Whatever Happened to Verbal Judo?

Knowing when to talk and not talk are critical to officer safety but rarely discussed in contemporary police training.

“When you don’t talk, there’s a lot of stuff that ends up not getting said.”

Quote swiped from someone, someplace, somewhere

I was speaking with a friend of mine who’s a short-timer working patrol in the Southeastern United States recently. He’d just returned from defensive tactics training and lamented the fact that the course was all escalation driven.

“They don’t teach these young guys anything about de-escalating a situation.”

“What do you mean?” I asked?

“They focus on physically taking the guy down. Which is all good and necessary a lot of the time. But there’s not a damn thing about verbal judo.”

I was surprised to hear this as I thought that verbal judo had become something of a staple in officer training circles. But even if it wasn’t getting disseminated as it once was, I wondered if this was really that much of a concern. So I contacted some more friends.

“Yeah, I think it is,” one friend told me. “Many of the young cops we’re getting don’t know how to talk to people. I don’t mean they’re belligerent; they just really don’t know how to carry on a conversation.”

The way this officer sees it, talking has become a collateral casualty of modern technology. Today’s up-and-coming cops have mastered texting, sexting, e-mailing, and Facebook but are less accomplished when it comes to face-to-face interfacing. That’s the art of conversation-and therefore the ability to verbally de-escalate situations-is dying out.

Hmmm, I wondered. Had this really become a problem? If so, how pervasive was it? Was law enforcement doing enough to train officers’ to talk with people?

I made a few calls to some bewildered people-that whole “reach and touch someone” ad campaign has died for a reason-and found others’ observations and conclusions were similar to those of my Florida friend. Hell, a logistics chief with the Bernalillo County (N.M.) Fire Department told me that it’s not just police recruits, but their recruits, too.

“When it comes to talking about technology, they’re Johnny-on-the-Spot,” said the firefighter. “They’re definitely tech savvy. But they don’t have the gift of gab.”

Whatever the cause, Mike Seigfried of the San Bernardino County (Calif.) Sheriff’s Department, doesn’t necessarily find fault with the younger cops so much as the agencies that employ them.

“All this talk about ‘millennials-baby boomers-generation X’ers,’ it doesn’t matter,” Seigfried muses. “Hey, we’re the ones that hired them, and we’re the ones that have to train them. But when you ask agencies how much training they’re giving these kids, there’s a deafening silence. We need to give them the skills.”

The way Seigfried sees it, if there is a problem with younger cops not taking shop, civics, or debate these days, it’s up to police agencies to give their recruits the skill sets they need, just as they hopefully do on other fronts.

But prioritizing that skill set is a two-fold problem. For one, law enforcement tends to fixate on firearms training, driver training, and defensive tactics training.

“These are low-frequency/high-dollar concerns that get massive amounts of limited training dollars thrown at them,” says Seigfried.

Such training is fine, but too much emphasis on it comes at the expense of other training and developing other skills.

“Tactical communication is, like other things, a perishable skill,” Seigfried continues. “Cops talk to people every day, engaging in conversations that can escalate or de-escalate field encounters.

“Yet when we look at California and how much mandated training there is for you in talking to people, it’s two hours every two years, that’s it.”

Complicating the situation further is the fact that one of the first things that gets constricted during bad financial periods is training. Which means that increasingly cops are leaning on whatever negligible amount of tactical communication training they’ve been given.

Seigfried says this often results in two opposite extremes taking place. Either cops fail to get immediate compliance with their verbal commands and automatically going hands on (the fight’s on). Or, they will talk, and talk, and talk, and talk-and not act. In either instance, it becomes an officer safety issue.

“You have these guys whose actions communicate to the officer, ‘I’m not going to comply.’ How many times do you have to hear or see this before you are going to act? The problem is we’re not getting cops in the middle-and that’s where the reasonable standard is,” Siegfried explains.

More than one person I spoke with said that a greater emphasis needs to be placed on tactical communications training, even as some pointed to a diminishing work ethic as a point of concern, too.

“Even if you do present the training, who’s to say these younger people are going to listen? That they’re going to use it in the field?” One trainer asked.

I hesitate to make generalities of those a generation or two behind me, particularly when I think of some of the heroism displayed by our young troops overseas. But I do wonder if the recruits coming into the workplace possess the same tools of their predecessors and if police agencies are doing enough to compensate for any possible deficiencies.

There are other concerns, too, that might make cops quieter than they used to be. I know one of them-the ubiquitous capturing of their every word and movement via some recording device in the car, on their person, or in the hands of the people around them-would probably serve as an inhibiter to me if I was a youngster and still on the street.

What do you think?

Associate Editor of Police Magazine and a retired patrol supervisor and investigator with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, Sgt. Dean Scoville has received multiple awards for government service.

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