By Vicky A. Bufano, Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University
Law enforcement officers need to communicate effectively and often in a quick, immediate fashion. It’s important that officers use short, simple commands and phrases to get their point across. However, officers must choose their words and phrasing carefully, because the language they use can sometimes be the difference between life and death.
Verbal Judo is a communications method that uses verbal persuasion to get people to comply with an officer’s wishes and commands. Verbal Judo training has been used for more than 30 years and is attributed with significantly reducing the threat of conflict, violence and litigation. This style of communication teaches officers to avoid some common phrases that can escalate situations and generally counter an officer’s effort to effectively communicate.
Seven Phrases Officers Should Avoid
- “Hey, come here!”
This is a command that is needed in many situations. However, most of the time, it is really just saying, “Hey, go away!”
The words of an officer carry weight and their words often have legal implications. If officers do not have a proper suspicion to order someone to come to them (conduct a Terry stop), then this command should definitely not be used.
However, if officers do have proper suspicion to conduct this “stop” or investigatory detention, it’s more likely this order will evoke a flight response from the responding party.
Instead of using this phrase, a more effective approach would be, “Excuse me; could I speak with you for a moment?” This implies the person has a choice.
Even if officers feel the person does not have a choice, they have still provided that person with the choice whether to comply or not by using this revised phrase. If it is necessary to escalate the verbal command, that can be done later, but officers shouldn’t begin the interaction with a command that will likely incite a chase.
- “This doesn’t concern you.”
While this statement may be very true and what officers are discussing may not concern whomever is interjecting, this sentence can infuriate an already agitated person. When an officer says this, it makes the questioner feel like an outsider who is cut off from something, which can often quickly escalate a situation.
Instead of using this phrase, officers can briefly explain to the inquirer that the conversation is confidential, not allowed or cite another reason for not providing information to the person. Taking the time to offer an explanation, even if it’s brief, will make an officer seem more transparent and often garner the respect from the inquirer enough to defuse any hostility.
- “Because it’s against the law.”
Everyone has heard this statement but usually in a different context. It’s just like mom and dad saying, “Because I said so.”
While this statement is true, no one takes it well. It can create anger and resentment in the questioner for what he or she just asked. It also indicates that officers really don’t have a good reason for what they’re saying; they cannot explain their position with logic.
Instead, officers should explain the good reason why rules are being enforced. Even if listeners don’t agree, at least it shows that the officer respected them enough to provide an explanation.
- “Calm down!”
This is a short and easy command to use when a person is clearly out of control. However, this is actually a critical judgment on that person’s behavior and implies that the person has no reason to be upset, perhaps precipitating more problematic behavior.
Instead, officers should try to relate to the person and provide reassuring phrases such as, “I understand you are upset. What seems to be the trouble?” You could also say, “How can I help?”
- “I’m not going to say this again!”
This statement is often untrue. Officers will likely have to repeat information, especially when dealing with someone on alcohol or drugs, or someone who is in an excited state of mind. The bottom line is that credibility is lost when officers utter this warning and then have to go back on an empty threat.
Instead, try saying, “It is important that you understand what I’m about to say, so I will say it again. Please listen carefully.”
- “You’re being unreasonable.”
Let’s face it – no one will admit to being unreasonable in a tense situation. Officers shouldn’t expect someone who is agitated to act reasonably in their presence. Calling that person’s attention to his or her agitation only welcomes more conflict.
Instead, officers should try to relate to the person and the situation by saying something like, “Let me see if I can understand your position….” and then try to repeat what it is that upsets the person.
Such a conversation may help the person realize that his or her actions are indeed unreasonable without an officer having to say it.
- “This is for your own good.”
By uttering this admonition, officers are only asking for a sarcastic and nasty comeback. But it is also the truth; police do what they do for a suspect’s own good or for the good of a victim.
Rather than say it, however, officers should try to show how these actions are beneficial to someone else. Officers should provide reasons for their actions, give examples that a person can relate to or share information about how this action could help the person.
For example, in a domestic violence incident, jail time can give the offender time to calm down and think about the family relationship. A person arrested for a drug- or alcohol-related crime can use jail time to detox and think about what’s important in their life and how to make beneficial changes.
When officers learn how to improve their communication tactics, they can provide the public with a better sense of equality, even while they act in an authoritative position. Using enhanced and purposeful language can better prepare law enforcement officers to relate to perpetrators, victims and innocent people involved in a stressful situation. In turn, the phrases officers use can help defuse situations, which may ultimately help them stay safer in the field.
Officers know that situations can turn volatile quickly. Being able to use words effectively can give them the satisfaction of a job well done and contribute to making sure they go home safely to their families at the end of a shift.
About the Author: Vicky Bufano is a part-time instructor in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. She holds a B.S. in legal studies from the University of Central Florida and a J.D. in law from Gonzaga University. In addition, Bufano is a lawyer in Florida and a member of the Washington State Bar Association. To reach her, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.