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`VERBAL JUDO' HELPS COPS WIELD WORDS, NOT NIGHTSTICK

The Miss Manners of the New York Police Department wears his hair in a flattop.

He spits out dirty words to make points. And, falling somewhere between drill sergeant and info-mer-cial pitchman, he makes a living teaching cops how to talk their way out of confrontations.George Thompson calls it "verbal judo."

"It's a perfect name," says Thompson, a part-time police officer and a black belt in regular judo. "It's the martial arts of the mind."

Thompson, 53, arrived at the NYPD in January in the midst of a rise in civilian complaints of offensive behavior and brutality by police officers.

The gimmicky name of Thompson's self-styled discipline and his fee - a reported $2,000 a day - were greeted with cynicism from the rank-and-file. But officials considered his two-day seminars for officers from problem precincts such a hit that he now is a regular at the Police Academy.

The Police Foundation, a private fund-raising group, has picked up the bill.

"The problem in the past has been that some cops think that by simply putting on a uniform, they're imbued with this ability to deal with unruly people when, of course, they're not," said Michael Julian, a former NYPD chief who now serves on an advisory "respect committee."

Thompson's theory that a few carefully chosen words are mightier than the nightstick evolved from a drastic change in career. He taught college English for 10 years, grew bored and became a police officer at age 35.

"I discovered after dealing with some really nasty people that words could be used the same way as martial arts," he said.

In the early 1980s, Thompson began writing articles on what he first called "tactical communication." He eventually coined the phrase "verbal judo" for two books on the subject, then founded The Verbal Judo Institute Inc. in Tijeras, N.M., to market his seminars, books, videotapes and even T-shirts and lapel pins.

Notorious news footage of alleged police brutality didn't hurt his business, either. One showed a police officer pushing civil rights activist Don Jackson through a plate glass window in Long Beach, Calif., in 1989; the other the 1991 beating of Rodney King.

The verbal judo master won contracts with the Long Beach and Los Angeles police departments, among others. He estimates that 110,000 officers have attended his seminars.

On the Jackson tape, the civil rights activist loudly demands to know why he's being stopped and the officer responds with profanity, then physical force - illustrating some of the don'ts of police work.

In one class, Thompson acted out the roles of both cool cop and foul-mouthed suspect as he instructed students to delete certain contentious words from their on-duty vocabulary.

"Never use the word `make,' " he said. "You're sure to get `You can't make me do anything.' "

Thompson instead prescribed a step-by-step script, sprinkled with "sirs," in which officers explain what they're doing and why and ask for cooperation.

"It allows anyone of any culture to go along with the program without losing face," he explained to the officers.

Thompson also tries to convince officers that self-restraint is an act of self-preservation. It helps deflect both civilian complaints that can derail officers' careers, and the violence that could take their lives.