By Daniel Scorza, student, Criminal Justice at American Military University
Unlike law enforcement officers, correctional officers have minimal tools to deal with unruly or threatening inmates. Most correctional officers only carry a radio, restraints, and sometimes a baton. Rarely are they even issued pepper spray. Firearms are only available in locked areas of the facility and are only used in the most serious situations such as a prison riot.
The reason correctional officers are unarmed is because they are constantly outnumbered and in close quarters with dangerous offenders. If correctional officers were armed like regular patrol officers—with a Taser, firearm, and pepper spray—they risk being disarmed by an inmate. In essence, minimally arming officers prevents institutional takeover, hostage situations, and injuries.
Because correctional officers don’t have many tools at their disposal, the most important skill a correctional officer can arm him or herself with is strong communication skills.
Correctional officers must be highly trained in tactical communication, also commonly called “verbal judo,” a concept popularized by Dr. George Thompson. When used properly, verbal judo can quickly calm down an inmate and help de-escalate a situation, even when it’s becoming borderline violent. Learning verbal judo is challenging and takes a lot of training and practice to perfect. However, it is critical for officer safety that all correctional officers understand and deploy these communication tactics.
What is Verbal Judo?
Verbal judo is used to guide behavior in a positive manner by helping to dismantle negative conflict. By using a positive deliverance of a message, officers can yield much better results from offenders rather than using a negative form of communication. Here’s an example of negative communication:
Officer: Put your hands on the wall.
Officer: Because I need to pat you down for contraband.
Inmate: I don’t have anything on me.
Officer: I have to do it whether you like it or not.
Here’s an example of an officer using positive communication tactics:
Officer: Good evening, sir, I need you to place your hands on the wall to check for contraband.
Inmate: I don’t have anything on me.
Officer: I understand sir, but for your safety and my safety I need to frisk you. Can you please place your hands on the wall?
When using tactical communication, officers must be clear and professional in their speech, introducing themselves and giving proper explanation as to why they are confronting the individual. This initial interaction will set the mood during communication between the officer and the offender, displaying a calm and positive tone rather than a threatening one.
Ultimately, tactical communication must show that an officer is in control of the situation, but is willing and open to allow the offender to take part in the conversation. This approach displays respect by the officer and often results in receiving respect and compliance from the offender. This form of communication also gives an offender options about how they can respond to the interaction.
The Benefits of Tactical Communication
Using communication to de-escalate a situation serves many purposes. It allows an officer to clearly tell an inmate what options they have to resolve the situation. Most people, even the most violent of criminals, can be reasoned with, especially when they’re presented with options instead of with demands or an ultimatum. De-escalating the situation through tactical communication reduces injuries to both inmates and correctional officers and is an important part of officer safety.
Tactical communication can also be a way for correctional officers to gain intelligence about what’s happening in the facility. Using these communication skills, officers can learn about crimes being committed within the facility. Enhanced communication skills can also help officers more quickly identify inmates who are suffering from mental or physical illnesses. Once communication channels are established, it can be surprising how willing inmates are to talk about what’s happening around them and how much information they’re willing to volunteer.
Tactical communication is a skill that must be continuously practiced and perfected. But once officers master the art of verbal judo, they are more likely to be able to deter situations and keep everyone safe.
About the Author: Daniel Scorza is a member of the Kappa Kappa chapter of Alpha Phi Sigma National Criminal Justice Honor Society at American Military University. Daniel holds his B.A. in Criminal Justice and is currently working on his M.A. in Criminal Justice at American Military University. Daniel earned his degree with the intention of serving as a law enforcement officer and eventually wants to teach Criminal Justice. After he earns his M.A., Daniel plans to pursue his PhD in Criminal Justice.