In a recent article on The Whiskey Patriots, I recognized American Police as “master persuaders.” A title they certainly deserve as they calmly manage thousands of enforcement actions, without so much as threatening force. In the face of this violence, and the insults and threats that accompany it, officers display high levels of emotional intelligence.
For some, this emotional intelligence comes naturally. Others hone this attribute through vital academy training; focusing on such skills as box breathing, mental rehearsals, mindfulness, and of course, managing the feeding habits of the courage wolf.
But emotional intelligence is more than self-regulation. It is the ability to empathize and influence the emotional state of another. To this end, American Police continue to use words and tactics to peacefully de-escalate some of the most volatile, time compressed, and lethal situations.
Even so, as individual police skillfully use words to de-escalate conflicts and generate cooperation, the anti-police movement strategically uses language that provokes a misplaced outrage against the police profession.
In this article I expose some of the most provocative persuasion techniques used to advance the anti-police narrative—and introduce “emotional trigger control” to inoculate you from their persuasive influence.
Emotional Trigger Control
“Emotional trigger control” is a self-regulation tool that prevents us from being influenced by emotional triggers. By identifying triggers, naming them, and developing a pre-planned professional response, we avoid exposing ourselves to their negative effects—including the provocative influence of the anti-police movement.
Those of you familiar with emotional trigger control know there is a hack to increase its effectiveness. First, choose a mild, even silly, name for the trigger. Next, listen for variations of them like you’re playing a game of “word find.” Believe me, once you’ve identified them, you will start to see them everywhere, stripped of their persuasive force.
Collectively, I have labeled the following anti-police triggers as “controversial and deeply troubling persuasion.” Of course, you are encouraged to come up with your own silly names.
In crisis intervention, “transformational vocabulary” is used by police to replace high-intensity words with lower intensity words. The effect is to de-escalate the emotional intensity of the person in crisis. “I’m angry!” is reflected as “I can tell you’re frustrated.” “I hate her!” is reflected as “It sounds like you’re disappointed with her tonight.”
Transformational vocabulary is part of the larger de-escalation approach practiced by American Police for decades. It slows the action and increases cooperation as officers guide the crisis from volatile “heart moments” (emotional experience) to cooler “head moments” (rational experience).
Field training officers are familiar with transformational vocabulary as they explain to recruits, “That isn’t fear you’re feeling, it is your body entering the optimal arousal state to identify, close with, and combat evil!”
The Dark Side of Transformational Vocabulary
Both police and their critics use transformational vocabulary, because it works. But instead of generating a calm, objective view of the facts, the anti-police movement creates, and then escalates, negative emotions. Police critics choose words to evoke doubt, fear, and anger. Descriptions may be literally accurate, but implicitly and recklessly misleading. “Unarmed” implies non-dangerous. “Teen” implies innocence. “Shot in the back” implies assassination. “White officer / Black suspect” implies racial bias. “Never pointed the weapon at the officer” implies non-threatening. Cops, and all those familiar with violence, know better.
One of the more egregious examples of transformational vocabulary is the phrase “victims of police violence,” when used to describe the entire class of people subject to police use of force. It strongly implies that American Police overall are malevolent and criminal, when in fact the opposite is true.
Other phrases, which I recognize by their “no evidence” variations, are designed to imply that police acted unreasonably, even in the most objectively reasonable circumstances.
After an officer is ambushed by armed suspects, critics may judgmentally announce, “There is no evidence that the officer attempted to call for back-up or to otherwise de-escalate the situation,” or “There is no evidence that the officer even considered non-lethal force options or tried to warn the young men.”
One of the more popular “no evidence” applications follows the shooting of armed suspects during foot pursuits. “There is no evidence that the teen ever pointed the weapon at the officer.” Of course, the law, behavioral science, and common sense don’t require an officer to wait for an armed and resistive suspect to attack first. That distinction seem irrelevant to police opponents.
Deeply Concerning Adjectives
It is hard to find a police action broadcast through the national media, without also finding repeated claims from anti-police critics that the event was “deeply troubling” or “controversial.” Of course, merely claiming an incident, policy, or training program is controversial, doesn’t make it so. Clearly justified police shootings and otherwise routine trespass investigations have been subjected to this treatment.
