As a young second-class petty officer stationed in San Diego (living in Chula Vista, which borders on Mexico) I went south more than a few times. One trip, riding in the back of Bugsy Boatright’s yellow Toyota pickup, took me to Hunan’s in Ensenada. We were celebrating someone’s birthday and in the course of the afternoon and early evening we consumed a lot of tequila.
In the parking lot, as we were preparing to leave, an expatriate backed into Buggsy’s truck. The damage was minimal, but still a confrontation arose. The local police were summoned and before we knew how we got there, we all found ourselves outside the local police station.
While Bugsy and the guy who did the damage were in side, the rest of us stayed on the street where another expatriate when off on how us gringos came down here and raised hell causing problems for guys like him who just wanted to enjoy the margarita vibe in peace. Without really thinking about what I was doing, I talked to the guy, got him to tell me about life in Ensenada. We talked. He mellowed and I actually learned a bit.
Afterwards, one of my shipmates told me he was impressed with how I deescalated the situation. I didn’t think much about what I had done at the time, but reading Tom Dart’s ‘Verbal judo’: the police tactic that teaches cops to talk before they shoot brought the memories back.
Bored with his life in academia, George “Doc” Thompson left his prestigious career and went on to teach a million police officers to ask questions first and shoot later.
Thompson was a judo black belt who ran a dojo, studied rhetoric and persuasion at Princeton and had a PhD in English literature. But after 10 years of teaching university classes, Thompson wanted a change. He took a sabbatical and decided to become a cop, working the midnight shift as a patrol officer in New Jersey.
The father of a tactical communication style known as “verbal judo”, he wrote his first book on the subject in 1983 and became a successful law enforcement trainer.
“Anybody can teach English,” he said in one of his training video from the 1990s. “Not anybody can talk a knife out of somebody’s hand.”
I referenced two characters from the television show Blue Bloods because the two brothers—Danny and Jamie—are polar opposite in the way they handle criminals. Danny is an old-school detective who gets on top of a situation, shouting and making demands in a confrontation. Jamie, a rookie patrolman, negotiates, does his best to defuse the situation. Some will argue, perhaps correctly, that Jamie simply hasn’t been on the job long enough and that, given experience, will turn into his big brother. Doc Thompson is the real-world case for not giving in to the cynics.
In the current context of tensions inflamed by a series of police shootings of African Americans and of cops killed in revenge attacks, the use of verbal de-escalation to defuse combustible encounters has rarely seemed so important—or so under threat.
More than 30 years ago, Thompson codified what he saw as common sense: using tactical language calmly under pressure to achieve a clearly defined goal—with the priority of keeping officers safe.
“I simply used my academic background to put words to what great cops have always done,” he said. “Verbal judo is not the flavour of the month. It’s been around for 200 years. Great sheriffs never ran a town badmouthing people and put people down and disrespected people; they’d have been shot out of the saddle.”
Thompson’s research found that almost every injury came from an escalation in a situation, rather than from the officer arriving when violence was already underway.
“We know that the most deadly weapon we carry is not the .45 or the 9mm, it is in fact the cop’s tongue … A single sentence fired off at the wrong person at the wrong time can get you fired, it can get you sued, it can get you killed,” said Thompson.
Thompson died in 2001, but the lessons he learned and taught continue.
Joel Francis, a former police officer in New York, is a national instructor at the Verbal Judo Institute, teaching techniques he deployed on the beat. His clients are private companies, as well as law enforcement departments. “Our calendar is pretty full,” he said.
“There’s so many times when people are screaming and yelling and you just go to them: ‘Hey, buddy, how you doing? My names’s Sergeant Francis, I’m with NYPD, I noticed that you’re really upset, now what’s going on with you, is there any way I can help?’” he said. “What’s the expression on your face, what’s the tone of your voice? A lot of it has to do with keeping yourself calm. We have to have some sort of a professional language to use, and that’s what verbal judo really supplies.”
He added: “We know that we can always use the strong arm of the law to make them comply, but we’re trying to give our officers tools that will generate voluntary compliance.”
Makes a hell of a lot of good sense to me.