Hostile Intent and Present Ability

by | Oct 18, 2018 | Critical Incident Response | 0 comments

“Man with a Knife” can mean very different things.
In this article we’ll take a look at a way to evaluate threats during a critical incident response. Individual law enforcement officers and incident commanders alike must routinely evaluate suspects. They must decide if a suspect is a threat and if so to what degree. A basic concept useful in that assessment process is that of “hostile intent and present ability.” Our understanding of the threat posed by a suspect is what shapes our responses. This may be an individual officer deciding on what level of force to use or an incident commander deciding when and under what circumstances to have his/her officers engage a suspect.

Hostile Intent

Tactical guru Sid Heal defines hostile intent as “an antagonistic state of mind” and present ability as “an immediate capacity of physical harm.” Understanding these concepts is easy with the following examples. Create a picture in your mind of “a man with a knife.” Is he a threat? Well, if you pictured a suspect who just committed a stabbing running down the street with that knife, then the answer is undoubtedly yes. If, however when I asked you to picture a man with a knife, you thought of a chef standing in a restaurant kitchen cutting onions, then the answer is no, he is not a threat. What then, is the difference? Both fit the definition of a “man with a knife” but one had a malevolent attitude whereas the other did not. Consider if the same peaceful chef cutting his onions suddenly became enraged with his co-worker and decided he wanted to stab him. The formerly peaceful chef is now a threat, not because of a change in the knife he was holding, but because of a change in his attitude and intention. With that example we can understand hostile intent.

Present Ability

Next, to understand present ability let’s consider an angry suspect who tells an officer, “I’m going to kill you!” Clearly, the suspect possesses hostile intent which he has revealed in his statement. To properly assess his threat level though, we must consider how plausible it is that the suspect presently possesses the ability to carry out his threat. If that suspect is, for example, a feeble elderly man confined to a hospital bed, then it doesn’t seem likely that the suspect can carry out his threat. The invalid man seems to lack the ability to first get out of his bed and then second to access the officer and kill him. But, if the suspect who threatened the officer is able bodied, then he would seemingly possess the present ability to carry out his threat. These examples show how the combined factors of hostile intent and present ability is what shapes a threat.


Applying these concepts in the field, law enforcement officers can consider if the suspect has, through words or actions, demonstrated any hostile intent. For instance, has he acted violently towards anyone, expressed anger, or made any verbal statements that indicate a malevolent attitude? Also, what types of intelligence information can be developed about the suspect? Has there been previous calls for service at the suspect’s home that showed a hostile intent? Does the reporting party or perhaps a family member have information about the suspect’s attitude? Also, worth considering is the fact that a given suspect may have hostile intent but only towards one particular person such as his girlfriend, boss, etc. When considering present ability, does the suspect have the means to carry out a stated threat? Even if there was no threat, does he have access to the means to harm someone should he suddenly decide to do so?

As law enforcement officers, what do we do then when we have determined the suspect possesses both hostile intent and present ability? We deem that person a threat and we respond accordingly. With that determination we can then attempt to change one of those two factors. For example, we can negotiate with the suspect to cool his hostile intent or we can defeat his present ability by removing or neutralizing that ability with force. Once we understand the threat, we can make plans and respond in ways appropriate to that threat. This threat assessment procedure may take place in a few seconds, such as when an individual officer is under attack, or over a prolonged period of time during a critical incident response.

Lastly, I want to point out another reason that understanding this concept is beneficial to law enforcement officers. Being able to explain this process in a police report or in a court proceeding can help others to understand why you as a law enforcement officer made the decision you did.

Are you a law enforcement officer or supervisor? Come train with us and learn the simple ways you can use time to your advantage. Attend our in-person Critical Incident Response course and our in-person Response to the Non-Criminal Barricade® course, or get immediate access to our online Response Tactics for Critical Incidents and In-Progress Crimes® course.

Download PDF

Download a PDF of this Article

Skip to content