“Why?” Is Not Always a Form of Disrespect

“Why?” This is a one-word question that requests clarification, reasoning, or purpose of some thing or some request. Asking ‘why’ is a universally human concept. Aristotle pointed this out over 2,300 years ago when he said, “All human beings, by nature, desire to know.”1 It is also a truly American word. In the United States, the greatest country in the history of the planet, we have taken the question why to the next level.

During the American Revolution, General George Washington realized he needed help creating a professional army out of his rabble of untrained, undisciplined farmers and tradesmen. Benjamin Franklin contacted and recruited Baron Friedrich von Steuben from Europe to help. Baron von Steuben, who had joined the Prussian army at the age of 17, was a combat veteran with 30 years of military service in numerous wars across Europe. He had trained and led soldiers in many military campaigns against Russia, Poland, and France.2 If anyone knew how to train and lead soldiers, it was him. But then he met the Americans.

Baron von Steuben arrived at Valley Forge to begin training these new American recruits and quickly learned that the training techniques he used in Europe were ineffective here. When he gave orders, he immediately received pushback from the American soldiers who questioned everything he did. He was used to European soldiers who rarely questioned orders.3 Frustrated, von Steuben wrote in his personal diary the following entry.

In Europe, you say to your soldier, “Do this” and he does it. But I am obliged to say to the American, “This is why you ought to do this,” and only then does he do it.4

If he had been paying attention to recent world events, Baron von Steuben would not have been so surprised. These were the same people who asked, “Why do we have to pay a tax on tea we didn’t ask for?” and then dumped the tea into Boston Harbor. These were the same people who asked, “Why are we considered British citizens, pay taxes to Britain, but lack the right to elect leaders to 2 Parliament?” These were the same people who asked, “Why do we have to obey a king we have never met, who lives in a land we have never seen?” It was all of these “why” questions that brought about the creation of the United States of America. The practice of questioning authority is in our national DNA.

Want More Proof?

Are you still unconvinced? Look at the graphic below. This is a map of Google Analytics data showing the prevalence of people Googling the word ‘why.’ The shade of each country indicates how often people in that country have Googled the word ‘why.’ The darker the shade indicates the more people who have Googled the word ‘why’ in some context. Nobody tops the United States when it comes to asking, “Why?”

Source: Google Analytics

Think of your kids. How often do they ask why when you tell them to do something? Sometimes you might reply with, “Because I said so.” You might even say, “Because I’m your parent.” How well did that work for you? Did that type of response diffuse the situation and did your teenager respond with, “Oh, how stupid of me. I must have forgotten you were my parent.” Of course it didn’t work like that. Responses that don’t try to explain why do not work.

Think about your work life. Have you ever come to a roll call shift briefing and been given a brief memo or email from the command staff creating a major change in operational policy with no explanation for the change? Isn’t that frustrating? Didn’t it make you ask your sergeant or lieutenant, “Why the change? What is this all about?” Of course it did, because you’re an American. 3

It should be no surprise, therefore, that people you encounter on the street do the same. American people will often respond to requests you make as a law enforcement officer with the very American response of, “Why?” This is usually because they truly want to know the reasoning behind your request to see if your authority appears legitimate. It is also because it is in their DNA as Americans. Remember, we are the descendants of the people who went to war when they felt the authorities over them were acting without legitimacy. So why don’t we just quickly tell them?

How to Explain Why

In our Surviving Verbal Conflict© courses, we train public safety professionals to start off citizen interactions with a quick explanation of why the encounter is taking place. We train officers that, if safety permits, they should begin encounters with a ‘Meet & Greet’ – a quick introduction and explanation for the encounter. Here is an example. “Good evening sir, I’m Officer Dolan with the police department. The reason I’m here is that we received some calls about screaming coming from this apartment. Can I talk to you about that?” If you opened your door to a knock at 10:00 p.m. and found a police officer (or two) standing there, wouldn’t you want to know why they were there? Even if you had previously been arguing with your partner, and suspected that was the reason for the police presence, you would probably still want to confirm that this was why they had come. So why not just take care of the inevitable question right off of the bat?

