Cops Reveal How They Tell the Difference Between a Suspicious Person and a Nervous Civilian


Cops can be intimidating, even when you haven’t done anything wrong. Even with general nervousness, a good cop is able to sense when he’s being lied to, either from body language or their habits. A recent thread on Reddit asked cops to reveal their methods for sorting out the good from the bad, and this is what they had to say.

1. For me it’s the little signs that give a criminal away – the sideways glance as you drive by them, the “I’m going to a friend’s house” stock answer they always give when you ask them where they are going and also the mannerisms they display when challenged. After a while you can pick the criminals out with relative ease and a few well placed questions and a lot of the time you are dealing with repeat offenders so you get to know faces as well.

Members of the public who are nervous just tend to stumble through sentences and will be overly polite which is nice and I would never give someone a hard time about that. I normally smile and ask them about their day to try and lighten the mood and to make them more relaxed. I will pretty much talk to anyone and love it when people approach me for a chat – in the past few days I’ve had really interesting conversations about Harley Davidson’s (I stopped a biker and we got chatting as I was interested in getting a bike license), growing climbing plants (with an elderly lady having trouble with her neighbors) and No Man’s Sky (with some skaters causing “trouble” at the local shopping center). If you see a copper come up and have a chat, a lot of us are quite friendly!

2. We look at more than just the way you act. Everybody is nervous when the get stopped by the cops. I’ve been a cop for 9 years and my stomach still drops when I see a patrol car coming up behind me.

We look at the whole picture. What is the context for our interaction? Am I responding to a report of a crime, do you match a suspect description, am I running traffic enforcement, or am I just walking through the park trying to be friendly?

After the context comes the content. Are you being truthful? Is your story plausible, or are you obviously lying through your teeth. People lie to me everyday for a variety of reasons and I have become very good at cutting through the bullshit.

Then comes history. If I stop a suspected burglar with a backpack and he has a history of burglary and he has no reason to be in the area, his nervousness is more likely because I caught him red handed. If I stop a soccer mom for speeding with no history, her nervousness is probably just being worried she’s going to get a ticket.

But at the end of the day people who are nervous because they got caught act differently than people who are just nervous. The body language is different. They just give off a different vibe.

3. Suspicious people focus on how they are guilty. If they’re holding, they keep putting their hands in their pocket. If they’ve got a concealed gun. They’ll keep touching the clothing over it. If they’re driving and they’ve had too much to drink, they’ll put their hands over their mouth to smell their own breath.

“Do you know why I stopped you?”
“I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Nervous people make bad jokes.
“Do you know why I stopped you?”
“I know it’s not because I’m a child molester, because you can’t see the kids in the trunk ha ha….I mean…that was a joke. Sorry.”

4. Once you start interacting with someone you can very quickly tell if something is up. Yeah people are sometimes nervous around cops but it’s a very different nervous then “oh shit I have a kilo of coke in the back”

There are also other indicators present when criminal activity is involved. It all adds up to grounds for arrest.

The only time I’ve had a false positive is a kid who was so nervous he lied about his name and gave his brothers info instead. He wasn’t drunk, wasn’t trafficking, wasn’t committing any offense other than driving with a broken headlight. The only reason he was detained so long is cause he lied to us about his identity and of course we’re thinking “what’s he trying to hide?”. Turns out nothing… We spent 45 min finding a whole lot of nothing.

5. Cop for 21 years. Retired just about 1.5 years. This question is difficult to answer since there are so many factors involved. Examples might be clothing, location, time of day, number of people around, actions observed prior to the subject noticing you – and actions after. The list is pretty long.

An easy one is laughter. Generally, if someone is giggling like a school kid and surrounded by others, they are typically just nervous but aren’t worried about your presence. It’s when you see someone joking around and they suddenly freeze up when they notice you, those would be the people I’m interested in.

Sweat is another good indicator of truly suspicious behavior. You would be surprised how much people sweat when they are trying to hide something. This goes along with trembling. Although I’ve stopped 16 year olds who are just flat out scared they did something horrible and shake like they are having withdrawals, I’ve also stopped kids who were trembling because they actually are hiding something. This goes back to considering all the other factors I brought up in the beginning.

