Could 'verbal judo' help cops defuse tense situations?

The technique, designed to train officers to resolve tense situations with their words, not their weapons, is experiencing a revival amid a fraught time for policing.

Richard Harbus/The Daily News/AP/File
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and police Commissioner William Bratton watch a demonstration at the New York City Police Academy in Queens, N.Y., in on December 2014. A training technique called 'verbal judo' that is designed to teach officers to resolve tense situations with their words is experiencing a revival amid a tense climate for policing and a series of violent incidents.

In 1983, George “Doc” Thompson, a former English professor turned cop with a black belt in judo, published his first book on a subject he called “verbal judo” – teaching police to deescalate pressurized situations with their words, not their weapons.

It was a time that brought sweeping changes to policing. A year earlier, criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling sparked the movement that came to be known as “broken windows” policing with an article that pushed for officers to get out of their cars and walk a regular foot patrol. “An officer on foot cannot separate himself from the street people; if he is approached, only his uniform and his personality can help him manage whatever is about to happen,” they wrote in a seminal article in the Atlantic.

Dr. Thompson’s focus on teaching police to defuse tough situations, by contrast, initially found a foothold in the wake of the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991, but eventually declined in influence, particularly in the wake of 9/11, the Guardian reports.

Now, some police instructors are again focusing on the techniques Thompson advocated, combining scientific research with training designed to simulate the tense situations officers may find themselves in.

The revival of the approach comes at a particularly fraught time for policing, as a series of police shootings of African-Americans and the shooting of eight officers killed in what the gunmen have called revenge attacks have drawn an outcry and dueling calls for changes.

The verbal de-escalation techniques, proponents say, could be a bridge between the two, keeping officers safe while maintaining citizens’ rights.

“Your core mission is not to have a nightstick and a gun and pepper spray – your core mission is to support the constitution, protect people, while defending their civil rights,” Sue Rahr, executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission told the Guardian.

“People talk about policing as it’s all about the guns and the weapons. That is so backwards. It’s all about the ability to influence human behavior,” Ms. Rahr, who was sheriff of Washington state’s King County, which includes Seattle, from 2005 to 2012, told the paper.

As much as Wilson and Kelling once harkened back to age of beat cops walking the streets and getting to know local residents, Thompson, who died in 2001, argued his approach was far from new.

“I simply used my academic background to put words to what great cops have always done,” Thompson said in a training video. “Verbal judo is not the flavor 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.”

The report of the technique’s revival comes with an ironic twist, as the shooting of a black man in Florida on Wednesday happened after the man, a behavioral therapist, was attempting to help a patient diagnosed with autism who had wandered outside an assisted living facility.

Charles Kinsey, a caretaker at the facility, was shot by a North Miami police officer as he was attempting to calm the young autistic man, who had been blocking traffic.

Cellphone footage shows Mr. Kinsey lying on the ground with his hands in the air attempting to calm the patient before an officer fires three times, hitting Kinsey in the leg.

He told local station WSVN he was stunned by the shooting. “I was thinking as long as I have my hands up ... they’re not going to shoot me. Wow, was I wrong.” Police then handcuffed him and left him bleeding on the pavement for “about 20 minutes,” Kinsey told the station.

In cellphone footage of the incident, filmed by a bystander and shared by Kinsey’s attorney with The Washington Post, the caretaker is seen lying on the ground with his hands in the air as he attempts to calm the young autistic man only seconds before he is shot.

“All he has is a toy truck in his hand,” Kinsey can be heard saying in the video as police officers with assault rifles stand behind telephone poles. “That’s all it is. There is no need for guns.”

“Rinaldo, please be still,” Kinsey tells the patient. “Sit down, Rinaldo. Lay on your stomach.” Off camera, one officer then fires his weapon.

Situations like this are ones the instructors hope to remedy using the de-escalation techniques, which are intended to give police exposure to a wide range of scenarios that don’t necessarily end in the possibility of violence. They’re also intended to supplement frequent, required firearms training, the Guardian reports.

The approach has faced some criticism. When the Los Angeles Police Department announced the creation of a medal honoring officers for resolving situations with nonlethal force, a police union called the award “a terrible idea that will put officers in event more danger,” in a November blog post.

But many say the training is an important part of working to avoid unnecessary uses of force. “When police fail to understand that they are dealing with a person with a special condition, the result is sometimes a use of force that may be legally and morally justifiable, especially if the person appeared to be threatening the safety of others, but which produces a very unfortunate outcome – a situation some observers call ‘lawful, but awful,’ " wrote Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, in a 2012 report.

Some police departments have increasingly been implementing crisis intervention training, which helps officers de-escalate confrontations with mentally ill people, PERF found.

“I don’t know any cop who wouldn’t get down on one knee to talk to a kid," Joe Winters, a King’s County sheriff’s deputy in Washington state, which has adopted training measures, told the Guardian. “When it comes to adults, are we willing to do the same thing?”

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