What if you were driving along in your personal vehicle and a patrol car pulled you over? My guess is that your first thoughts would be, “Why am I getting pulled over?” I would argue that the typical citizen is no different. Even if the driver suspects the reason for the stop, you know full well that he or she is going to ask anyhow. It’s the American thing to do, so of course they will likely be unhappy if you begin the encounter with a “license and registration” demand. Worse yet is the guessing game. If an officer stopped me and asked, “Do you know why I stopped you?” my first New Yorker gut instinct would be to want to reply in a sarcastic tone, “Oh, so you think I’m clairvoyant? No, (expletive), I don’t know why you stopped me. Why don’t you just tell me?”

Some people with cynical views of the police may think they already know why they are being stopped, such as believing it is because of their race. Asking the “Know why I stopped you?” question opens up an opportunity for these individuals to accuse you of racial profiling with their response. This is often negated if you simply explain from the start the legitimate reason for the stop. “Good afternoon sir, I’m Officer Dolan with the city police department. I stopped you because your rear license plate is missing.”


Keeping in mind that asking “Why?” is an American thing to do, we should take all reasonable steps to give a quick answer to demonstrate the legitimacy behind our requests and actions. Preemptively explain why when making requests, such as “Sir, for your safety and mine, would you please stay in the car” or “Folks, could everyone please back up so we can get the ambulance in here when it arrives?” When people do ask, don’t take it as an insult or a 4 challenge to your authority. Simply respond with a quick explanation that supports your legitimacy and lets you continue doing your job.



1 Aristotle (320 B.C.). Metaphysics. Athens, Greece.

2 Lockhart, P. (2008). The Drillmaster of Valley Forge: The Baron de Steuben and the Making of the American Army. Washington, DC: Smithsonian.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

How Dangerous Are Domestic Violence Calls to Officer Safety?

Domestic violence (DV) calls carry a reputation for being extremely dangerous for officers. Some academics and DV victim advocates, however, have challenged this reputation and have suggested that DV calls are rarely dangerous for officers. This research brief will examine the research on assaults on officers at DV calls. Specifically, it will examine the prevalence of officer assaults, the trend of officer deaths at DV calls over time, what factors predict these officer assaults, the characteristics of lethal force assaults on officers at DV calls, and the factors that predict an officer surviving a lethal force assault at a DV call.

Prevalence of Danger

In a 1970 U.S. Department of Justice report on family crisis intervention, the authors wrote that DV calls were the “most dangerous calls handled by the police.”1 They came to this conclusion after examining FBI Uniform Crime Reports data on officers killed in the line of duty while handling disturbance calls, not realizing this category also included gang fights, bar fights, neighbor disputes, suspicious persons, and a host of other potentially volatile situations. Once DV calls started being classified separately by the FBI in 1980, it was discovered that only 22% of the officer deaths from disturbances actually involved a DV situation.2

During the 1980s and 1990s, eleven research studies examined the true prevalence of physical assaults (not just murders) of officers at DV calls. These studies revealed two main facts. First, the frequency of officer assaults at DV calls varied dramatically from community to community, ranging from 2% to 28% of DV calls resulting in an officer’s assault. The average across the eleven jurisdictions of these studies was 9% of DV calls resulted in an officer’s assault.3 Second, in every one of these eleven studies, DV calls were not the most dangerous duty officers performed, especially after controlling for rate of exposure (i.e., number of assaults per calls handled). In every community studied, other types of duties – serving warrants, transporting prisoners, bar fights – resulted in far more officer assaults per call handled.4

While handling DV calls was not the most dangerous activity officers performed, DV calls clearly posed some danger to officers. Using FBI statistics, one study estimated that between 1980 and 2006 a total of 113,236 officer assaults occurred at DV calls in the U.S., and 160 officers died as a result of these assaults.5 This suggests an average of 4,194 officer assaults (and 6 officer murders) annually from DV calls. Assaults at DV calls are also very likely to result in an officer injury. Four studies examined officer assaults at DV calls and revealed 46% of officers assaulted at DV calls received an injury requiring medical treatment.6 In other words, while DV calls may not be the most dangerous duty that officers face, it is inaccurate to say these calls are by any means safe—and it is therefore vitally important to work to understand the factors that increase risks to officers.

