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!

     "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.

     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.

     Debbaudt recommends that any law enforcement agency seeking training do thorough homework first. "Ask for their course materials, as well as information on the trainer's background. Check with references. And if possible, scout a class." Ultimately, he says, an agency looking to save money must question whether the cheaper course is really the best use of time and resources.

     For police departments lacking funds, Thompson recommends spending enough to send an instructor through training. "That person can then return to the department and train the rest." O'Malley agrees. "When there are in-house instructors, the training costs are minimal and agencies have the discretion when, where and how long to train," he explains. "It could be done in pieces or full sessions. There is a lot more flexibility when the agency has its own instructors." Besides, he points out, "A simple training class in de-escalation may save numerous costs in liability issues and injuries. I think the investment is a good risk when you may save millions [compared to] a few hundred or thousand dollars."

     Finally, tactical communication must continue to be taught as a matter of protocol, not just as a one-time event. "Communication is a perishable skill," says Thompson. "Verbal Judo is a physical skill, because it deflects abuse." Ideally, opportunities to practice via scenarios and debriefings will be presented throughout an officer's day, as well as during in-service training; Verbal Judo instructors are required to be retrained every three years.

     The RAND study notes: "An unarmed officer possessing well-honed communication skills would in many cases be a more potent law enforcement implement than an officer with poor communication skills but expert in the use of weapons. The ideal combination, and the legitimate objective of department training, is a balance between these two extremes: officers who are both skillful communicators and proficient in the use of physical assets."

     Thompson puts this idea in simpler terms.

     "The American eagle, as shown on the dollar bill, holds a spear in one talon and an olive branch in the other," says Thompson. "This is the image of the peace warrior—what every police officer should also reflect. However, most police training focuses only on the spear. Tactical communication training focuses on the olive branch."

     Christa Miller is a freelance writer who specializes in public safety issues. She is based in southern Maine and can be reached at

Principles of tactical communication

     Verbal Judo, or tactical communication as it has come to be called, allows the officer to work effectively with individuals regardless of the kind of day he is having, circumstances in his personal life, or other influences both positive and negative, says founder and president George "Doc" Thompson.

     Scenario B in the introduction is one of many examples in which Verbal Judo can work for police officers. It's part of the S.A.F.E.R. 8 to 5 technique, a cornerstone tactic of Verbal Judo that can be adapted to just about any law enforcement contact — including with people who have special needs. The eight-step process works for officers making initial contact; a five-step hard-style process is for those encounters where a subject continues to resist the officer's requests. Here, the officer would step up the language of respect, including lengthier reasons — what Thompson calls professional context — for the stop.

     Options provided to subjects should be based on what Thompson refers to as the greed principle, in which the officer uses whatever people have to gain or lose. "Explain how if the subject complies, he'll get to go home tonight, but if you have to arrest him, the tow will cost $300 and he'll be late for work, maybe even lose his job." This is the art of persuasion, which Thompson says blends ethical appeal with personal appeal. "First you get them to buy that you care about them. Then appeal to their sense of their best interest."

     These tactics are taught in Verbal Judo courses. Learning effective tactical communication begins with professionalism, or "learning how to communicate better than the people you serve," says Thompson. This is followed by tactical theory, or the ideas behind the practice of better delivery. Finally, the tactics are taught. "We teach officers to become who they have to be to respond to a scene," Thompson explains.

     Another well-known training program, Management of Aggressive Behavior (MOAB), emphasizes empathy in much the same way that Verbal Judo does.

     "We try to use empathic listening and statements, meaning we emphasize to officers to try and [act] as if they were in the same situation," says Michael O'Malley, president of Personal Protection Consultants Inc. Training. "Not all circumstances allow for this with extremely violent people; however, our approach may be a somewhat more compassionate method. If there is a need for further escalation, we emphasize more assertive measures. Some of the programs rely on a more defensive posture from the beginning."

     MOAB training details signs that officers can use to predict where an encounter is going, including the stages of conflict and how to manage it, body language, cornering and listening. These are taught with regard not only to the subject, but also to the officer. For instance, as O'Malley explains: "When we corner people they will fight twice as hard compared to [those] not being cornered. Officers make five cornering mistakes when approaching people: angular, contact, surround, exit and psychological. Many times officers and the individuals they are trying to control are injured because of cornering practices."

     A subject's verbal and non-verbal cues go hand in hand with the officer's training and experience to help determine the direction of an encounter. "Just because someone is being verbally aggressive does not mean that they are going physical," O'Malley explains. "I believe some of the philosophies being taught in the academies and other training disciplines do not emphasize this enough and officers automatically assume it is going physical. That is where we differ from other programs. We go into detail about recognizing, reducing and managing anxious and/or aggressive behavior. We try to build officers' confidence in dealing with those situations. By predicting the behavior, the officer has a better chance for it to come to a safe and successful conclusion."

When tactical communication fails

     The key to tactical communication is that, as Thompson explains, it comes from practitioners — not universities. That's important because, as O'Malley points out, "MOAB can be used in any potential or violent situation; however, not all situations can be de-escalated without using physical control. Some people communicate by getting physical, and that will not be avoided. Some medical problems do restrict the successful use of MOAB like any other similar program because the person may not be of right mind."

     Verbal Judo teaches the S.A.F.E.R. technique. An officer must revise priorities if a subject:

  • Threatens the security of others, or property in the officer's control.
  • Threatens the officer's personal safety.
  • Flees.
  • Engages in excessive repetition, trying to engage the officer in a game of "who's right" rather than be persuaded to comply.

     Anyone can use Verbal Judo, says Thompson; however, not everyone can learn it: "Bullies don't want to learn it," he explains. "They can be turned, but it's difficult."

     Fragile egos are too weak to project the kind of strength needed to deflect verbal attacks and help people. "The police are there to think for you the way you would under better conditions," says Thompson. "But they have to be strong enough to do that to begin with."

More in Home