When citizens de-escalate the police: Let’s end the verbal judo once and for all

Police Athletic League – the earliest beginning of community policing

WESTBOROUGH, MA October 27, 2017 I spent some time with a close friend tonight and the topic of my police consultation came up.  He asked “why police officers need de-escalation training when it is often the citizen who does the de-escalating of police officer behavior”.  I thought for a minute and replied sharply that he misunderstood what I was describing as police “de-escalation”.  Unfortunately the sample of behavior he described was embarrassing for police officers everywhere.  When officers feel threatened or believe a situation is getting out of control he or she often uses verbal judo to redirect citizen behavior as a tactical control technique.  The officer takes on an authoritative tone of voice. You might notice an officer speaking loudly or shouting directives as a way of demonstrating his control of a situation.  Some academy training officers suggest that by using an authoritative speaking voice people will respect and comply with their directives. Sometimes the person speaking the loudest may be attempting to maintain control of a chaotic situation out of insecurity, fear and lack of understanding of the true meaning of verbal judo. Living in the Boston area, I often see BPD officers playing hoops with neighborhood children or standing on the corner talking to regular citizens.  That is community policing and more of it needs to get initiated across the state and the country.  Here is a personal anecdote of what can go wrong when verbal judo takes on a life of its own.

While talking with a friend…
I was suddenly reminded of the time when my children and 2 friends went to a skate park in the neighboring town.  School was closed for my children but kids in the next town were supposed to be in class.  The boys were aged 9-12 and wanted to try their skateboarding skill at the new skate part nearby.  Because it appeared as though they may have been skipping school a police officer on patrol stopped and interviewed the boys.  When he determined that the boys were legitimately on a day off from school he politely asked them to leave the park and return after 3:00 PM when the local school was dismissed. On the one hand, the officer’s directive made sense, but when you consider that the park was a public place and the boy’s using the park were breaking no laws and had not skipped school, then in all likelihood there was no reason for the officer to limit access to the facility.  Given their ages, the likelihood of them creating a disturbance, using drugs or alcohol, or leaving trash or grafitti upon their departure was quite low. But they did as they were told and left the area and called home to be picked up by my wife. In the meantime as the 3:00 hour neared they returned to the skate park which happened to be within 500 yards of the police station.  At the shift change, the officer who had spoken to my children only an hour earlier witnessed them enter the park – perhaps one of them was actually on his skateboard in direct violation of his orders.  Here is where the problem starts but not with the insubordinate juveniles (ages 9-12) but with the acerbic, bellicose young man who wore the badge on that day. What he failed to realize was that his own behavior escalated to the degree that he failed to protect and serve the public.
At the time this occurred I was a sworn police officer in a nearby community.  I served as a field training officer and was responsible for young men and woman who were entering the field of law enforcement.  What happened next was in sharp contrast to what I taught new patrol officers and defies common sense.  The officer confronted the children indicating harshly that he had given them instructions not to return to the park until 3:00 PM when the local schools were let out.  My children grew up around police officers and had great respect for both the law of the land and adult expectations for behavior. They did what they were told to do and were not trying to challenge the officer’s authority – merely they were awaiting my wife to pick them up and return them to their own side of the town line.  The boys told the officer that their ride would arrive at 2:45.  What happened next is the subject of some debate.  The boys felt as though the officer became very angry at them and began yelling at them indicating that they were trespassing (based upon his prior decision to send them away until 3:00 PM). The words “trespassing” and “possibility of arrest” were threatening – leaving one of the boys in tears. Afraid and understandably confused.
Fortunately my wife arrived at that moment and observed one of the boys in obvious distress. She quickly surmised that one of them may have been injured asked the officer “if there was a problem?” He quickly responded “you are my problem” in a tone and volume that were unexpected and unnecessary for a first encounter with the parent of 4 boys who wanted to try out the new skate park on their day off from school. My wife was nonplussed and gathered the 4 boys for the ride home – the lesson being that all police officers do not react this way to middle school kids.  The officer correctly asked the boys to leave – if the town’s ordinance did not allow for skating on days when school was in session – but in doing so he failed the community policing litmus test.  The next day I had a talk with his chief who agreed with me and agreed to take it up with the officer personally.

Boston police officer on the foot beat – meeting with children  (BPD photo credit)