Copping an Attitude : Ex-Policeman Teaches Officers the Art of Verbal Judo--Reading and Redirecting People


Dirty Harry won’t cut it in the ‘90s.

“This is modern America, not a Clint Eastwood movie. If you say to Americans in the ‘90s, ‘Go ahead, make my day,’ they’ll do it,” barked cop trainer George Thompson.

An ex-police officer, Thompson would just as soon throw out the Jack Webb “just the facts, ma’am” approach, too.

“A neutral face pisses people off. You need a face to look interested when you’re bored. You need a different face for the little old lady who’s confused and a different face for the hard-nosed Crip who wants you off his turf. One sentence can start a fight. I’ve got the scars to prove it,” he warned, prodding, cajoling, entertaining, and, on one occasion, literally waking up a police officer about to nod off.


Some of the more celebrated nonfictional cop styles of our time don’t impress Thompson either. Take the approach of Paul Kramer, the Beverly Hills officer slapped by Zsa Zsa Gabor. “He only won that court case because Zsa Zsa Gabor was the worst of the two actors,” Thompson told about 80 officers in his “Verbal Judo” training, given last week to the entire Torrance Police Department.

“I know most of you don’t want to be here,” he continued. “But you can’t get enough training as a cop anymore. We deliver bad news for a living. We deal with the underbelly. People don’t like to see cops. The old ways of doing police work have to be smoothed out or you will be dead. We have to perform differently in the ‘90s.”

Alternately working the room as a stand-up comic, drill sergeant, game show host, street punk and samurai management consultant, Thompson employed an intentionally discombobulating, admittedly “assaultive” style.

“This training mirrors the kind of ongoing, fine line of chaos on the street,” he explained. “If I can upset you in class, you have no business carrying deadly force in the street.

“How many of you have had a course in presence under pressure?” he asked, knowing the answer was zero. “According to a federal study conducted at Rutgers University, law enforcement work is 97% to 98% verbal interaction. We haven’t trained you for 97% to 98% of the the job. But we’ll blame you if you mess up. . . .

“The camera is out there. It’s a new factor in police work. You’ve got to look good. You’ve got to walk the talk and talk the walk. You should always perform as if you’re on camera. People are out to make a buck. Lawsuits over how officers are trained are eating us alive.”

It may come as no surprise that law enforcement agencies have booked virtually every available minute of Thomspon’s time for the next two years.

With three associates from his Albuquerque, N. M.-based Verbal Judo Institute, Thompson has already trained about 40,000 federal, state and local peace officers from Hawaii to Pennsylvania in proper use of what he calls “the most dangerous weapon we all own: a cocked tongue.”


He’s also worked numerous gigs for corporate clients, such as IBM and Metropolitan Life.

But Thompson is downright messianic when it comes to cops: “I don’t enjoy (corporate audiences) as much. Frankly, I don’t care if they sell another machine. (Sales) are great for Americans, but those people are not going to die if their sales go down.”

In Southern California alone, Thompson’s law enforcement clients have included about 8,000 members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, plus police in San Diego, Long Beach, Tustin, Hawthorne, Gardena, Inglewood and Huntington Beach.

At the Los Angeles Police Department, all officers of the rank of captain or above have been through a four-hour mini-version of Thompson’s Verbal Judo class, which typically lasts from one to five days.


Police Chief Daryl Gates was impressed enough with the program that he recently requested a $264,000 city allocation to train about 11,000 LAPD personnel over the next two years. The Police Commission has OKd the request, which is expected to be submitted soon to the City Council for final approval. If funded, the training is scheduled to begin in July.

“The chief thinks there is great benefit to the department for officers at all levels,” said LAPD spokesmanCommander William Booth, who along with Gates was an enthusiastic, half-day student of Verbal Judo.

"(The training) was one of the few times I’ve ever sat for several hours and didn’t yawn once. I jumped several times, but I didn’t yawn. There’s nothing that George says that we don’t believe in and haven’t believed in for a long time. It’s just updated and performed in such a way that it impresses you and you learn.”

