When Police Encounter Persons Who Stutter

By Debra Cohen McCullough, Ph.D.,
Senior Social Science Analyst, COPS Office
A local police officer stops a driver exceeding the speed limit. After the driver complies with the request to hand over his license and registration, the officer asks, “Where were you going?” The driver opens his mouth as if to speak, but no words come out. After 5 seconds of apparent silence, the officer asks again, “Where were you going?” The driver is now blinking his eyes, moving his right shoulder up and down, while repeating “I-I-I-I” and looking away from the officer’s gaze. The officer steps away from the vehicle and asks the driver to get out of the car. What could the officer be thinking?
• The driver appears physically and/or mentally impaired, perhaps drunk or high.
• The driver appears abnormally nervous for a traffic stop.
• The driver seems to be hiding something.
• The driver seems resistant to answering questions.
While each explanation is plausible, another possibility exists: the driver may be a person who stutters (PWS). Stuttering (or stammering) “is a communication disorder in which the flow of speech is broken by repetitions (li-li-like this), prolongations (lllllike this), or abnormal stoppages (no sound) of sounds and syllables. There may also be unusual facial and body movements associated with the effort to speak.”1 In addition to speech “blocks” PWS “often experience physical tension and struggle in their speech muscles, as well as embarrassment, anxiety, and fear about speaking.”2 Stuttering is a covered disability under The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.3
With estimates of 68 million people who stutter worldwide, and 3 million people in the United States alone, chances are that police have or will encounter a PWS.4 In addition to traffic stops, police might encounter persons who stutter while questioning a suspect, gathering information from victims or witnesses, speaking with business owners and community leaders, or convening community meetings. Police in school settings may encounter children who stutter and are victims of bullying.5 Police may regularly work with someone who stutters, such as a coworker, government representative, or elected official.6
While the causes of stuttering are complex, rooted in physiology and neurology with research revealing specific genes linked to stuttering,7 this complexity has bred an array of myths about a PWS. Consider the prevalence of media portrayals of PWS as criminal-types, unintelligent, or damaged. These misinformed depictions mask the true nature of stuttering and perpetuate confusion over what police should do when they encounter someone who stutters.
Police can better communicate with PWS by understanding some of the facts about stuttering:
a) No link exists between stuttering and intelligence. Persons who stutter are equally capable of providing a detailed witness account of a crime and likewise, equally capable of committing one. Discounting or overlooking a PWS can mean losing valuable opportunities to gather information about crime and disorder problems.
b) Nervousness or stress does not cause stuttering. This popular misconception can lead to erroneous perceptions of persons who stutter as dishonest, disingenuous, or disrespectful. Even fluent speakers may at times experience hesitations in their speech when feeling uncomfortable. While it may be tempting to project and assume that others who struggle with speech must also be nervous, this is not always the case with PWS. When people stutter, yes, they are struggling with speech, but no, it does not mean they are nervous. Disfluencies are not synonymous with deception or complicity.
c) Stuttering is not a psychological or emotional disorder. It is a speech disorder. People who stutter have the same full range of emotional and psychological traits as those who do not stutter. While myths of stuttering caused by poor parenting or childhood trauma continue to persist, there is no evidence that such occurrences are more prevalent in PWS than those who do not. Some PWSs explain, “Stuttering is just my accent.” This analogy may be helpful in taking fluency out of the equation when assessing a person’s emotional state and mental capacity.
d) People stutter in different ways. Some repeat syllables, words, phrases or sounds. Increased blinking or erratic body movements, also known as “secondary behaviors,” accompany some stuttering. Some persons may look directly at you during the stutter, while some may look away. Some may experience breathing problems, running out of air when trying to speak. Some stutter openly and some try to hide their stuttering. Some stutter only on certain words or sounds. Some speak quickly and others with long pauses. What may be interpreted as non-responsiveness may be a PWS going into a “silent” block.8
e) Speech therapy can produce cadence variations. There is currently no cure for stuttering, but there are some therapies available that can help some people manage their stuttering. Some people may elongate or link their words together to produce a sound mimicking slurred speech. Some may pause after the first word, change their rate of speech, or speak very softly. As with all communication, listen to the speaker in the context of other behaviors for an accurate assessment of the situation.
Effective communication is an essential building block of community policing.9 The manner in which police and citizens speak and listen to each other can affect how they perceive each other and ultimately determine the nature and outcome of police-citizen contacts. Procedural justice models are demonstrating that these contacts can influence whether citizens support the efforts of police and view them as ‘legitimate.’10 Police officers who are able to develop the type of communications dexterity that allows them to weave in and out of an array of cultures, backgrounds, and temperaments, stand to benefit from the collaborative partnerships and increased situational awareness that comes from free flowing information sharing, increased trust, and good community relations. 
When encountering a person who stutters, Master Police Officer Phil Peet of Orlando (Florida) Police Department, who is also a person who stutters, explains, “Persons who stutter can quickly perceive impatience in others. Victims and witnesses can ‘shut down’ in response to that impatience, say that they didn’t see anything or ‘that’s all I saw.’ If an officer is rushing to get on to the next task and the person senses it, they can easily bail out of the conversation, even if they have useful information about the incident. When you exclude someone from the process or act in a way that makes him or her feel ‘less than,’ you’re essentially shutting down your source of information.”
Similarly, how police treat a suspect who stutters can determine how cooperative the suspect will be. There may be a small window of time, immediately following an arrest, where suspects may want to purge feelings of guilt by telling police what happened.
For police used to moving quickly through an incident, it can be a challenge to...wait...for...a response...to a question. Yet just like people who do not stutter, persons who do stutter usually know exactly what they want to say. Officer Peet recommends, “Judge the content, not the way it’s said. When I am on a new squad with coworkers who are not used to the way I speak, it can be easy for them to interpret my speech as sounding stressed, as if something is wrong. When I sense this is the case when talking with a new coworker, I’ll let them know that ‘this is how I talk sometimes,’ and that they need to listen to my words.”


