Sunglasses and Stern Expressions

Sunglasses and Stern Expressions

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

We all know the image of the trooper peering in the driver’s side window asking for license and registration. The stereotype is the officer leaning from the doorpost wearing mirrored sunglasses, no hint of joy in his heart, and a cop mustache. It may not be far from reality and there is a good reason for it. Well, maybe not the mustache, but the sunglasses and straight face.

The interaction between a nervous driver and a cautious cop is a mix of body language, microexpressions, sensory inputs, emotions, vocal tone, and expectations. It is the officer’s responsibility to manage all of that to the best of their ability.

So why the stern expression? Just as words communicate, so do body movements, especially facial expressions. Humans have a set of mental templates that help them define situations so they can mold their own behavior accordingly. When a driver, as well as passengers, see an approaching officer the neurons that fire in the brain are likely to be centered on the fear response. Even after years of being the one peering into the driver’s side window, I still feel that way when I get pulled over. We all associate flashing red and blue lights with some kind of emergency unless they are Christmas decorations. We see an armed government agent walking toward our car and begin calculating what is wrong. A taillight out? Do we match the description of a fleeing felon? Expired tags? Did we miss that speed limit change or stop sign? The average brain is not going to be filled with good and comforting thoughts.

If the driver then encounters a smiling, gregarious, officer with a smile on his or her face what happens to the brain processing this image that is contrary to expectations? There will be cognitive dissonance, a period of mental puzzlement when reality conflicts with expectations. This is accompanied by tension as the brain tries to sort things out. Why is the trooper grinning? Why are they happy? This feeling that something isn’t right can create much more volatile emotions than just the normal fear factor. This is a good reason for an officer to have a neutral, professional approach, and ditch the good ‘ol boy howdy grin.

On the officer’s side, a smile creates a bit of biochemistry that is inconsistent with the necessary alertness that police officers must maintain. Even if the officer wants to tell the motorist of a low tire or no tail lights as a safety courtesy, they know that officers have been attacked and killed on even the most benign of circumstances. Escapees, felons, and drug transporters can have a flat tire or run out of gas, so even the public service of assisting a motorist can turn deadly.

Experiments show that clenching a pencil in one’s teeth simulates the muscle movement of smiling. Even these forced movements create feelings of happiness. Therapeutically, smiling regardless of one’s feelings at the moment has the effect of tricking the brain into feeling happier. That’s great if you’re having a bad day. Not so great if you are approaching someone who might possibly want to do you harm. An officer’s smile can delay recognizing and responding to a threat.

Although avoiding mirrored lenses and removing sunglasses after the initial contact is best for community relations, sunglasses have tactical value. They can help by keeping a driver and passengers from seeing the officer scanning the vehicle for weapons, contraband, and signs that it may be stolen. Just as a suspect’s glance at an officer’s weapon is a classic sign of impending attack, an officer’s attention to some incriminating evidence in the vehicle may tip off a suspect who would then be tempted to fight or flee. Better to keep them guessing. Changes in lighting can be mitigated by sunglasses. Going from daylight to the interior of a vehicle can take critical moments for the eye to adjust. Those moments can be critical in recognizing and responding to a threat. Although conventional sunglasses don’t protect against a laser pointer that might be used to temporarily blind or distract an officer, it may cause a potential harmer to abandon the tactic. There are special glasses that appear to be normal sunglasses but do provide laser protection. Glasses of any kind can present some defense against a cigarette butt or a liquid tossed toward an officer’s eyes.

The motorist who is tempted to think that an officer is just trying to be a cool super trooper with their sunglasses and stern face, the greater probability is that the officer is just trying to remain professional and alive. As for the mustache….