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April 04, 2008
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Dr. George Thompson Verbal Judo Tactics & Techniques
with Dr. George Thompson

Aim for peace, but be prepared for war

The most important thing we don’t teach, but should, is a coherent philosophy that can unite the need for physical force and the need to project and infuse those we contact with peace. The "Peace Warrior" title I've used in training sounds like a contradiction, a paradox, and it is. The renowned former California Highway Patrol officer turned risk expert, consultant and lawyer, Gordon Graham, once narrated the story of his police mentor defining the "peace officer" as akin to the American eagle in the national seal on the back of the one dollar bill. The eagle holds olive branches in one talon and arrows in the other. Accordingly, advised the mentor, “Always extend the olive branches of peace to all, but hold the arrows of war ready. Always treat people with respect, but have a plan to kill them.” 

We already do a good job of training our officers to use the "arrows of war." War stories have a significant place in readying the mind of the officer for "when/then" thinking. I'm all for illustrative war stories, and as one who has wrestled with scum on the streets, I know that these stories inform our response to violence. But we often neglect to teach a balance — we do not teach officers tactics to "extend the olive branch" to those with whom we interact.

"Peace stories", which is a term I use, should be equally stressed and taught to ready the mind of the officer to respond peaceably when possible. Remember: 98% - 99% of an officer’s interactions with others do not end in violence because we use our skills to defuse them.

People should be treated with respect and restraint until they prove they are "wolves," as Lt. Col David Grossman, U.S. Army (Ret.), author of On Killing, so well puts it in his article On Sheep, Wolves and Sheepdogs:

"The sheep generally do not like the sheepdog. He looks a lot like the wolf. He has fangs and the capacity for violence. The difference, though, is that sheepdog must not, cannot and will not ever harm the sheep. Any sheepdog who intentionally harms the lowliest little lamb will be punished and removed."

I believe we should teach officers how to increase their “Peace Power” without jeopardizing their safety. They should be taught tactical ways of "extending the olive branch of peace" to those we encounter who might initially want war.

The ancient Greeks believed that “all action flows from philosophy,” a doctrine I believe in firmly as well. We know two important things from training: 

  1. How we see ourselves — and how we allow ourselves to be described — determines what we become.
  2. How we train determines what we do, and we know that under pressure, officers will fall back on what they have been best trained to do.

Let's address the second first. If we do not train officers to "walk the walk and talk the talk" of peace, there will be no peace. Peace can only come from within the officers themselves, because when they are called, it's because "the peace" has been comprimised. People call the police because they think we can restore it...to bring peace out of disorder.

Armed with tactics that can create peace in place of violence, officers are safer and more empowered to perform as they are sworn to do. Hence the need and use for peace language and peace stories, two skills not natural to most people. I do know, from having used the this approach early on, that the "ask 'em, tell 'em, then make 'em" approach almost guarantees violence.

But the more difficult issue is one of motivating the officers to accept this paradoxical role — to offer peace but be prepared to kill. The answer comes only by defining and presenting a clear philosophy of action.

People who kill without a philosophical base are just that, killers — junkyard dogs who bite everyone. But what sort of philosophical base might support the use of physical force, even killing? Where might we look for such a model?

Consider the U.S. Marine Corps. The latest move in the Corps has been to modify training to develop, as the Marines call it, the Ethical Marine Warrior.

In his article, “The Ethical Warrior of the 21st Century” (Marine Corps Gazette, February 2007), Lt. Col Joseph C. Shusko, USMC (Ret.), describes the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program as an ethics-based combatives program consisting of three elements: Character (ethical warrior training), Mental (military skills) and Physical (martial arts and conditioning).

According to Jack Hoban, the subject matter expert for the martial arts program, himself a retired Marine captain and one of the highest ranked martial artists in the world, says that ethical training is the key to the program. In his article, “The Ethical Marine Warrior” (Marine Corps Gazette, September 2007), Jack says:

"Our warrior ethics charge us to act differently than insurgents — more respectful of all life — killing only to protect lives and when absolutely necessary. The Ethical Warrior is first and foremost a Protector, of self and others — all others: one's comrades, citizens and yes, even the guilty and the enemy."

They are "defender-protectors," not killers, says Jack. There is a great deal of satisfaction to live one’s life according to the precept of protecting others, Jack writes, and it is this philosophical basis that gives and sustains a Marine’s dignity as he does his job — dirty and violent though it may sometimes be. Even in the Marine Corps, in the middle of a war, it is possible, indeed advisable, to treat people with dignity and respect. They, too, are learning it is not weakness to show concern, care and kindness — where possible.

