Sucker Punched

November 13, 2018

On the street, in jails and prisons, in the home, at work, occasionally even on an airplane, one person assaults another. This seems to be an inevitable part of the human condition, most often performed by males of the species. What sometimes is surprising is that even with the presence of what most people would consider a deterrent, many people will engage in the fight or simply strike another person. People, it would seem, often don’t consider the consequences of physically battering the other person. Either that, or the satisfaction they gain from the act outweighs the possibility or even probability of consequence.

Many, if not most, law enforcement and corrections officers have been standing next to someone who fails to respond to your authority or presence by striking another person standing in front of you. This has been referred to as the “policeman at the elbow test,” or ‘elbow test.’ Courts have used this concept at times for gauging whether someone’s mental state was such that they did not have the ability to restrain themselves from some illegal act, usually a violent one.

The elbow test on the street occurs when one person standing literally at the elbow of a law enforcement officer will nevertheless strike another person. In corrections, experienced officers realize that sometimes the dynamics of an audience of inmates, or simply the disposition of a particular inmate, will result in the same type of assault from a position of standing next to or near an officer. In both settings, in fact, the victim may be the officer.

The spontaneous attack is often a crime of “opportunity.” There is no advance planning. It’s impulsive. Perhaps in a similar way to the opportunistic robber who is always alert to a situation he can take advantage of, the person who chooses to strike a stranger recognizes a vulnerable or inattentive potential victim, no one nearby to stop the assault, and so he acts on his desire to hit somebody. Is such an assault the result of unrequited frustration—a frequent human condition? Perhaps in some cases. The annoyance from seeing someone else who is simply having a good time when the attacked is not? This can happen too. Those who are vulnerable can be targeted based on where they are as much as whom they appear to be.

Young people may fight over seemingly insignificant things (so can adults). School-based conflict management curricula seeks to address some of the causes of bullying, for example. 

Rules of sports, criminal laws, inmate management systems in jails, detention centers, and prison—all are designed in good faith and directed at fulfilling what can be done to state expectations and specify consequences. Is this enough? Not always. The social pressure of an audience may stoke the fire of aggression. This can take the form of other student on the playground or at gym class, inmates in a dormitory egging on those in a fight, or athlete on a field who fail to contain their emotions. All when the participants—or at least the aggressor—knows they should not attack.

Now some would have us believe that all such assaults are predictable and preventable. This is of course preposterous when dealing with the human animal. Moreover, no one is any one thing or behaves in one way at all times. The argument for police officers, correctional officers, probation officers, to be trained psychologists or psychiatrists, and for booking facilities to be prediction and treatment centers is beyond challenging, it is simply not possible.

What’s to Stop Me?

The premise is that even with authority figures present—or what we imagine to be the socially restraining effect of others—one person may act violently toward another. Certainly all people are capable of physically violent acts. Just as clearly, certain individuals have been involved in a physically violent event. Though for many interjected into a fight, their role may have been legitimate: an officer, teacher, referee, or bystander who intervened or restrained an aggressive other.

Will a person who has been violent repeat the same behavior? We don’t know. And even if we have assessed that someone has the potential to be violent, we have no way to reliably predict when, where, or against whom.

It’s not uncommon for people who are in a heated argument to throw a punch at one another—and actually count on others to intervene right after they throw that punch so that the fight cannot escalate. We can see the corollary of the elbow test on the playground or the elbow test during a sports match. The relative safety of a nearby teacher, coach, referee, or teammates emboldens an angry or frustrated action since it’s likely to be over quickly and without much risk of injury.

While it’s near-universal for bystanders (or victims) to wonder why a person launches a seemingly unprovoked assault on someone else, the reality is that some do, and sometimes with serious consequences. We imagine in a generally ordered society that those social constraints and laws prohibiting physical transgressions will preclude attacks by all but the most (we imagine) depraved or dangerously deranged. This has an appeal that has driven criminal legislation since the advent of classical theory’s assertion that with free will and knowing right from wrong, that a sufficient potential punishment will deter a rational person from violent action. This fails to consider the spontaneous assault by someone on an unsuspecting victim. We even have a name for this: the “sucker punch.”

A Reason Everyone Knows the Phrase

In preparing this article I performed a routine academic database search. After using a variety of terms in combination, I simply entered the term “sucker punch”; the system provided me 12,412 responses. Oh my. Then I repeated this simple search using the Google search engine and in 0.59 of one second, got a response with 5,130,000 results! Wikipedia provides this succinct definition of sucker punch: “…a blow made without warning”. The Wikitionary provides us with a noun and a verb form “An unexpected punch or similar blow,” and “To deliver an unexpected blow,” respectively.


Unprovoked or spontaneous attacks by one person on another person happen. That such assaults happen in the presence of officers or others in positions of authority can be surprising. Officers, by virtue of training and experience, generally remain on guard around virtually anyone they don’t know. Outsiders sometimes decry this as paranoia. As trainers and professionals we recognize that new recruits and in-service officers must present foremost a competent and positive comportment. We also know they must deal with sudden violence without hesitation. This is the balance we aim to strike.

If an officer deals with a situation in which a fight has occurred, or when one person says that he did nothing to instigate the attack they suffered, it’s incumbent on the officer to document as much information as possible. Were there witnesses? Someone may have overheard an argument prior to the fight. Was the assault the lead up from an ongoing issue between the two? It’s not unusual for someone to leave a conflict, go get a weapon, and return. This is the basis for a number of programs that attempt to intervene after gang violence by going to the group that was attacked and urging them not to retaliate.

Because one thing seems to be certain: violence begets further violence.

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