And possibly slash those complaints against your department in the process. Several agencies Thompson has worked with have charted dramatic decreases in citizen complaints since implementing the Verbal Judo training. The L.A. County Sheriff’s department, for example, monitored a station in Santa Clarita for a year and recorded a 40% decrease, said Capt. Al Scaduto.


“The complaints have consistently stayed down,” he said. “And we’ve incorporated George’s training into every academy class. There were only a few deputies who said, ‘I’ve been doing this. Why are you bringing in this to guy on to tell us how to do it?’ A number of deputies said this was the greatest training they’d ever received.”

Some, added Scaduto, have even found it useful at home. “They’ve said to George, ‘My God, where were you two marriages ago?’ ”

Few police officers have spent 10 years teaching Milton and Shakespeare to college students before deciding to try police work. But 48-year-old Thompson went to Colgate University on a swimming scholarship, picked up a Ph.D. in English on an academic scholarship at the University of Connecticut and did postgraduate work in rhetoric at Princeton. He was an associate professor of English at Emporia (Kansas) State University when he put on the badge.

He also holds black belts in judo and Tae Kwan Do. Even so, when he joined the force as a rookie cop in Emporia in 1975, he was astounded by what he saw his training partner, Bruce Fair, accomplish using “the most powerful force option in the world: words.”


During a lunch break from the Torrance training, Thompson recalled the night, early in his law enforcement career, when he and Fair went on two domestic dispute calls. In the first, the two performed a typical, straightforward “separate and suture” operation, getting a couple physically apart, calming them down and getting them back together.

But on the second call, the two entered a noise-wracked tenement apartment at 2 a.m. Then Fair immediately sat down on a couch and began reading a newspaper.

“I’m standing by the door. I’ve been on the streets 10 days, hand on the revolver. I don’t know what he’s doing. These people are yelling at each other,” Thompson said between sandwich bites and sips of Diet Coke. “Gradually he begins to look over. About two minutes later, he lowers the paper and says, ‘You got a phone? Look at this! A 1950 Dodge! Cherry condition! Need to make a call. I know it’s late. . . . Can I use your phone?’

“The couple was absolutely thunderstruck: ‘Yeah well, uh, we got a phone.’ He goes over. Dials a number, mumbles into the phone, comes back in the middle of the room. . . . What do you think happened to that domestic dispute? Gone. They were just standing there. . . . He says to them, ‘Is there something I can help you with?’ The husband says, ‘Well, no.’ The wife says, ‘Nah.’ We chitchatted with them and left. Fair had literally civilized two people by redirecting them into the role of host.”


As they left the apartment, the astonished rookie asked Fair how he knew when to separate and suture and when to sit down and read the newspaper. Fair replied that he’s didn’t know, he’d just somehow figured it out over the years.

“I said to him, ‘That won’t do. We’re gonna talk,’ ” Thomson remembered. “I haven’t got eight to 10 years to learn. I can get blown away walking into the next domestic dispute reading a newspaper. That’s how Verbal Judo started. It’s all about the redirection of attention.”

Thompson swiftly began making a near science of the tactics and language used by “honorable, old police dogs,” codifying their street savvy and behaviors.

He made notes on everything from why it’s critical for officers to keep their personal feelings to themselves (“The moment you let words rise naturally to your lips, you’ll create the best speech you’ll live to regret”) to why it’s smart to practice regularly with nightsticks (“People don’t fight a guy whose stick looks like it’s part of his hand. You value your life? Practice. Not to hurt people but to avoid hurting them.”)


He catalogued the mistakes he made as a rookie, such as thinking Mace works on everybody--only to watch it harmlessly roll off the cheeks of a threatening rodeo rider he was trying to arrest.

And he categorized people by the ways they typically respond to law enforcement directives:

* Nice people. “They will always do what you ask them to do the first time you ask them. They believe in the law. The only time we run into them is when they’re victims of crime or arrested for drunk driving.”

* Difficult people. “They will not do what you tell them to do the first time you tell them. They’re temperamentally incapable of saying ‘Oh yes.’ These people used to piss me off. They don’t any more. You know why? Because I’m one of them. If you mistreat people like this, they’ll hit you in the teeth. You make one mistake with these people, you’ve lost.”


