American Police are master persuaders!
They inspire cooperation a thousand times for every one time they use, or even threaten to use, force. Even now, officers reading this will remember the countless times they could have used force, even lethal force, but instead waited, assessed, talked, and ultimately saved suspects from the consequences of their bad decisions.
Yes, American Police are master persuaders. They don’t argue with drunks. They don’t have logical “head conversations” during emotional “heart moments.” They listen, empathize, and provide personalized options. They think for others as they might think for themselves under calmer, more informed, and simply better circumstances.
Defending American Police from anti-police agitators, biased interest groups, and outraged Social Justice Warriors requires the same master persuasion.
By definition, community outrage is an emotional event. Even among the most educated and patriotic of Americans, outrage can be a sincere reaction to the misleading, sensationalized, and politically distorted accounts of police conduct. Amidst this outrage, persuasion doesn’t start with facts.
Then how do we persuade the anti-police audience, who have attached their votes, protests, and very identity to beliefs we know are false? This article provides some of the most effective persuasion strategies needed to transform even the most ardent of police critics. It details the strategic timing of facts, allowing readers to confidently engage community groups, family members, and even political activists in defense of American Policing.
Before I continue, some of you are asking, “Aren’t facts important?” Yes! And, at the right time, the ethical use of persuasion requires you to argue only the most accurate facts. So, keep your copy of Heather MacDonald’s, The War on Cops, and maintain your subscription to Force Science News. You’ll need both—just not right away.
Timing Your Facts for Persuasion: Confirmation and Dissonance
Timing facts for persuasion is influenced by two related phenomenon; “confirmation bias” and “cognitive dissonance.”
Confirmation bias is the tendency for people to recognize, embrace, and even hallucinate information that supports their beliefs, while ignoring or rejecting information that contradicts them.
If introduced too quickly, facts that conflict with strongly held beliefs create “cognitive dissonance.” This dissonance creates psychological stress in those trying to hold two contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. It can appear as an awkward “thought freeze,” an unsupported denial, a statistically insignificant anecdote, or an intense personal attack. The stronger the evidence against their position, the more people may resist. At this point, facts don’t matter.
Create a Unified Group Identity
So long as the opposition voices see themselves in conflict with the police, facts will only serve to widen the persuasive gap. Instead, start by identifying the lowest point of common agreement.
The lowest point of common agreement is known as the “enthymeme,” which can be found by answering the question, “Can we at least agree that….?” Start with, none of us want racist or abusive police. We all want additional training. We all want our police to maintain a focused calm in the face of danger and to be technically and tactically proficient.
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Critics may demand, “You have to admit there are racist and abusive police in America!” To which you might answer, “Can we both agree with former President Obama that the overwhelming majority of American Police are not racist or abusive?” If this is too much to agree on, simply pivot back to the high-ground and acknowledge that neither of you want racist or abusive police in America. Finding and focusing on the enthymemes allows groups to unify as “partners in problem-solving.”
Pacing and Leading
Once you’ve identified common ground, spend some time there. Do not rush into discussions about “The 21-foot Principle” or “Graham Factors.” This strategic delay is part of “pacing and leading.”
“Pacing” strengthens the unified identity. It is simply “walking among the audience” by recognizing shared experiences, goals, and understandings.
Empathy, coupling (deliberate use of “we”), and mirroring (body posture and language) all reinforce the shared identity.
Ideally, your unified group will learn to like and trust each other. Psychologists call this developing a “persistent positive regard.” In time, you may begin “leading.”
“Leading” begins once your “partners in problem-solving” see you as a trusted and competent member of the team. Even better if they see you as the most competent member. During the pacing conversations, you should be transparent with your “resume.” Listen to critical statements and respond with, “That’s a great issue. Several years ago, when I was reviewing cases, I had that same thought.” Share which issues you identified, what concerns you had, what books or research exists, and how you resolved the issues.
Believe me, you will identify more factors, relevant laws, and examples than your audience could have imagined. They simply don’t know what they don’t know.
Now Facts Matter
Successfully uniting and pacing your audience, will earn you their trust and attention. Only then can you effectively introduce the facts that challenge their anti-police bias. You can explain laws, read transcripts from cases, and show them verifiably false media presentations. From my phone, I share two videos of the same police shooting. Depending on which video you view, one depicts an apparent assassination, while the other shows two officers confronting and expertly responding to a deadly threat. Again, it’s the same incident!
Some of you are in positions to take your “partners in problem-solving” on ride-alongs. Do it! I have taken law students, defense attorneys, local NAACP leaders, Black Law Society leaders, and concerned community members on ride-alongs. Although they are not in the arena, they have a front row seat to the complexity, speed, and danger of police work. For most, that single ride-along is life changing.