“Controversial and deeply troubling” descriptions are quite brilliant as persuasion tools. When someone asks your opinion on a complex political issue, confidently say “I don’t know all of the details, but I am deeply concerned.” And then stop.
You will have effectively used multiple persuasion techniques favored by the anti-police movement. You have communicated confidence, you have been vague (which allows the audience to speculate and fill in the details), you have aroused fear, and you did so from a position of implicit credibility and superiority (after all, they asked your opinion). More importantly, you did not say or commit to anything of substance.
Referring to an incident as “deeply concerning” is a non-specific critique used to “virtue signal.” It allows the speaker to appear relevant and morally superior without formulating specific objections to an event, policy, or training program. It is tantamount to political “negging.”
Negging, or being negative, is the use of negative assertions to imply superiority, and thereby create, a moral, intellectual, or social hierarchy. (The term was first introduced by Neil Strauss in his book, The Game, a guide for deceptively seducing women.) Through negging, the listener assumes that the speaker must have a sophisticated understanding of the issues, and so, if the speaker is concerned, the listener should be as well.
Racial Fuel on the Fire
In addition to political negging, watch for speculative racial bias to join the anti-police narrative. Once these two persuasion tactics are combined, the stage is set for weeks of debate on the best way to restore “legitimacy” and “community trust.” If you’re not paying attention, you may miss the obvious logical gaps in this process. Namely, the underlying police action may have involved a perfectly reasonable, even heroic, police response. That small detail is often lost in the pivot to larger social issues and irrelevant national statistics.
Left unchecked, anti-police persuasion efforts are powerful. Without ever substantiating a police problem, political leaders may demand a police solution. Police executives end up funding, implementing, and defending solutions, that have not been validated, to policing problems that may not exist.
Pivot to the Statistical Low-Ground
National statistics have nothing to do with individual police conduct. Let me say that again, national statistics have nothing to do with individual police conduct. Watch and listen as professional police critics pivot from speculating on facts, to speculating on motive, to citing irrelevant and inaccurate population-based statistics in support of those imagined facts and motives.
When a specific police incident, used to justify protests and outrage, later proves to be perfectly reasonable, watch for the “hail Mary” pivot to include, “Even so, this is part of the larger conversation of race in America,” followed by patently irrelevant national statistics. It is a pivot we have seen at the highest levels in this country.
In recognizing the statistical pivot, you will be tempted to cite opposing statistics or argue research methodology. Resist the temptation. Remember, at this point, facts won’t be persuasive. But more importantly, the pivot to national statistics and historic racism is a “strawman,” designed to distract from the specific case at hand. Don’t be distracted. And, in case it needs repeating, national statistics have nothing to do with individual police conduct.
What’s the Point Anyway?
Identifying the persuasion efforts of anti-police critics, is the first step in evading their provocative influence, managing our personal triggers, and remaining on point. Some of you are asking, what is our point?
Our point is to honestly evaluate American Police through the extraordinarily complex lens of behavioral science, law, social structure, imperfect facts, compressed timelines, and human frailty. It is to resist any effort to reduce policing to a racial math problem. It is to see the current greatness of American Policing, while supporting the commitment to constant and never-ending improvement. It is to recognize, admit, and face the enormous challenges of policing in America—without making them worse. Most importantly, it is to persuade and inspire our communities to unite in support of those who continue to honorably protect and serve.
Von is the co-owner of Von Kliem Consulting, LLC, where he provides national training and consultation in de-escalation, persuasion, and professional communication for police and community groups. As a retired military attorney and former civilian police officer, Von served as Senior Prosecutor, Victim’s Counsel, Police Legal Advisor, Special Assistant U.S. Attorney, and Police Use of Force Expert. He is an expert in police practices with advanced training in crisis counseling, child forensic interviewing, and Trauma-Informed Interviewing.
Von’s degrees include a Bachelor’s in Crime and Delinquency Studies, Master’s in Criminal Justice Administration, Juris Doctorate (Law Degree), and an LL.M. in Military Studies (Criminal Law). He is an Advanced Force Science Specialist (Force Science Institute) and a graduate of the Police Legal Advisor Training Program (FLETC).