Practical Hand Signs for Patrol

By George T. Williams

In any tactical situation, communication between officers plays a big part in the safe resolution of the incident. Beyond the need for communicating the essential elements of information to dispatch, officers involved in the incident require information from each other regarding intentions, needs, etc. On any given call, the situation may dictate the need to remain as quiet as possible in order to preserve tactical surprise.

Throughout history, the need for silent communication has proven itself to be valuable. SWAT teams as well as other specialty teams have incorporated hand signs into their training. As with all things, some have created complicated signing systems amounting to mastering a second language. The proponents of these complicated and extensive signaling systems cite the need for exact communications within the tactical environment in which they operate. While this might be desirable, a complicated system requires constant use. Because officers often don’t practice skills unless they are personally interested or required to, these systems are not useful for more than a few months. Generally, the simpler, the better.

We will look at several simple hand signs that will get you through many tactical situations without having to resort to spoken communication. First, some ground rules:

Signal with your non-gun hand. Your gun-hand will be busy, so get used to signaling with your support-hand. Shoulder weapons are different—you will likely use your trigger hand to signal. Keep your syntax simple. Syntax is the order of words in a sentence. Sign it the way you would say it For example, if you want to say to me, you watch him, then you would point to me, give the sign for “watch/see/look” and then point to the guy you want me to watch.

Keep it simple. If there is a need to silently give complicated instructions, or receive extensive information, you are probably in the wrong place to be doing this. Retreat to a secure area, exchange the needed information, and continue to solve the problem.

Hand Signs

  • Me/I: With your index finger, point to your chest.
  • You: With your index finger, point at the person’s chest.
  • Object/Thing/Person: Anything other than a suspect. Point with your index finger at whatever you wish to indicate.
  • Suspect/Danger: Make a gun with your thumb and forefinger—then turn the hand into a thumb down position. Point at the person or the area where the offender is suspected to be.
  • Direction: With all four fingers held together, and with the palm held vertically, point in the desired direction.
  • Watch/See/Look: Holding the first two fingers straight, point to your own eyes.
  • Stop: Hold up your forearm and hand, then make a fist at shoulder/ear level.
  • Cover: Holding your hand flat and open over your head, like a roof covering you.
  • Good/OK: The classic “thumbs up” sign.
  • Yes: Nod the head, yes.
  • No: Shake the head, no.
  • I don’t know: Common shrug of the shoulders.
  • Number: The number is indicated by the number of fingers held up. Multiples of five are indicated by flashing all five fingers the number of times needed.
    How many? Simply start counting with one finger, two, then three, and then shrug your shoulders.
    Come: Common sign of palm and open fingers motioning toward your chest.
  • Change/Start Over/Erase: If you made a mistake in your syntax, or you want to change the information, put your open hand up, palm toward the person you are communicating with, and make a wiping motion similar to erasing a chalk board.
  • Walk/Move: With two fingers pointing down, simulate walking by alternating movement.

Again, the key to anything being useful in the field is keeping it simple. Practice these signs by saying what you mean aloud. For instance, say out loud, “You go that way,” as you point at me with your index finger, then “walk” with your fingers pointing down, and then point with your whole hand, palm vertical, in the direction you want me to go. As you get better with it, whisper the directions. Finally, mouth the words as you sign. The person receiving the signs is often assisted by reading your lips.

The most common error is in the syntax of the message. Don’t let the signs take over. Instead, slow down, and talk the message through to yourself as you are signing it. When you are finished giving the directions, the person receiving the messages should acknowledge by nodding, yes.

There really are only a few hand signals that are needed in a tactical situation. Mainly who is going to do what, which direction, and what action? By mouthing the phrase as you sign it, you will keep the syntax understandable. Keeping the sign language down to just a few words will make it memorable and more likely to be used.

One of the fundamentals of Safe Tactical Doctrine is to maintain the element of surprise until it is to your advantage to reveal your presence. Silent communication is a useful tool that can assist you in refining a tactical response while staying covert. Communicate a simple plan while maintaining the element of surprise.

By keeping it simple, and routinely using these hand signs, you will have a valuable skill that can give you an added layer of safety. Quick, easy to remember, and useful…can’t ask for much more than that.

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