When they got the call to investigate a domestic disturbance, the two cops in Cincinnati, Ohio, went into their act.
They pulled down their hats to make their ears protrude, loosened their ties, buttoned their shirts crooked and rapped on the door playfully with a “shave-and-a-haircut” beat.
“Is that your car down there with the lights on?” they deadpanned as an angry man opened the door.
Then, seeing the oddball cops, he forgot he was angry and smiled.
It’s a trick the Cincinnati police learned from a psychologist in Troy, N.Y.
“Police arriving at the scene of a domestic dispute, for instance, should try performing a Bugs Bunny impression or try raiding the refrigerator before unholstering their night sticks,” is the advice of Robert A. Baron, chairman of the Psychology Department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. “Well-timed clowning often deters violence more effectively than the threat of force.”
Experiment Since ’83
Cincinnati police officials concede they were skeptical when they first heard Baron explain his idea on a local talk show, but since they began trying it in 1983, they have found that it works.
“Our bottom-line goal is to resolve conflict with the least amount of force,” said Michael Gardner, a Cincinnati officer who teaches the technique to recruits. “Just having the police show up doesn’t necessarily get attention.”
Baron was teaching at Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind., in the early 1970s when he first came up with the idea of clowning to defuse potentially violent situations.
“The basic idea of the research centered on incompatible responses,” he said. “If someone is angry, you do something that will make them feel good. You’ll reduce their anger and the things that follow it, like aggression.
“The basic rule of thumb is that when people are experiencing strong emotions, their logical thinking decreases. The research tries to counter this. We try to pull people toward a calmer state.”
Gardner said that Baron’s ideas work best in family disputes.
Effective Comic Relief
“The more emotionally upset someone is, the more effective it is,” he said. “In a family fight, a person can be so locked into what’s going on they can have blinders on.”
Baron explained that “once you get people off the track, their anger decreases,” but he conceded the technique might work only temporarily.
“The idea is to get in quickly and stop the process,” he said. “It’s done early . . . when anger is just beginning. It’s not powerful late in the process. Then you might want to withdraw.”
Gardner was the first officer in Cincinnati to try clowning. He soon persuaded his partner to join him and they have developed several acts.
“We’d often knock with a shave-and-a-haircut beat to it,” Gardner, a 15-year veteran of the force, said.
Once inside, if the parties persisted in fighting, Gardner and his partner would start rearranging the furniture, saying they needed space for the fight.
Gardner said he was once caught off guard when his partner gave a “first-rate performance” and stopped a violent family fight.
Anger Takes a Walk
“He threw his hat down during a domestic dispute and said he didn’t have to take this anymore,” Gardner said. “Eventually, this guy we had been telling to leave told my partner: ‘It’s no big deal. I’ll go take a walk.’ ”
Gardner said that teaching the technique at the police academy is not always easy, because recruits may have “preconceived ideas of what a police officer is and have a ‘rough ‘em up’ attitude.”
On the other hand, he said, experienced officers think it’s “the best training they’ve ever had.”
Gardner took a leave of absence a year ago to travel around the country sharing what he knew with other police departments.
He said he knows of no other police departments currently using the clowning device, “but many are becoming interested.”