Eye contact is another indicator, but can be tricky. Someone who is incredibly worried about your presence may stare at you the whole time, watching your every move, either looking for a chance to get away or watching to see if your next move is towards him/her. On the other hand, no eye-contact at all, especially during a traffic stop or a street contact, is a pretty good indicator you are petrified of being caught.

There is no tell-tale sign, but there are many indicators. The more experience you have, the more you can spot trouble. And one huge factor is your ‘gut-instinct’. More times than not, if you feel it, you are probably right. I’ll probably get wreckt for being the only cop answering this but I just thought I would chip in.

6. In seven years of being a cop I never never learned any hard and fast rules, but one thing that stuck out to me is that the innocent folks were usually both cooperative and upset at the same time. I’d give them the cliche talk of ‘everything will be fine if you’ve done nothing wrong’, and 99% of the time innocent people were cooperative but vocally upset at being accused or investigated for a crime (not that I blame them; that sucks.)

One example that sticks out to me is a traffic stop I made. I pull over an SUV full of college students. This SUV had made a big swerve into the oncoming lane as I was right behind it. I stop it and when I approach the car the smell of alcohol is overwhelming.
The driver had turned 21 that day. She was visibly shaking and dropped her license as she handed it to me. She insisted several times that she had not been drinking and was just the designated driver. Yeeeeeaaaaahhhhhhhh right. DD on her 21st birthday with all of her friends. Bullshit.

I have her exit the car to do field sobriety tests. She tells me ‘Ummm I’m clumsy so I don’t know how I’ll do, but I SWEAR I haven’t been drinking. You’re wasting your time.’ Sure. Okay.

Fails the one legged stand. Fails the walk-and-turn.

We get to horizontal nystagmus, the test I put the most stock in because it never fails me. I notice her eyes are bloodshot as I begin. She explains that one as all the cigarette smoke she’s been around.

She passes. No horizontal or vertical indication. Nothing. What the hell.

I go ahead and give her the breathalyzer. .000. I check the calibration records; it expired the following day. I call for another machine that had just had it’s calibration tested.

Triple zeroes. She’s clean.

Turns out this girl was, in fact, a DD on her 21st and clumsy as hell.

This does go to show something though; cooperate with law enforcement. Arguing with a cop in the field is not the way to go; that’s what we have courts for. Had she refused sobriety tests and/or the breathalyzer, she’d have been charged with those crimes (which are just as bad as actually driving drunk in my state) and spent at least that night in jail.

Because she cooperated, she went on her way that night. To her house party, where she finally got to start drinking. She was later arrested for assault when she found her boyfriend in her bed with her best friend, which according to everyone at the party she herself had suggested in her drunken stupor.

She was so close.

7. It largely depends on what shift you work, who you usually deal with, and what kind of calls you typically take. In addition, we don’t just judge your actions, but the whole situation. One of the first phrases you’ll hear in the academy is the “totality of the circumstances”. We survey the whole situation to determine how we will respond. What time of day is it? What are you wearing? What is your story? How many of you are there? What kind of place are you in? I don’t know if all LEOs feel this way but the way I look at it is, before my training, I would feel terribly uncomfortable if a guy in a bulletproof vest, the ability to lock me up, and a gun on his hip just walked up and said, “hey” and I understand that most people feel that way. While there are certain voluntary things that people do out of awkwardness, there are a few seemingly involuntary actions that raise my suspicion.

First, when you talk to someone you usually look at them right? Even if you’re just nervous you still look at the person talking to you or the floor. The people who I get a “gut feeling” about are always looking at anything but me. It a weird kind of subconscious mental process where the person’s eyes are always looking for a way to escape.

Another pretty good tell is the amount of superfluous information a person gives. Usually when someone has something to hide, they will continually add unimportant information to their fraudulent story. If it doesn’t make sense with the surrounding situation, no amount of additional information makes it more believable.

These initial actions are just a way for me to strategize my questions they aren’t an end all be all. Hopefully this answers some of your questions and helps people understand the job a bit more. I think one of the biggest things Law Enforcement should be about is educating the people. If there are any other additional questions I would be happy to answer!

