LEAVE THEM LAUGHING
by Mike Patrick
The first profound lesson I learned as a cop occurred in the first few days of my career. I don’t how it started, but it resulted in maybe my first arrests. Well, not exactly ‘my’ arrest. I was working with a training officer who was in charge. My training officer was Sam Lackland, an African-American (I mention that because it is pertinent), and one of the finest officers I was ever privileged to work with, although I didn’t know him well at the time.
Our arrestee was a sullen, young African-American. As I said, I don’t recall the charge—probably a failure to appear warrant issued by the court when someone misses court. All we did was take him to the police station and turn him over to the booking officer. Everything was fine to that point.
The booking officer placed the prisoner in a small holding cell and signed for the man’s property after we inventoried it. As we turned to leave, Sam glanced over at the prisoner and said, “Good luck.” He wasn’t trying to be smart or antagonize the young man. The statement was more in the form of ‘no hard feelings, hope you get through this okay.’
The prisoner blew up. He started calling Sam every name he could think of.
Sam, who had already turned toward the exit door, stopped and slowly turned back around. I was afraid he was going to grab the keys from the booking officer and enter the cell to shut the guy up; but that isn’t what happened. As Sam turned around, I saw a weird look on his face. It was contorted like he was trying to stifle a smile.
As the prisoner continued to cuss him, Sam couldn’t hold it. The smile broke all the way through. As the tirade extended, it became a bigger smile with all the teeth showing. Then it became a chuckle.
The chuckle triggered greater, more creative efforts from the prisoner. He spewed ethnic street language I’d never heard before and didn’t even understand. Sam laughed harder and harder.
I don’t know what Sam thought was so funny, but I’m sure he wasn’t acting. He was laughing so hard that he had to lean against the wall for support. There were tears rolling down his cheeks; and still the barrage continued. Sam was now laughing so hard he slid down the wall until he was seated on the floor.
At last the prisoner ran out of steam. He had called Sam everything he could think of. His last shot was, “You . . . you . . . you honky!”
Being called a honky, a derogatory term for a white man, by another black man, was too much for Sam. He rolled over onto his side and was literally rolling on the floor laughing.
The prisoner stood there sputtering, no longer capable of speech. When Sam kept laughing, he began banging his head against the concrete wall. The booking officer had to run into the cell and place him in restraints before he could hurt himself.
I’m pretty sure Sam never intended that as a training lesson for me—but it was. I never forgot it. In the years since then, I’ve heard thousands of people resort to name-calling when they lacked a more appropriate response to a situation. Name-calling is the first refuge of a scoundrel and the unintelligent: If I can’t talk to you on the issue, I’ll call you names.
What I learned from Sam was how to counter that tactic. I have used it more times than I can count. Laughing usually does not result in people banging their heads against the wall. Instead, they realize either the name-calling is not working, and they either laugh with you and return to dialog, or they start swinging.
From a police point of view, it is a win/win situation. If they return to talking, the issue can be resolved peacefully. Because a police officer’s peace cannot be disturbed, and the cop must stand there absorbing the verbal abuse unless there is an overt act, laughing often elicits effect number two: start swinging.
Police are used to violent encounters. Attempting to assault a police officer is always a crime, and an arrest takes place forthwith. Issue resolved, lesson learned.