More than two decades ago, while I was working for a newspaper in Santa Fe, I got a call from a beefy-sounding guy named George J. “Doc” Thompson, a former police officer with black belts in both Judo and Taekwondo.
Thompson, who had spent much of his police career in New Mexico, wondered if he could talk to me about something he called “verbal judo,” and his book, “Verbal Judo: The Art of Gentle Persuasion.” This was just weeks after the infamous beating of motorist Rodney King by Los Angeles police on March 3, 1991 and this guy said he had an answer to that kind of brutality, which set off rioting that killed 53 people.
Sure, I said, always looking for a “news hook” to a national event.
As it turned out, Thompson was even burlier than he sounded on the phone. Tall, chest like a beer keg, huge arms, big round head, gleaming eyes so sharp and blue you could hardly look at them. In fact, he reminded me a lot of the kind of bad, macho cop I’d met while serving on night-cop beats. A minority, to be sure, but there were always a few who seemed to relish their power to dominate and intimidate.
This should be fun, I thought. But Thompson didn’t like that kind of cop any more than I did. Oh, he understood why many officers were disgusted by punks, low-lifes and disrupters. But in his wisdom — the guy earned a Ph.D. in rhetoric and persuasion from Princeton — understood that it was all about communication.
“Usually, people aren’t at their best when confronted by an officer,” he said (I’m paraphrasing all his words from memory). “They may be hurt, intoxicated, angry or scared. What I teach is tactical communications designed to de-escalate that stress.”
Talking to me, a shaggy-haired journalist type, he emphasized how his techniques could serve to protect the public, to prevent people from getting hurt, from Rodney King-like situations. But he was also very candid that he offered a different pitch when training cops, and no, I couldn’t attend. They needed space to be honest, express their feelings about the people they saw as disrupting the community and harming people.
And so what if they had negative feelings or stereotypes about the people they encountered? You can’t force anyone to change his or her feelings, whatever they may be. But Thompson knew he could train officers to effectively communicate and de-escalate, thereby reducing the threat of physical confrontation, litigation and bad publicity.
Doc based his technique on “five universal truths”: 1) All people want to be treated with dignity and respect, 2) to be asked rather than being told to do something, 3) to be told why they are being asked to do something, 4) to be given options rather than threats, and 5) want a second chance when they make a mistake.
“Treat people well,” said Thompson, who died of cancer in 2011, “regardless of their differences.”
It was simple stuff. And, I thought as I wrote my story, it could change the world, benefiting both police and the public. In the ensuing years it has done just that where it has been taught, across the U.S., in Canada, Spain, Australia, Sweden, France and beyond, to police, the military, private security teams and businesses.
But as the past couple of years have shown, most recently in the slaying of unarmed, fleeing Walter Scott by a South Carolina police officer who seemingly preferred murder to de-escalation, we need a lot more verbal judo. Here’s what Dean Scoville wrote in the March 2, 2012 edition of Police: The Law Enforcement Magazine:
“I was speaking with a friend of mine (who had) 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 … 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.'”
Another cop told Scoville, “‘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 author concludes, “The way this officer sees it, talking has become a collateral casualty of modern technology.”
I still remember the exhilaration I felt talking to Thompson, talking excitedly to friends about verbal judo (verbaljudo.com), so certain it was the way of the future. Long way to go, long way. But it heartens me to know that Doc Thompson’s legacy continues. He was one burly, scary-looking cop I learned to like a whole lot.