Tactical Respect and Tactical Empathy 

By Michael D. Schlosser, Ph.D., Daniel M. Blumberg, Ph.D., and Konstantinos Papazoglou, Ph.D. 

A stock image of a police officer talking to an upset young female.

Firearms and defensive tactics represent critical skills for police officers to master. If they need to resort to these tools, a situation already has become dangerous and challenging. Therefore, agencies consider these tactics training priorities and mandate officers to demonstrate continued proficiency in these areas throughout their careers.

However, additional skills exist that officers can use to minimize unnecessary and unsafe escalations. In this article, the authors describe strategies that can help keep officers safe without overreliance on their service weapons or nonlethal options involving physical force. Specifically, knowing how to talk to people holds as much, if not more, importance as firearms and defensive tactics.

Of course, words can fail, and officers may encounter some situations that already require hands-on or deadly force. However, less than 2 percent of police-civilian contacts involve threats of force by officers, and 80 percent of all arrests require no force at all.1 Of the remaining 20 percent, how many situations could have resulted in compliance had the officer received better training in tactical communications?

Respect and Empathy

Showing respect and empathy through communication helps officers to control situations and avoid the need for force. Using communication skills as tactics requires mastery, and officers have important considerations to keep in mind.


Need for Restraint

Police officers must learn not to take everything said to them personally. When someone they engage shows a lack of respect or perhaps becomes verbally abusive, officers may find it difficult to respond with respect and empathy.

In particular, arrestees can act rudely. They may yell, use profanity, and degrade officers. Many seem to intentionally provoke officers to retaliate.

Officers should strive to understand the meaning behind arrestees’ language. These individuals probably are not angry with arresting officers and may not even know them on a personal level. More likely, arrestees are upset at the situation, what happened before the officer’s arrival, and perhaps even themselves. Once officers realize that a verbal attack is not personal, they less likely will act out of anger or fear and more likely will use tactical communication skills.

Strength, Not Weakness

Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu said, “To fight and conquer in all our battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”2 Officers should think of proper communication skills as tactics, just the same as a control hold or takedown.

Officers who communicate properly do not display weakness. Rather, they remain in control of the volatile situation and will not be baited by a rude or verbally abusive person. It takes confidence and courage to remain calm, think clearly, and communicate effectively when disrespected. As Japanese warrior and philosopher Musashi Miyamoto once said, “If you wish to control others you must first control yourself.”3

Dr. Michael Schlosser

Dr. Schlosser is director of the Police Training Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Daniel Blumberg

Dr. Blumberg, a police psychologist, is an associate professor at the California School of Professional Psychology in San Diego.

Dr. Konstantinos Papazoglou

Dr. Papazoglou, a clinical and forensic psychologist and principal founder of the POWER Project, a nonprofit public service corporation in California, recently completed his postdoctoral appointment at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.

Effective Phrases

Empathy phrases show both compassion and respect to the individual. However, officers using these phrases do not need to hold such feelings toward the person. This simply is a tactic and strategy to gain cooperation and compliance to prevent unnecessary escalations.

  • I know where you are coming from.
  • I understand that.
  • I appreciate what you are saying.
  • I see you are upset. I would be too.

When encountering angry and resistant individuals, officers can begin with a deflection phrase and explain the benefits of compliance.

  • Sir, I understand where you are coming from, but if I can look at your identification, I can get you on your way a lot sooner.
  • Ma’am, I see you are upset and understand that, but right now we have a warrant to take care of. Unfortunately, if you don’t comply, you will have additional charges, like resisting arrest. I’m sure you don’t want that, and I don’t wish that for you.
  • Sir, I can see you are upset. I probably would be too if someone had called the police on me.

Tone of Voice

People can tell when an officer sounds authoritarian, sarcastic, or degrading. Such tones of voice likely will escalate the encounter. Certainly, officers sometimes must exert their authority and give loud, clear commands. However, when they receive only verbal resistance and face no immediate risk, a loud or authoritative tone proves unnecessary and counterproductive.

Rather, officers should take a professional, respectful, and empathetic approach. Although they have authority, officers usually do not need to flaunt it—which generally does not result in compliance anyway. President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick….”4

In many cases, officers’ voices hold more importance than what they say because subjects react to emotional tones before words register. To know officers are sincere, people consider their tone and nonverbal communication (e.g., body language). When officers are calm, pleasant, and reassuring during a volatile encounter, they more likely will obtain cooperation.

Focus on Actions

Officers must focus more on individuals’ actions and avoid overreacting to their words. They need to recognize when someone complies despite what they say. For instance, drivers may yell, use profanity, and complain about how unfair a vehicle stop was, yet obey by handing over their driver’s license and insurance information and accepting the citation. Or, persons arrested may display similar behavior while turning around, placing their hands behind their back, and separating their feet as requested by the officer.

With friends or family present, arrestees may try to show toughness verbally while complying physically. By not addressing such speech, officers allow arrestees to “save face” in these situations. Arrestees’ friends might say, “Man, he told that officer!” Yet, ultimately, officers prevent the situation from escalating. On the contrary, if officers respond angrily to the words and start taking down the arrestee, saving face might come in the form of resistance or attack.