* Wimps. “They appear to be nice people, but they’re not. They don’t get mad on the streets, they get even. They go, ‘Oh, yes, officer’ but what they mean is ‘Oh, no.’ Wimps get you back, in the back, baby. They file complaints and lawsuits.”

By 1982, Thompson had written an article about what he had learned on the streets for the FBI Bulletin. It was called “Rhetoric: An Important Tool for Cops.”

“I’d never gotten any response to my academic writing, but I got 600 calls and letters on this,” he recalled.

He decided to cut down on his police work and return to the university to teach and research what he was by then calling Verbal Judo. It incorporated elements of Aristotelian rhetoric, police work and the martial arts, particularly the notions of nonresistance, reading people and then redirecting their responses.


Police executives invited him to do trainings on what Thompson had begun to think of “the art and craft of generating voluntary compliance.” And he soon found himself testing out such notions on police officers in Abilene, Tex., realizing that, if it didn’t make practical sense there, “they’ll ride you out of town on a rail.”

Thompson’s been riding into police department after police department ever since, rarely having time to spend at his Albuquerque home, 7,300 feet high in the mountains, with cross-country skiing available at his doorstep.

Thompson’s colleague Maxine McIntyre, a Sacramento-based motivational speaker and law enforcement trainer, thinks he’s so popular because he believes and practices what he teaches.

“He’s really driven by his beliefs and he lives them,” said McIntyre, who sometimes conducts nonverbal behavioral training on the same cops Thompson trains with Verbal Judo. “He’s trying to move law enforcement from the good old boy syndrome to a very professional and sophisticated level. He’s very powerful.”


And, it would seem, very credible. Indeed, in his classes, Thompson repeatedly singles out language and behaviors that undermine credibility.

In Torrance, he reminded his listeners, “If you lose people’s belief in you, you lose power and influence over people. Trust is what we’re losing out there because of the way we talk and treat people.”

When the relentlessly intense training ended about 5 p.m., Thompson admitted he was exhausted and fairly discombobulated himself after having had only one day off in the last month. Even so, he kept an agreement he’d made earlier to go on patrol that evening with a couple of officers.

When he was reminded that it was still possible to change his mind without inconveniencing anyone, Thompson instantly ruled out the option. “Nah,” he replied, “I’d lose credibility.”



The following are five things to avoid saying, according to George Thompson:


“Come here means go away. When an authority figures says to someone, ‘Hey, come here,’ that person knows there’s trouble. Come here is a vaguely threatening phrase that says, ‘You haven’t obeyed me.’ Instead, I’d go to them, make contact when I’m ready and then say, ‘Excuse me, I need to chat with you a second.’ ”



“How many of you have said, ‘Calm down.’ How does that work at home on momma, or on your husbands, ladies? Make a note: If it doesn’t work on momma, it doesn’t work on the street. Instead of saying, ‘Calm down,’ use a calm face, calm demeanor and say, ‘It’s going to be all right.’ ”


“This is a nonhelpful phrase because it turns everything back on the person needing help. It’s not an ‘us’ discussion. It sounds nonempathic. If you say ‘What’s your problem?’ a typical answer is defensive: ‘It’s not my problem.’ People will bitch at you and you’ll get their volcanic overflow. Instead, say, ‘What’s the matter?’ or ‘What specifically could I do to help you?’ ”



“Nobody walks around thinking he’s not reasonable enough. You’ll ignite further conflict with this question. Try to ensure the person becomes more reasonable by the way you talk to them. Use the language of reassurance. Say things like ‘Let me see if I understand your position’ and then paraphrase their words to absorb their frustration. Then you can move them to act less destructively.”


“That’s a whip. You’re saying ‘Don’t you know anything, stupid?’ This question is usually the beginning of some sort of punishment routine. It causes conflict by its very nature. Focus on the behavior. Leave the person alone. Say, instead, ‘I know you know better than this. What really happened?’ ”