Metro Transit Police have hired a New York state-based firm to instruct officers in a technique called "verbal judo" as a tactic to peacefully defuse confrontations with passengers who violate public conduct laws.
The Verbal Judo Institute, using an approach that blends Eastern philosophy with principles of Aristotelian rhetoric, is scheduled to train about 20 transit officers over two days in November, Metro Transit Police Chief Polly L. Hanson said yesterday. The same officers will also be trained in a system taught by another firm and asked to compare them, Hanson said. The name of the second company was not immediately available. Hanson said a training program eventually will be offered to all 381 transit officers.
The specialized training is a response to several highly publicized cases in which transit police have handcuffed and arrested passengers after confrontations over food and cell phone use. In July, a scientist was arrested when she continued to chew a candy bar after passing through the fare gates. Last month, a pregnant woman was arrested during a confrontation with an officer over her use of a cell phone.
Yesterday, Montgomery County prosecutors decided not to prosecute Sakinah Aaron on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest in the September incident. Aaron, who is now seven months pregnant, was wrestled to the ground at the Wheaton Metro station after she gave a flip retort to an officer who asked her to lower her voice while talking to her fiance on her cell phone. Police said Aaron used profanity, but Aaron denied cursing.
"We felt that the police officer acted appropriately in approaching her and asking her to lower her voice," said Montgomery Deputy State's Attorney Katherine Winfree. "And certainly, she acted inappropriately. Perhaps the message has gotten through to this young woman getting ready to deliver a child that there are consequences. But under the circumstances, we didn't need to take it to trial and use judicial resources."
Jeanett Henry, Aaron's attorney, said officers could benefit from instruction in the law as much as in conversational techniques for dealing with Metro customers.
"We all have the constitutional, free speech right to protest what we believe is unlawful police infringement on our rights," she said. "A retort does not rise to the level of disorderly conduct. Today it's Ms. Aaron talking on her cell phone. Tomorrow, it may be me, because a cop doesn't like my accent."
Hanson said that she felt a sense of "urgency" in starting training classes for transit officers but that she wanted to wait until the post-election lull before pulling officers off duty.
Interest in training law enforcement officers on less forceful ways of dealing with people gained momentum after the 1991 beating and arrest of Rodney King by Los Angeles police, said Ed Nowicki, executive director of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association. But since Sept. 11, 2001, he said, much training money has been diverted to anti-terrorism strategies.
Many companies offer practical tips not only to law enforcement but also to teachers, health care workers and even Marine drill instructors. The National Justice Group in Lincoln, Neb., for example, specializes in teaching how to confront surly adolescents.
Roland Ouellette, whose program is called the Management of Aggressive Behavior, said words are only 10 percent of the message communicated.
"Sometimes, it's not what you say with your mouth, but how you say it with your body," he said. "When you confront people, you don't want to violate their personal space. If you turn your body at a slight angle to the person, it relieves the pressure. If you cock your head slightly forward, put your shoulders slightly forward and put your palms up at the waist, it shows respect and supportiveness. It de-escalates people."
Officers in hundreds of police departments across the country have been trained in the verbal judo techniques developed by George J. Thompson, a former college English professor, police officer and a black belt in taekwondo. Among them are police departments in the District, New York City, Los Angeles and Fairfax County.
Thompson said verbal judo was inspired by Eastern martial arts principles of redirecting negative energy and on Aristotle's Ars Rhetorica.
"We teach officers how to stay calm under pressure, to see themselves as peace warriors rather than bullies with a badge, and how to deflect the abuse you can get in making arrests, using words and tactical communication," he said.
Confronted with a Metro passenger who was snacking in violation of the law, Thompson said, he would explain the law and the need to enforce it, while showing empathy.
"On the street, it's a silly requirement," he said he would tell a defiant rider. "But here, it makes sense. I understand your point that it's a minor issue, but the city thinks it's a major issue. I have to enforce it, so why don't you work with me? Or the city will fine you and put you in jail and grind you up, and you don't want that trouble."
Stephanie Willett, a grandmother who works at the Environmental Protection Agency, said the approach might have prevented her arrest for eating a PayDay candy bar at the Metro Center Station in July. After an officer gave Willett two warnings to finish her candy bar, she swallowed the last bite with the riposte, "Why don't you go and take care of some real crime?" Willett said she felt the officer spoke to her in a demeaning manner.
"It was insulting, disrespectful and harassment in my mind," she said. "I was on my way home from work, and I guess I didn't need to take it that day. But better verbal communications skills, the ability to mitigate nonthreatening circumstances are tools the police should have in their toolbox, as much as guns and handcuffs."