Using presence and words

2008-10-01 00:00

Law enforcement officers on vehicle patrol spot a car driving erratically and pull it over. The driver throws open the door and topples out, swearing loudly. The officers brace themselves for a confrontation. Another pair of officers knocks on a door to deliver a court summons. A woman opens the door, screams angrily and tries to grab one of them.

These incidents may sound like something from a TV show, but they are the kinds of experiences that Msunduzi Municipality traffic officers encounter all the time. Now, a new training programme is enhancing their skills to handle the challenges they face every day.

The man behind the programme is Merrivale resident Don Gold, director of the Minimum Force Institute of Africa. Over the next few months he will take all the municipality’s 80 traffic officers through a 10-day course in verbal judo (tactical communications), weapons handling and law enforcement defence tactics. The latter involve using reasonable, necessary and proportionate force to subdue unco-operative and possibly aggressive people.

Gold was a security operative under the previous regime. He was involved in various fields, including counterinsurgency and undercover work. Some people may find his past politically incorrect and unsavoury. How then does he come to be training law enforcement officers and security personnel under the new dispensation? His practised response flowed unfalteringly: “I was a policeman at a time when the government had scant regard for civil liberties. We were called on to do things that did not sit well with the way I was raised. I knew there had to be a better way. This is my contribution to that ‘better way’ and it works.

“Heavy-handed policing never worked then and it will never work now or in the future. One important element missing from training in the old days was the human element. We have to remember that we are dealing with people who have their own emotions and problems. Law enforcement officers have to be able to handle all of these people with dignity. Everything we do, even using force, has to be done with the ethical implications in mind.”

Gold stressed the ethical content of the course, saying that it enables officers to preserve law and order, while maintaining their own and the public’s safety. It focuses on equipping them to use presence and words to calm difficult people and get them to co-operate voluntarily. This means using the power of their professional presence and persuasive communication to defuse potentially dangerous situations, redirect the behaviour of hostile people and get them to comply with the officers’ requirements. This could be to get out of their car, take a Breathalyser test, accept a summons, hand over evidence or submit to a search.

“Law enforcement officers usually encounter people at their worst. They may be under the influence of alcohol, severe emotional stress, shock, fear or some other extreme emotion. Every day, officers have to try to get reluctant people to co-operate with them voluntarily. And yet, they usually receive little or no specific training in how to use professional presence and appropriate words as alternatives to force.

“This course teaches them that they need to look professional, act professionally and remain in control of themselves in order to achieve the desired outcome in their encounters with members of the public. If they do not manage this with words, I train them to use reasonable, necessary and proportionate force to get people to comply. In extreme situations, they may need to use a firearm, so we also spend time on developing their firearms training, including night shooting — at all times emphasising a deep reverence for human life.”

The course makes much use of role play, so that officers can practise keeping calm under pressure and using persuasive language. “They already know what it’s like to be sworn at and verbally abused, that’s a common experience for them. But now, they need to be able to remain neutral and put into practice the verbal techniques the course teaches.

“This course creates enhanced professionalism and improved morale. In the longer term, it should lead to increased officer safety, decreased stress among officers, fewer complaints from citizens and increased convictions of lawbreakers,” said Gold.

The Witness spoke to the first batch of Msunduzi Municipality traffic officers to take part in the training course. “We were uncertain when we first started, but now we strongly recommend it to others,” said senior traffic officer Ally Khan.

“The course has given us new skills to deal with the public and boosted our morale. We see our job in a whole different light now,” said Superintendent Priscilla Mahlaba.

“It has been exciting and we have gained a lot of experience. It has also created unity among us and we are stronger as a team,” said senior traffic officer Fikile Mbhele. Others said they had enjoyed it so much their only complaint was that the course was too short. They asked that management “ensure this is not just a ‘one-off’ and that we keep refreshing and updating our skills”.

Kenneth Chetty, the Msunduzi Municipality’s acting manager: public safety (traffic and security) was equally enthusiastic. “Since we are heading towards metro status, we want to upgrade our officers’ skills in keeping with being metro law enforcement officers. Our ultimate aim is to make the city a safer place. This training has created a real buzz of excitement. Morale among all the staff has improved and staff other than traffic officers are asking to be included.”

“Citizens have the right to be treated with dignity and not humiliated by law enforcement officers,” Gold said. “However, the other side of the coin is that the public should treat them in the same way. People should expect to receive improved treatment from municipal traffic officers in future. If they do not, they should ask to speak to a superior until they get satisfaction.

“Sir Robert Peel, the founder of the police force in England, said ‘The public are the police and the police are the public’. We all need to change our attitudes and co-operate so there is no longer a ‘them and us’ scenario. It’s the only way the situation around crime and policing is going to improve,” he concluded.

Does the course work?

Over the past five years, Don Gold has trained 60 traffic and crime prevention officers for the Hibiscus Coast Municipality. Another 25 will be trained this year. The Witness asked Victor Chetty, director of Hibiscus Coast Municipality Protection Services, what benefit staff there have gained from their training.

“This course has increased the morale and confidence of our officers. Complaints from the public have dropped, staff members are on duty regularly and stress is lower.

“This course really builds an officer to do his or her work with confidence and come back safely. My officers have enjoyed it and learnt a lot.

“I would recommend this course to any of my colleagues. I did it in 1997 and I believe it was the highlight of my career in the provincial traffic department. I promised myself that if I was ever in a position to make decisions and organise training, I would want all officers working under my command to undergo this course. It did a lot for me back then and even now.

“As long as I am the head of this department, I will ensure that every single member of my staff who interacts with the public in the execution of his or her duties will do this outstanding, refreshing course as it will make them better officers to serve our communities.”

Who is Don Gold?

Don Gold has 38 years’ experience in the security industry, including 25 years’ police service. He was seconded to the British South Africa Police in the then Rhodesia and served in Namibia. He was also a bomb disposal specialist, took part in many counterinsurgency operations and performed extensive undercover work. A martial arts instructor and handgun and unarmed combat specialist, he was a founder member of, and instructor to, the SA Police Special Task Force (national Swat unit) and trained bodyguards and intelligence personnel.

He is also a United States-qualified law enforcement ethics trainer and instructor in verbal judo or tactical communications.

Organisations for which he has trained staff in tactical communication include all the major casino groups in southern Africa, the KwaZulu-Natal Road Traffic Inspectorate, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the World Wildlife Fund, South African Airways and Michaelhouse school. He is

married to Sylvia, also a karate instructor, and they have two children.

What is verbal judo?

This is a tactical communication training course based on the principle of judo itself: use the energy of others to master situations. It teaches a philosophy of how to look creatively at conflict and offers concrete strategies to resolve tense situations. It holds a set of communication principles and tactics that enable users to get co-operation and voluntary compliance from others under stressful conditions such as hostile suspects, upset or frightened victims.

Based on a combination of Aristotle’s rhetoric, Eastern martial arts philosophy and modern police tactics, it is geared primarily for law enforcement but has been adapted for other fields including education, health care and general leadership. Verbal judo was developed by Dr George Thompson, based on his experience as an English professor, judo instructor and police officer. He is president and founder of the Verbal Judo Institute. The course is recognised by the SA Qualifications Authority (Saqa). —

• Inquiries: Don Gold 033 330 3973 or

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.