frequent speaker on the conference circuit. He has organised and chaired conference programmes for both IFSEC International and ASIS International and has been published in the national media. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk UK at Pro-Activ Publications in July 2014 and as Editor of The Paper (Pro-Activ Publications' dedicated business newspaper for security professionals) in September 2015. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk Xtra at Pro-Activ Publications in May 2018.