As the founder of Verbal Judo, the late Doctor George Thompson said, “Say what you want, but do what I say.”5

Emotional Cost

Like all tactical skills, empathy and respect take practice to master. Socially skilled, assertive, and extroverted officers may find it easier than more introverted officers to communicate on duty in this way.

“…knowing how to talk to people holds as much, if not more, importance as firearms and defensive tactics.”

Nevertheless, all officers may need emotional energy to show empathy and respect to some individuals, such as those perceived as loathsome (e.g., child predators) or even just unsympathetic. Regardless of mitigating circumstances, officers probably do not feel positively toward people who have done something despicable. Thus, their outward display (e.g., body language, tone, and facial expression) often runs contrary to what they think and feel.

This dichotomy has been described as “emotional labor” and can take a toll when officers continuously act in ways contrary to their beliefs and feelings.6 Although beyond the scope of this article, the results of emotional labor can range from cognitive dissonance to burnout and exhaustion.7 To combat emotional labor, some experts have argued that police officers would benefit from “emotional regulation”8 and “emotional intelligence” training.9 Many military units (e.g., U.S. Marine Corps) have incorporated emotional regulation training focused on how to manage negative emotions that may emerge when dealing with uncooperative civilians during tactical operations.10

Reasons for Quick Use of Force

For various reasons, some police officers may employ hands-on tactics quickly when arresting a suspect.

  • No proper training in tactical communication skills
  • Lack of confidence in their communication skills
  • Conditioning based on a department culture that emphasizes a hands-on approach
  • Wrong demeanor for the job
  • Jaded, negative, and cynical attitude toward society
  • Fear

While force in such situations may not have been excessive, it could have been prevented in many instances.

“Like all tactical skills, empathy and respect take practice to master.”

Organizational Commitment

Instructing police officers in tactical empathy requires an organizational commitment beyond the training itself. Once trained, agencies should hold officers responsible for performing these skills proficiently and appropriately discipline them when their performance falls below acceptable standards.

Field training officers, as well as supervisors and command staff, must demonstrate tactical empathy consistently because officers will benefit from exposure to excellent role models of this behavior. For that matter, an organizational commitment to treating people with respect should extend beyond officers’ interactions with the public and permeate interactions among department members of all ranks.

Further, when an organization commits to implementing tactical empathy, officers should have available resources to help them cope with the emotional labor that may ensue.


While on duty, police officers need to leave their egos at the door. By learning and practicing tactical communication skills, they more likely will get people to comply. And, if officers can avoid physical resistance or attack, both officers and citizens will be safer.

The most effective officers think of communication skills along with other strategies and tactics. As their ultimate goal, they should strive to win the battle without fighting.

Dr. Schlosser can be reached at schlossr@illinois.edu, Dr. Blumberg at dblumberg@alliant.edu, and Dr. Papazoglou at dr.konstantinos@aya.yale.edu.


1 John Wihbey and Leighton Walter Kille, “Excessive or Reasonable Force by Police? Research on Law Enforcement and Racial Conflict,” Journalist’s Resource, July 28, 2016, accessed January 22, 2020, https://journalistsresource.org/criminal-justice/police-reasonable-force- brutality-race-research-review-statistics/.
2 Sun Tzu, The Art of War (Hollywood, FL: Simon and Brown, 2010).
3 Musashi Miyamoto, The Book of Five Rings: A Classic Text on the Japanese Way of the Sword, trans. Thomas Cleary (Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2005).
4 “Theodore Roosevelt Quotes,” BrainyQuote, accessed January 29, 2020, https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/theodore_roosevelt_130674.
5 George J. Thompson and Jerry B. Jenkins, Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion (New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, 1993), 76.
6 Benjamin R. van Gelderen, Elly A. Konijn, and Arnold B. Bakker, “Emotional Labor Among Police Officers: A Diary Study Relating Strain, Emotional Labor, and Service Performance,” The International Journal of Human Resource Management 28, no. 6 (February 2016): 852–879, accessed January 22, 2020, https://www.isonderhouden.nl/doc/pdf/arnoldbakker/articles/articles_arnold_bakker_439.pdf.
7 Jared Kenworthy et al., “A Meta-Analytic Review of the Relationship Between Emotional Dissonance and Emotional Exhaustion,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 44, no. 2 (February 2014): 94-105, accessed January 23, 2020, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jasp.12211; Benjamin R. van Gelderen et al., “Daily Suppression of Discrete Emotions During the Work of Police Service Workers and Criminal Investigation Officers,” Anxiety, Stress, and Coping 24, no. 5 (March 2011): 515–537, accessed January 23, 2020, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/50401581_Daily_Suppression_of_Discrete_Emotions_ during_the_Work_of_Police_Service_Workers_and_Criminal_Investigation_Officers; and Lonnie M. Schaible and Michelle Six, “Emotional Strategies of Police and Their Varying Consequences for Burnout,” Police Quarterly 19, no. 1 (March 26, 2016): 3–31, accessed January 23, 2020, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283334112_Emotional_Strategies_of_Police_and_The ir_Varying_Consequences_for_Burnout.
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