David Ingram won the Mystery Writers of America’s Robert L. Fish Award for best short story by a new author for his January 2011 EQMM story “A Good Man of Business.” A subsequent story for EQMM, November 2013’s “The Covering Storm,” was selected for the 2014 volume of the anthology series Best American Mystery Stories. The author is not only a fiction writer (with a novel recently completed) but a book and movie reviewer. He’s had other work experience too, and he discusses one of the most interesting of his past jobs in this post. —Janet Hutchings
“I told you,” I said to McMullin, “you haven’t got anything on me or my client. You keep busting my chops ’cause you don’t have two clues to rub together.”
The big copper leaned in until his nose almost kissed mine. “You private dicks kill me, thinkin’ you’re special. Maybe I’ll throw you in holding until you lose the attitude!”
In novels, movies, and TV shows, confrontational scenes between police officers and citizens abound. It’s good drama; how many people would want to watch or read about the classic noir detectives or their modern equivalents having a nice chat with a police officer? However, it may have bled over into reality for some. When researchers looked into incidents where police officers were involved with violent confrontations, it was discovered that some officers accounted for nearly all the incidents, while others almost never had problems. The culprit, it turned out, was how the officers talked to the suspects. The language they used naturally led to violence.
Enter Dr. George J. Thompson, who received his B.A. at Colgate, a Master’s and Doctorate in English at the University of Connecticut, and did postdoctoral work at Princeton in Rhetoric and Persuasion. He was well acquainted with detective fiction as he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Dashiell Hammett’s five novels, and later published it as Hammett’s Moral Vision. After all that study and ten years teaching English, he left academia and became a full-time cop.
Thompson noticed some of the old hands in the department were always able to get a suspect to comply with just a few words. From his training he recognized they were using complex rhetoric, even though they couldn’t have explained what they were doing. For them, it was a natural gift. Thompson’s education experience let him break down these techniques so that they could be taught to anyone, and he developed the program called “Verbal Judo.”
It’s an appropriate name. Judo is relatively modern, having been developed in the late 1800s by Jigoro Kano. Before that, jujitsu was the main martial art in Japan, with its emphasis on blows that could be used to disable and even kill. Judo, whose name means “gentle way,” was created as a sport to build character. Kano took a scientific attitude in the design of judo. It involves deflection and parrying force rather than meeting it directly. Dr. Thompson had a black belt in the sport.
In 1982, Thompson wrote an article that was published in an FBI bulletin about police rhetoric and how it could be a valuable tool for officers. He received over 600 letters in response to the article. One of the letters invited him to give a talk to police and corrections officers in Abilene, Texas. He accepted, and at the end of his presentation, he received a standing ovation. The officers told him he had to do it as a regular course, so in 1983, he founded the Verbal Judo Institute and set about training officers in the techniques.
The purpose of Verbal Judo is to de-escalate situations so they don’t turn into violent encounters. The course is taught over an intensive two-day period, and it breaks down into five steps:
1) Ask: Treat a person with dignity and respect. 85% of people will comply when they are asked nicely to do something. As Dr. Thompson put it, “Treat people well, regardless of their differences.”
2) Set Context: Explain to the person why you are making a request or placing them under arrest. People want to know why something is happening.
3) Present Them With Options: Give the person scenarios of what can happen based on their behavior. In effect, it makes the person responsible for what takes place. All people want to be asked rather than to be told what to do.
4) Confirm: Get their acknowledgement of compliance, if possible. If the person’s still refusing to cooperate, the officer might ask, “Is there any way to get you to comply with this?” Rather than threats, people prefer options.
5) ACT: Follow through with actions. If the suspect still won’t comply, then the officer may need to escalate to using force. However, most people want a second chance when they make a mistake. If the desired effect is presented as a way to get that second chance, it can defuse what could be an explosive situation.
Verbal Judo has become a required course in many jurisdictions and at police academies across the United States, as well as internationally. Officers have multiple force options, from hand-to-hand combat through pepper spray and Tasers and on up to firearms. But words are the only option that can increase the safety of officers, and they won’t lead to liability lawsuits or physical injuries. Words can also improve relations between the public and the police. These days, the police have to expect that their actions will be recorded by someone with a cell phone. If you search YouTube for arrest videos, you’ll see over 800,000 results. (A trainer in Verbal Judo was scheduled to do a presentation for the Los Angeles Police Department in March of 1991, but the trip was canceled because of the Rodney King affair that happened that month. One wonders what a difference training in Verbal Judo may have made in that situation.)
To give cadets experience in Verbal Judo, police academies such as the Police Training Institute at the University of Illinois incorporate extensive role-play into their studies. That was where I encountered the technique. For about a year, I was a role-player for P.T.I., acting out situations as a victim, witness, or perpetrator so the cadets could get experience in a controlled environment before their first street assignments. A training officer and a team of 6-10 cadets would watch as a couple of the trainees went through a scenario, and then discuss how they handled the situation. The role-playing would be repeated with variations until all the trainees had a chance to participate.
There were two situations in particular where cadets were helped by the Verbal Judo skills. One was Terry Stops, where the police are allowed to stop a person and check their identification if they think that person might have been involved in a crime that’s occurred. Using the Verbal Judo techniques can prevent the interview from turning into a confrontation. The other scenario where Verbal Judo can defuse an already charged incident is with domestic disturbance calls. During the role play, two cadets are dispatched to a report of a loud argument. If they were to become involved in the argument themselves it would defeat their efforts. Instead, the officers separate the combatants into different rooms (or take one outside) and get them talking about what triggered the fight. The cadets will then discuss what they’ve heard from each participant (while standing in such a way that they can keep an eye on both parties) and decide how best to proceed. If it was simply a loud argument, they might caution the couple to keep things under control, or have one of them leave overnight to allow time for tempers to cool. If physical violence was involved, usually they proceed to an arrest.
Dr. Thompson had an intense teaching style and picked up the nickname “Rhino” while doing the seminars in the 1990s. When he was introduced to two police officers who were scheduled to take the seminar, they said, “Oh, you’re the rhino!” Thompson asked what they meant, and the officers explained they’d asked an FBI agent who’d done the course what Thompson was like in class. The agent told the officers, “Imagine a Rhinoceros on amphetamines. . . . When you’re in his classroom, he’s in your face.” Doc Rhino trained over 175,000 law enforcement professionals himself and equipped teachers who’ve trained hundreds of thousands more. He passed away unexpectedly in 2011, but his work is continued by the Verbal Judo Institute, based in Auburn, NY. The institute has branched out to provide communication training for corporations based on Dr. Thompson’s teaching. Wherever negative stress can aggravate interactions between people, the skills of Verbal Judo can help.
Using Verbal Judo in a story won’t be as dramatic as the old get-in-your-face confrontations between cops and others in hardboiled novels and films, but this is one place where reality and fiction clearly divide.