By Micki Browning
Law enforcement officers receive a tremendous amount of training throughout their careers. My police academy alone was 852 hours. If popular culture were to be believed, our training would only consist of driving (fast), shooting (excessively), defensive tactics (often outnumbered and sustaining nary a scrape), and how to drink coffee and eat certain deep-fried dough products (without spilling or getting powdered sugar on our uniforms). What’s often overlooked is the amount of communication training officers receive. The truth is cops spend the majority of their time talking to people—and the better an officer is at communicating, the more effective they are in their job.
It’s no surprise that there are people who don’t want to talk to the police. Officers are trained to react to resistance and redirect it when it’s encountered. Writers and films are quick to portray officers jumping to a physical confrontation, but while that makes for great entertainment, it’s not the appropriate response when the resistance is merely verbal—at least not at first. But cops are human—and I speak from experience, here—they tend to be a sarcastic lot. Again, great fodder for fiction. Not so much if a cop wants to avoid talking to someone in internal affairs.
I know the importance of words. I was a crisis negotiator, I taught Communications at the academy, and now I’m a writer. On any given call, the level of danger officers face can change quickly (check out Isabella Maldonado’s post on crisis negotiation for the two words not to say). In this post, I want to focus on one way officers diffuse little conflicts before they become big problems.
Officers learn many communication strategies over the course of their careers, and the overarching goal is to gain voluntary compliance. Dr. George L. Thompson formalized one strategy that was taught to over a million officers as Verbal Judo.
To see it in action, let’s look at a traffic stop contact. While assessing the scene for safety concerns, the officer greets the driver, identifies himself (or herself) and his agency and informs the driver why he was stopped. Now the officer needs something from the driver—his license. Like a sales pitch, it all begins with the ask.
Fortunately, the vast majority of people cooperate with law enforcement officers. When asked for a driver’s license, most individuals will produce it with a nervous smile.
But just for fun, let’s suppose he doesn’t…
It’s human nature to want to know the reason behind a request. In this scenario, the driver’s question is why should I give you my license? This is where cocky officers go off the rails. As in parenting, “Because I said so” rarely produces the desired result. But driving is a privilege and not a right and taking a quick moment to explain that the law requires motor vehicle operators to present their license to a peace offer upon demand is usually all that is necessary to resolve that initial conflict.
But our hypothetical driver doesn’t care….
Now it’s time to let your inner rhetorician run amok! It’s time to tell the driver about all the unpleasant consequences that could happen based on his refusal to present his license. Rather than a simple driving infraction, the driver is about to graduate to a misdemeanor offense. Misdemeanor offenses can land a person in jail. If he gets arrested, his car will be towed. Tow fees are expensive. Not to mention, the driver is going to miss dinner.
But if he remains unconvinced…
Without any dramatic eye rolls, the officer simply confirms that the driver would rather be subjected to the above consequences than provide his license. Common sense usually prevails by this point.
But if (s)he lacks common sense….
Cops don’t bluff. The violator is going to jail.
Fiction versus Reality
Less than ten percent of communication is accomplished by the actual words that are spoken. Voice intonation communicates more of the message, but if you want to know what someone really means, watch their body language—even when it contradicts the words being spoken.
On some level, everyone recognizes non-verbal cues. These cues are what writers use to convey what’s really happening between two people. Imagine how a person stands. What expression crosses her face? Is she making eye contact? What does she do with her hands? These are all clues about how open or disingenuous that person is being at that moment in time.
We’ve all said things in anger. Cops can’t afford to do that. Controlling situations with words that are defensible in court coupled with command presence means not having to fight someone into handcuffs. In real life this is good. In fiction? Maybe not. As an author, I’ve written characters that react badly toward anyone who challenged his or her authority. But let me assure you, on the street, it’s much better to have the skills to stay on track, remain unruffled, and get the job done.