Defence & Security / Education & Skilling / Occupational Health & Safety / Other

Handling Security Threats: The Similarities and Differences Between Australian and US Campuses

As a preview to some of the issues that will be discussed at the upcoming 8th Annual Campus Security & Safety Conference held  in June we spoke with Lt. John Weinstein, a Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) Police Department district commander. John oversees police operations on three campuses with 40,000 students.  Before joining NOVA, he was a patrol officer, deputy sheriff, and chief of police, and is a certified instructor in Verbal Judo. He spoke to us about the challenges facing security staff both in the US and Australia, and the techniques he relies on to bring conflict to a safe resolution.RMIT Graduation

What is your role at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA)?

I am a police lieutenant and command police operations on two of the college’s 6 campuses, which reside in four distinct jurisdictions.  NOVA has 78,000 students and another 6,000 faculty and staff, so I am responsible for serving and protecting over 25,000 students and 2,500 faculty and staff.

In addition to my command responsibilities, I am my department’s lead firearms instructor, I also teach active shooter response tactics to our officers (and officers from other agencies in two local police academies), and I run the department’s community outreach program.  Regarding community outreach, I conduct occasional security assessments, publish a monthly public safety newsletter that is distributed to the college community, and I conduct training at al NOVA campuses on active shooter response, self-defense for women, dealing with difficult people,  bystander intervention, sexual assault and crimes against women, narcotics, gangs, and 5 other topics.  Finally, in my spare time, I contribute frequently to Campus Safety magazine and serve on its editorial advisory board.

The US has a strong gun culture. How does this impact on the way that security staff deal with potential threats?

Our 50 states vary widely in their laws on weapons.  Virginia, for instance, allows open carry of weapons, with some restrictions, to include schools, churches, bars, etc.  Some states allow people who have concealed carry permits to bring their weapons on campus and into classrooms.  Virginia does not, though permit holders can bring their weapons onto campus but secure them in a vehicle or dorm room.

As a firearms instructor, I am a proponent of effective self-defense, and I do not worry about concealed carry permit holders because they are vetted and generally have fewer criminal issues than the population at large.  But there is a dilemma on many campuses, not all of which have armed police officers.   The issue is, even when there are armed officers on campus, that when seconds count, the police arrive in minutes.  People do have the right, granted by our Constitution to defend themselves but, as I have argued elsewhere, I do not believe this right should be exercised on college campuses.  Fortunately, members of the campus community do not feel the need to be armed on campus.  The police do a good job of keeping our campuses safe.  At the same time, however, we train regularly on the verbal and physical abilities to defuse problems at the lowest level of violence.

What do you believe are the biggest concerns facing security staff on both Australian and US campuses?

Despite more than a healthy ego, I am reluctant to opine on what Australian police and security staffs need to do in an increasingly complex and dangerous world.  However, I suspect that many of the challenges facing American law enforcement also are germane in Australia.

In 2014, I authored a short piece in Campus Safety magazine in which I identified the emerging challenges to American policing.  Some of the challenges include changing generational expectations and mores; increased immigration and the resulting balkanization of society; domestic terrorism and the challenge of protecting constitutional safeguards;  omnipresent surveillance and the digitization of society.

I recommended five initiatives to address these trends:

  1. Increased emphasis on community outreach
  2. Enhanced communication skills
  3. Hybrid command structures that move away from strict centralization
  4. Greater diversity within departments
  5. A critical examination of “good” vs. “bad” traditions

Can you tell me about verbal judo, and how is it used?*

Verbal Judo is a tactical communications course, originally created by Dr. George Thompson, a psychologist turned police officer.  Thompson studied the skills of officers who were able to obtain voluntary compliance without resorting to involuntary methods and concluded effective communications are the most effective weapon we possess.  In short, Thompson argued for what I call, the “3 Es”: empathy, explanation, and ego control.

Building empathy with another is key to transforming a difficult situation into one in which both parties have something in common, thereby providing a foundation upon which a solution can be build.

The second E is explanation.  Especially in today’s information-driven world, people want explanations, both because they want information but also because they do not want to be treated as a subordinate from whom only obedience is expected.

Finally, our ego is what often generates conflict because we make interactions about us rather than looking for or being able to see common ground.  Verbal Judo provides means of avoiding conflictual situations and defusing those that do occur.

If proper communication can often defuse volatile situations, what are the biggest obstacles to effective communication?

There are many causes for the failure to build empathy, provide explanations, and control one’s ego.  Cultural and generational differences result in people seeing the same thing differently; non-verbal messages conveyed by posture, tone, pitch, etc. often contradict the spoken words; failure to recognize one’s triggers results in over-reaction and defensiveness; failure to apologize when wrong; and the use of certain phrases, such as “calm down” that enflame rather than calm toxic situations; and failure to recognize that all parties of the conversation, including you, are “under the influence”. Nevertheless, sometimes, words fail, and more direct action is needed.  The challenge is to be guarded for the sake of self-protection but not appear cynical and unapproachable.

 As part of the conference, you’ll be conducting a workshop on dealing with difficult people. What do you mean when you say, “Everyone is under the influence, always!”

Everybody, everyday, is under the influence, and all the time.  One may not be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, but he or she is surely under the influence of some other stressor, such as: a fight with one’s boss, a poor job appraisal, having one’s taxes audited by the government, marital problems, a child expelled from school, a family member diagnosed with cancer, money problems, financial problems, bullying, romantic disappointment, etc.  Just like an individual under the influence of alcohol makes poor decisions, we should expect people under the influence of some other crucial stressor to make decisions shaped by their ongoing stressor.  The problem is that while we deal with them, we often fail to understand we are also “under the influence” so our own decisions may be flawed.

Are there any presentations at the Campus Security and Safety Conference that you would like to see and why?

I am particularly interested in learning how Australian police operate and how they address the challenges I noted above, especially on college campuses.  This conference provides a great opportunity for professionals to share lessons learned and best practices, and I will arrive with great expectations.

Lt. John Weinstein will be delivering a workshop on dealing with difficult people at the 8th Annual Campus Security & Safety Conference. For more information, including the current agenda, please head to our website.

*Please note: In this workshop Lt. John Weinstein will be delivering his own thoughts on de-escalation techniques. This workshop is not a Verbal Judo course, nor is it associated with Verbal Judo Inc.

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