The art of Verbal Judo

How tactical communication reduces need to escalate use of force

     Thompson says, "When a person who speaks English as a second language gets upset, his language abilities go away, so you can't get him to do what you want until you get him to calm down." The problem is that the phrase "calm down" never works. "It makes the person the problem," Thompson explains. So, while the officer is waiting for an interpreter to arrive, she should lower her voice and look pleasant, and use her hands and face as an "open book" for the subject to read.

     Michael O'Malley, president of Personal Protection Consultants, Inc. (PPCI) Training adds, "The positioning of the officer's body, stance, hand position, [and] facial expressions are key factors to communicate with someone who is deaf or non-English speaking. Many gestures, postures, and facial expressions are universal with different groups and cultures and will be understood as non-threatening."

     Good training teaches hand gestures to use — and avoid — in different cultures. Thompson explains, "If you're trying to get someone from the Middle East to calm down, you would move into his personal space and perhaps even rest a hand on his shoulder. But those tactics would not work in Texas."

     Problems with language barriers aren't limited to civilians who don't speak English. They also come up when officers must deal with hearing-impaired or deaf people. The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) has worked with the Justice Department, along with a number of city and county law enforcement agencies, to develop model policies for agencies to follow. The policies are available at its Web site:

     Exceptions always exist, and thus does the risk that an officer's good-faith communication will inadvertently offend. The important thing to remember, says Thompson, is the question: "How are we all alike?" Universally, human beings need:

  • To be respected, not disrespected.
  • To be asked, not told, what to do.
  • To be told why.
  • To be given options, not threats.
  • To be given a second chance.
Finding the right program

     "Most agencies do not train their officers in communication skills, assuming all of their officers should know how to deal with people," says O'Malley. "Unfortunately that is a false sense of security practiced by administrations throughout the country. Some officers are terrific at dealing with all types of people; however, some need additional training on how to deal with people properly in specific situations." This is especially true considering the range of issues associated with responding to a person in crisis: whether a person is a suspect in a crime, a victim or witness; whether a crime has been committed, or he or she is simply wandering; and public safety.

     Training on how to respond to an autistic person in crisis is required in states such as Illinois, Indiana and New Jersey, while California, Florida and New York are studying such legislation. Florida, Maine, North Carolina and Pennsylvania offer training to officers without mandates, while Massachusetts' Autism & Law Enforcement Education Coalition uses active or former law enforcement officers as trainers. And in Texas, the Houston Police Department's CIT (modeled on that of the Memphis (Tennessee) Police Department) describes itself as a hybrid which provides 40 hours of mental health training to all patrol officers — a condition made easier by state law, currently the only one to require crisis intervention and de-escalation training for police.

     Elsewhere, many hospitals and advocacy groups offer disability-specific training to police departments. However, Dennis Debbaudt, who owns and has trained law enforcement officers about autism for 17 years, cautions that not all programs are created equal. "Some in the disability community believe it's their mission to teach officers to field diagnose disabilities. Government training needs a process by which the agency accepts feedback and continuously improves the course, or else it will not be effective. And there are vanity projects that are more about the person or organization than about the information."

     Most disability groups want police to be trained, but may rely on someone else's program, or use trainers who are not tapped into law enforcement. Such people may argue against handcuffing autistic subjects, for instance, without understanding that it's protocol in nearly all agencies. "Our training recruits police officers who are part of the autism community because they live it, either as parents, siblings, friends, and so forth," Debbaudt says.

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