Predicting Assaults at DV Calls

A 2011 study examined 3,078 DV calls handled by the Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Miami-Dade police departments. Of these calls, 117 calls (3.8%) resulted in an officer assault. That was an average of an officer assault incident for every 26 DV calls handled. A number of characteristics about the batterer and the DV situation were examined and five characteristics were found to predict whether or not an officer assault occurred.7

If the batterer was unemployed, had damaged property in the incident, shared a residence with the DV victim, was drunk, and displayed a hostile demeanor toward the officers when they arrived, there was a 1 in 4 chance that the DV batterer would assault the officers. The more of these characteristics that were present at the call, the more likely an officer assault was to occur. In situations where none of these characteristics were present (i.e., batterer was employed, sober, lived apart from victim, had not damaged property, and did not display a hostile demeanor with officers), the odds of attacking the officers was less than 1 in 2,000.8

Lethal Force Assaults on Officers

Another study in 2008 examined firearms assaults against officers at DV calls to determine the characteristics of these calls, and what could increase chances of survival. Examining a national sample of 143 officer-involved shootings at DV calls revealed that firearms assaults at DV calls differed from other types of officer-involved shooting incidents. According to FBI data, the “typical” firearms assault against a law enforcement officer most often involves a younger male assailant (usually age 15 to 35) with a lengthy criminal record. The assailant generally uses a handgun and most often opens fire at the point of arrest or bodily search. In most of the shooting incidents, the officer and assailant were less than 15 feet from each other when the shootout began.9

Firearms assaults on officers at DV calls, on the other hand, have different characteristics. DV shootouts are more likely to involve an older male assailant (in his 30s, 40s, or older) with or without a prior criminal record and armed with a rifle or shotgun. Half of these firearms assaults at DV calls occurred very shortly after the officers’ arrival, with the assailant firing from the front door of the residence or laying in ambush at some outside location. In the majority of these firearms assaults, the officers had not yet entered the residence or made contact with the batterer when the batterer opened fire. Half of these shootings began at a distance of greater than 50 feet.10

When examining what factors were associated with officers surviving the incident, the strongest predictors were wearing body armor, distance between to the shooter, cover and concealment, and returning fire. Of the 225 officers fired upon in this study, 14% were killed, 43% received bullet wounds and survived, while the remaining 43% of officers survived without serious injury.11


In summary, the research on officer assaults at DV calls reveals a paradox. While DV calls are not the most dangerous duty officers perform, and the majority of such calls do not result in an assault on officers, about 5%-10% of such calls do. The likelihood of an officer assault is greatest when the batterer is unemployed, intoxicated, resides with the DV victim, has just damaged property, and displays a hostile demeanor when officers arrive. An assault on officers is least likely (but not impossible) when all of these elements are absent. If an assault on officers does occur, officers involved have about a 50/50 chance of sustaining an injury requiring medical treatment. If the assault involves a firearm, it is most likely to occur as the officers first approach the scene or shortly after their arrival. The assailant is likely to be laying in ambush inside or outside the residence, utilize a long gun (rifle or shotgun), and open fire from many feet away. Officers have a 50/50 chance of being hit by the assailant’s gunfire but are most likely to survive the encounter if they wear body armor, maintain distance from the shooter, utilize cover and concealment, and return controlled, accurate fire.



1 Bard, M. (1970). Training Police as Specialists in Family Crisis Intervention. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

2 Johnson, R. R. (2008). Assessing the true dangerousness of domestic violence calls. Law Enforcement Executive Forum, 8(5), 19-29.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Johnson, R. R. (2011). Predicting officer physical assaults at domestic violence calls. Journal of Family Violence, 26, 163-169.

8 Ibid.

9 Johnson, R. R. (2008). Officer firearm assaults at domestic violence calls: a descriptive analysis. Police Journal: Theory, Practice, and Principles, 81(1), 25-45.

10 Ibid.

11 Johnson, R. R. (2007). Surviving firearm assaults at domestic violence calls. Law Enforcement Executive Forum, 7(6), 155-167.