We are also in the "protection of others" game, but our training has yet to develop a clear, definable philosophical base. There appears to be a split opinion on this. Some say peace tactics and strategies should be taught. Others think that is wrong-headed and dangerous.

Perhaps one problem is that our self-image as a profession is weak and contradictory. Throughout our training, and throughout our career, we are assaulted by paradox: Kick ass, take names. But be sensitive, be nice. Never back up, take no 'gup,' hammer. But be diplomatic, be community oriented, be nice.

What to do, how to think? If you’re too nice and community oriented, you get maimed or killed. You’re soft. You’re a sheep in sheepdog clothing.

If you’re rough, tough and overly violent, you get complaints and lawsuits, and you also get hurt. If you even talk peace or kindness, some want to say you’re weak.

In the absence of an agreed upon philosophical base, too many officers fall into seeing themselves as garbage men because, as they put it, they deal with “garbage” everyday. Such a view leads to acting like garbage — and to low self-esteem. The job is hard enough. The daily grind of difficult and potentially hazardous encounters builds stress that finds its outlets in over-reaction on the street and abuse at home.

Dr. Kevin M. Gilmartin’s book, "Emotional Survival for Police: A Guide for Officers and Their Families," illustrates precisely how such negative self-views destroy officers. Gilmartin (www.emotionalsurvival.com) illustrates the cost to officers and their families from the divisive “Us vs. Them" perspective. Such orientation is disastrous, to the community we serve as well as to us.

I suggest that we build a program for street officers similar to that of the Marine Corps, one that offers the physical (which we have), the mental (which we give in the classroom and roll calls) and character (which I am suggesting we develop). We do have ethics courses, and we do try to talk “professionalism,” but the message remains incomplete and unclear — to most.

Instead of seeing ourselves similar to garbage men or overworked, underappreciated hired guns, we should instead see ourselves for what we are, ethical peace warrior-defenders, protecting people from themselves and others. We are the Thin Blue Line precisely because we are protector-defenders of lives and we value life even when we have to take it to protect ourselves and others.

Seen this way, we now understand why we cannot be like those we serve. We cannot lose our tempers, use violence promiscuously or lie and cheat to profit ourselves. Because we literally stand between peace and disorder, the sheep and the wolves, we have to be prepared on all levels to meet that challenge.

As my colleague and VP Lee Fjelstad (www.verbal-judo.com) has said, "We stand among and yet separate from others, by definition, and to lead and protect means we have to set the standard for elite performance.” Elite means that we are unlike others — distinct and above — as all peace officers should be.

But none of this suggests weakness. Yes, we need to know how and when to hit and hit hard, when to take a life and when not to. Yes, the world is getting more violent and unpredictable, so we have to be mentally ready to take action, action to prevent and redirect violence, as in peace language and peace tactics — or action, using the other physical force options to take someone out before they do harm to others or to ourselves.

To see ourselves as defender-protectors is not only accurate to the job, it is a self-sustaining and enhancing concept that we so desperately need if we are to prevent the extreme burnout and cynicism that afflicts so many of us. Good training is not enough; we need an uplifting vision of what we do to sustain us through those difficult times on the streets and at home. Indeed, we need this vision partly because it harmonizes with what, for most of us, was our reason for entering police service in the first place: to be a hero, to protect those who cannot (or will not) protect themselves. I don’t want to sound corny, but isn’t this the "real truth" for most of us?

Furthermore, it is an awful truth that we can hurt the ones we most love — those closest to us. We need to protect our loved ones from our own cynicism, and often from ourselves. With our divorce rate among the highest in the nation, we need to look carefully at how we approach the job and why we are out there. To live according to the precepts, as Jack Hoban so aptly put it, “Wherever I am, people are safer” and “When I come home, people are glad to see me,” is to live a fulfilling, enriching life.

The ethical peace warrior-defender should be the informing image of our profession. There is nothing weak about protecting others, nothing weak about showing respect or attempting to bring peace out of disorder and violence. Nothing.

Tac Com/Verbal Judo is only one arm of the warrior, but an important one. We teach officers to talk and act peaceably — hence the “verbal” — but equally must we be prepared to drop the violator when necessary — hence the “judo. ”

If every officer left the station house with one thought in mind — "People are safer, here and at home, because of my presence" — there would be far less burnout and far more joy in the job.

Be the eagle.


About the author

Dr. George J. Thompson is the President and Founder of the Verbal Judo Institute, a tactical training and management firm now based in Auburn, NY. For full details on Dr. Thompson's work and training, please visit the Verbal Judo Web Site.





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