If ride-alongs aren’t an option, get them in front of a VirTra© use-of-force simulator. Be compassionate and empathize with the shock and betrayal your new partners may feel. Some will be mad, others will simply need time to process the cognitive dissonance. Ultimately, most will recognize they have never known enough about the law, police practices, behavioral science, or a specific case to justify their initial outrage—and how could they?
Statistically Speaking, Stats Don’t Matter
Initially, our partners in problem solving (former “police critics”) will rely heavily on irrelevant population-based statistics to conclude American Police are racist, or more broadly, that the American Justice System is racist. To answer those charges, I can’t improve on Heather MacDonald’s work and will simply direct you to, The War on Cops, a rigorous analysis of data, showing that crime, not race, is responsible for police action and prison populations.
There is no doubt that national statistics will continue to refute the anti-police narrative. Transparency in use-of-force data, like that intended by the FBI’s National Use-of-Force Data Collection, is a valuable persuasion tool—but only after you have established yourself as a trusted leader within a unified group of problem solvers.
While on the subject of national statistics, citing national statistics to prove that a specific use-of-force was unreasonable, is a misguided anti-police tactic. That said, it is an equally bad strategy to respond to these critics with opposing statistics or by attacking their research methodology.
Instead, consider making a bold, pro-police statement like, “American Law Enforcement are some of the most highly trained, highly educated, rigorously disciplined, and courageous Guardian Warriors in the world!” In persuasion, this is a “bold anchoring statement.”
When confronted with a bold pro-police statement, the opposition will probably cite a personal anecdote or just shout the name of a victim of alleged police misconduct. When you hear “What about Ferguson!?” or “What about Trayvon Martin!?” you will be tempted to react with case facts or evidence of selective reporting. Don’t.
Professional, master persuasion, requires us to maintain the unified identity that we’ve created. That means, before returning to facts (leading), you must carefully listen, empathize, and nurture the trust of your community. (Even now some of you are screaming, “But the police didn’t shoot Trayvon Martin!”)
When confronted with inaccurate and sensationalized cases, continue pacing. One script you may consider is, “I know. Those cases got my attention too. As the reporting initially trickled in, I could see a tragic picture being painted. Once I had a chance to read the transcripts, I was relieved. Have you had a chance to read the transcripts yet? Have you seen the actual facts? People who have read those cases have been shocked by how little they look like the original reporting.” This works.
Some of you are asking, “What if their personal anecdote describes truly outrageous police conduct?” If you’re convinced their example describes criminal conduct, be the most reasonable person in the room. Listen, empathize, be attentive, and communicate the same disappointment and frustration that bad police work has always engendered in good cops.
The move from emotional to intellectual, from opposition to collaboration, inhibits radical anti-police rhetoric and directs conversations toward the complex details of specific cases. Accurate facts and relevant law finally matter; so be prepared with both.
Reasonable Officer Standard
It is not surprising when police critics resist being pulled into the deep waters of use-of-force analysis. It is an area of law where courts are required to filter their judgment through the lens of the “reasonable officer.”
Judging the reasonableness of an individual police action requires sophistication in the areas of law, tactics, threat assessments, pre-attack indicators, and behavioral science. The “law of force” is not even taught in law school except in the broadest 4th Amendment terms.
Thankfully, most people are exposed to police use-of-force only through video. And as, renowned police litigation specialist, Missy O’Linn, “gently” instructed us during expert witness training— “Never form an opinion about a use-of-force after only watching the video!”
Missy went on to energetically admonish us to read the reports, watch all the videos, interview witnesses, including behavioral science experts, and visit the scene. Most of all, talk to the officer. Find out why he or she made the decisions they made.
Unfortunately, it seems the most vocal anti-police critics have never attended Missy’s training.
Insomnia as a Measure of Success
In this article, I do not mean to imply that persuasion is easy or foolproof. We have all talked to people who have merged their outrage with their very identity or livelihood. Changing their minds requires them to abandon their identity or paycheck, and that is never easy. Sometimes, the best you can hope for is to encourage less certainty in their entrenched beliefs.
During a two-hour conference on police use-of-force, an older black woman confidently grilled me with pointed questions. I listened and took her concerns seriously. With sincere respect, I explained what I could, filtering my answers through the law and the “reasonable officer” lens.
Following the conference, she interrupted a discussion I was having by gently placing her hand on my shoulder and saying, “I want you to know I am not going to sleep well tonight. You have given me too much to think about.”
That’s not exactly a conversion, but it’s something. It’s incremental success. It’s a conversation. It’s a respite from unproductive chaos—and that’s not a small thing!
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).