8. Lots of people are nervous around police, that’s perfectly normal. We can typically gauge a “I’m nervous around police or talking to police” person from a “I’m nervous I just committed a crime”

I will say that teenagers will run from the police for even the most minor things. I think movies and TV plays a big factor in it. We can approach some teens smoking cigarettes, weed or drinking, none of which we consider a big deal, simply to tell them that we got a neighbourhood complaint and want them to stop said nuisance. Sometimes we just approach them to ask if they saw the real criminal go by. I honestly don’t care if you have a weed grinder in your pocket and a roach you’re saving for later. Just don’t run.

Another thing, just because someone looks suspicious doesn’t mean they are up to no good. So if there is no crime, you can’t be arrested. A good police officer will calmly approach people and talk to them normally, suspicious or otherwise. As long as you keep your hands out of your pockets you’ll be okay. (Big officer safety concern)

That all being said, I’m a police officer in a busy city, not a sleepy town with bored police. We have enough real crime to deal with that we don’t just break up parties and give teenagers tickets for frivolous things. We were all kids once.

In addition to the above, here are some stories from civilians about their own encounters with law enforcement.

1. As not a cop, I have a story. My uncle hammered into me, act like you belong. So being in rural Ga, I had been driving since I was 12. You know back roads and such. But my uncle had me go and get him a coke one night and threw me the keys. So I get out from store get in the car, I am 12 and look 10. I get out on the road and coming up the road is a police car. And he flashes his head lights. I panic, but realize my headlights are off. So I turn them on, as he passes me, I look him straight in the eye and wave. He waves back. Then with my stomach in my feet I watch the read view mirror, without turning my head, just kind of glancing. He never turned around and I took the 2 liter coke to my uncle.

2. My mother is incredibly annoying for doing this at customs.

As a child we also used to go to France on holiday every year and on the way through customs at the port she would get all panicky and start acting really weirdly, blurting out non-sequiturs and sweating, generally resulting in us having our car singled out for a full search as possible drug smugglers.

3. My grandmother was completely cool and collected whenever we crossed the border between West Germany and the GDR to visit family. She smuggled in a LOT (nothing illegal in West Germany, just stuff that wasn’t allowed on the other side). Once her brother in law needed some medication so she hollowed out a bread roll, put the pills in the top part, and made a sandwich out of it, which she was then eating during the car search to cross the border.

4. I was knowingly driving under a suspended license stopped at a redlight one night. Was waiting to make a right turn. A cop coming from the other direction made a left turn in front of me and as he turned his headlights shined onto my face.

He pulled over and waited for me to make my right turn, got behind me and ran my plates, hit the lights and got me.

All based on the way I looked at him as he passed.

It was then I decided I’m probably not cut out for a life of crime.

5. I was once in the car with a friend who got pulled over in a random stop to check for drunk drivers (about 11 at night, they had three or four police officers on this road in a university town just stopping cars full of young people). We were on our way back from a concert (the orchestral kind, not the cool kind) and my friend was driving, her boyfriend in the passenger seat.

My very smart and usually chilled but for some reason super nervous friend pulls over and sits there basically shaking like a leaf. The police officer had to gesture more than once, then tap on the window and gesture to get her to understand to wind her window down.

This is England, so we don’t usually call people “sir” all over the place except kids to teachers and there’s really no reason to be afraid of the police (particularly as a group of white middle-class adults in a quiet town).

PO: “Good evening. Can I ask your name and how old you are?”

SNF: “Hi. I’m SNF, sir, and I’m… er… um… twenty… three..?” looks desperately over at boyfriend

BF: You’re twenty-four, babe.

SNF: Sorry, sir. Twenty-four, sir.

PO: No problem. And when’s the last time you had an alcoholic drink?

SNF: Oh! Oh. Er. It was… It must have been two… No, maybe three… Um. It was… probably two and a half weeks ago?

PO: blinks

SNF: Maybe three and a half. Sorry, sir. Um. It was definitely a Tuesday…

The police officer just laughed and sent us on our way after letting her know one of her brake lights was out.

6. I got stopped in one of those drunk driving stops, I was on my way from from work at midnight (was waitressing at the time) I had managed to spill two full pints down me whilst on shift and stunk like a brewery. I was so nervous when I was pulled over I blurted this whole story out straight away followed by “honestly sir!” Anyway, they ended up breathalyzing me and sent me on my way. I did a good job sounding guilty as fuck.




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