1 “Stuttering Facts and Information,” The Stuttering Foundation, www.stutteringhelp.org/faq.
2 “Stuttering Info,” National Stuttering Association, www.westutter.org/stutteringInformation/generalInformation.html
3 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Titles I and V of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). www.eeoc.gov/laws/statutes/ada.cfm.
4 “Stuttering Facts and Information,” The Stuttering Foundation, www.stutteringhelp.org/faq.
5 “The School-Age Child Who Stutters,” National Stuttering Association. 2010. https://www.z2systems.com/neon/resource/nsa/File/Brochures/School%20Age%20Child.pdf
6 “Government Leaders and Public Officials,” The Stuttering Foundation, www.stutteringhelp.org/famous-people-who-stutter.
7 Smith, Stephanie, Unlocking a Medical Mystery: Stuttering, CNN Health. February 10, 2010. www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/02/10/stuttering.genes.cell/index.html
8 “If you pick up the phone and hear nothing, be sure it is not a person who stutters trying to start the conversation before hanging up.” The Stuttering Foundation. Tips for Speaking with Someone Who Stutters.
9 “Community Policing Defined,” U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, www.cops.usdoj.gov/Default.asp?Item=36.
10 Kunard, Laura L. Ph.D., “Procedural Justice for Law Enforcement Agencies.” University of Illinois, Center for Public Safety and Justice, www.cops.usdoj.gov/pdf/conference/2011/ProceduralJustice-Kunard.pdf. Moe, Charlene, “Procedural Justice,” The Beat Podcast. www.cops.usdoj.gov/Default.asp?Item=2656.

From the Summer 2013 Newsletter. This article appeared in the Community Policing Dispatch, the e-newsletter for the COPS Office at the U.S. Department of Justice. It is used with kind permission of the author.