The art of Verbal Judo

How tactical communication reduces need to escalate use of force


     Which traffic stop is more likely to result in use of force?

     Scenario A:

     Officer: Give me your driver's license and registration.

     Subject: Why?

     Officer: You were speeding, sir.

     Subject: No, I wasn't.

     Officer: Yes, you were. My radar put you at 59 miles per hour, and this is a 45-mile-per-hour zone.

     Subject: Radar can be wrong. Anyway, I just came off a 55-mile-per-hour road …

     Scenario B:

     Officer: Good afternoon, sir. I'm Officer Jones of the Metropolitan Police Department. The reason I stopped you is that I clocked you driving 73 miles per hour in a 45-mile-per-hour zone. Is there a reason you were driving that fast?

     Subject: No, no reason.

     Officer: May I see your driver's license?

     In Scenario A, the subject, on the defensive, engages the officer in an argument, effectively wresting control of the situation from the officer. In Scenario B, however, the officer maintains control throughout by using what the Verbal Judo technique calls an eight-step traffic stop. He would follow up his request for the license with a separate request for registration and proof of insurance, then make a decision whether to warn, cite, or arrest. If the decision is to warn or cite, the officer would provide an effective close. This is necessary, says George "Doc" Thompson, founder and president of the Verbal Judo Institute, "to leave people better than when you found them."

The importance of tactical communication

     In its 2003 report, "Training the 21st Century Police Officer: Redefining Police Professionalism for the Los Angeles Police Department," the RAND Corp. noted, "To communicate effectively is to be skilled in the overt and the subtle, to make one's intentions known whether the recipient is deaf, unable to understand English, mentally handicapped, enraged, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or simply unfamiliar with normal police procedure." Good officers can communicate effectively even under tremendous stress. The skill is critical to successfully gaining compliance or cooperation from subjects, and in managing situations where arrest, search and seizure, or use of force — which the report notes are "intricately related" — are required.

     Nonetheless, the RAND study notes, "Tactical communications as currently taught are too limited in scope and poorly integrated with other instruction. Officers need to learn how, when, and with what type of person certain communication techniques are more effective. This is particularly important when deadly force might be applied. A person who does not understand English or a person with a mental illness might inadvertently send aggressive signals to the officer. The officer needs to be adept at selecting from and effectively applying various modes of communication, verbal and nonverbal, under conditions of extreme stress."

     Yet this skill, says Thompson, is anything but natural. "Natural communication is what flows from your lips. It gets people hurt." So, just as it takes up to a year to train students how to fall and punch without getting hurt, tactical communication training takes a long-term approach to teach officers how to interact without getting themselves or someone else hurt. (See Page 64 for "Principles for tactical communication.")

Tactical communication and special needs

     It's hard enough trying to talk down a belligerent subject during a traffic stop, or following a domestic dispute. But what about subjects who are impaired—not by alcohol or even anger, but by mental illness, developmental disability, or language barriers? Take the traffic stop scenario from the introduction:

     Officer: Give me your driver's license and registration.

     Subject (agitated): They're coming for me. I have to get away.

     Officer: Sir, no one is chasing you. Give me your —

     Subject: I've got to destroy them!

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