The art of Verbal Judo

How tactical communication reduces need to escalate use of force

     "Police officers need checklists of what people do when they are mentally ill or disabled," says Thompson. "Many officers don't know symptoms; they just seek compliance." Often, however, compliance can be achieved even from people with special needs — if the officer knows how to communicate on that individual's level.

Mental illness

     "Emotionally disturbed persons see the problem differently from the way you see it," Thompson explains. "If your subject is coming out of left field, then you have to go into left field to talk to him in a way he'll understand." In its document "The Consensus Project Report," the Consensus Project, a program coordinated by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, describes five things officers should do when they respond to individuals in crisis. With regard to actual communication, the Consensus Project's recommendation: "Stabilize the scene using de-escalation techniques appropriate for people with mental illness."

     While the report lists dos and don'ts for officers to follow, it points out specifically: "Most people with mental illness are not violent, but for their own safety and the safety of others officers should be aware that some people with mental illness who are agitated and possibly deluded or paranoid may act erratically, sometimes violently. If the person is acting erratically, but not directly threatening any other person or him- or herself, such an individual should be given time to calm down. Violent outbursts are usually of short duration. It is better that the officer spend 15 or 20 minutes waiting and talking than to spend five minutes struggling to subdue the person."

     Because contact with the mentally ill has risen over the last 20 years, many urban police departments have formed some kind of specialized response. The Consensus Project divides them into four categories: Crisis Intervention Teams (CITs), a comprehensive advanced approach, mental health professionals who co-respond, and Mobile Crisis Teams (MCTs). "The basic difference in these models is whether expertise is provided by police officers who are trained extensively in mental health issues, or by mental health professionals who either co-respond with law enforcement or respond after the scene has been secured," the report notes.

Developmental or cognitive disabilities

     Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which describes a range of developmental disabilities from profound autism to the related Asperger's Disease, has dramatically increased in the United States in the last decade or so — far beyond the increase normally attributed to improved diagnosis. According to, "The rate of autism has grown ten-fold since the late 1990s, from 1 in 2,500 to 1 in every 166 births."

     While the reasons for this leap are unclear, the fact remains that police come into contact daily with adolescents and adults alike who have the disorder. In fact, notes the site, it's estimated that people with autism and other developmental disabilities are about seven times more likely to have contact with police than members of the general population.

     "[Verbal Judo] tactical communications and autism intervention communication requirements are a good fit," says Joel Lashley, senior officer of security services at Children's Hospital and Health System in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He says the primary reasons for this are: "(1) Verbal Judo and S.A.F.E.R. 8 to 5 are emerging as the dominant communications models for public safety. (2) The skillful management of persons in crisis is dependent on comprehensive, adapted and learned communication skills. (3) Autism is best understood as a communications deficit requiring neurotypical persons (you and me) to learn the 'language' of autism in order to successfully communicate."

Language barriers

     The RAND study found that LAPD officers lacked the training to communicate effectively with civilians when a language barrier existed. In fact, even though officers are required to issue Miranda warnings — so that arrestees understand them — no protocol existed at the time for dealing with non-English-speaking arrestees. "Such failures to provide adequate training for communication across language barriers can make arrest and use-of-force situations far more difficult to negotiate," the report notes.

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