Anatomy of a Common Street Fight and the Mysteries of De-Escalation.

     In this age of widespread interest in de-escalation and verbal skills to defuse any and all encounters, this is a tale about how convoluted a quick, on-the-spot verbal solution might be. It's a short story from back in the 1980s – a case I worked on.

     A driver pulled his truck up into a handicapped parking space to drop his wife off at a post office. He did not put his truck into “park.” She got out and walked away. He reached down, did something for a second, and was about to back out of the spot, when a man walked by the front of his truck, scowling and yelling at him, waving a hand in the air.

     The driver rolled down the window and said,


     The man yelled in outrage about the driver parking in a handicapped spot. The driver, aghast at the outrage said, “I am not parked. I am leaving.”   

     The man started cursing and closing in. “I had to park over there,” and he pointed down the lot. “You can't park here!”
“I'm not parked here!” But then he now was, as the driver put his truck into the parking gear and got out, telling me later he thought that the man would come over and kick in and dent his truck, or reach into the open window after him.
     The driver got between the man and his truck and said,

     “WHAT is your problem?” (what a classic line! The classic answer is – “you're my problem” and so on and so on.) And so it goes. You know the dialogue of this movie from this point on. You already know it. I often tell you that these pre-fights words are like movie scripts and usually quite predictable.

     The man swings at the driver. The driver fights back. There are witnesses. The police are called and the man gets arrested for assault. Later this man files an assault case back on the driver and it becomes a “he-said, he-said” deal.


     My sad part of the story is that one morning in a detective squad meeting, I got both cases dropped on my desk. My Lieutenant says, “this ain't going away.” Meaning these two guys are calling us and complaining about each other and how each were in the right. And of course, one of the two had even called the chief. Another day in Detective Heaven.
     I started with this angry man. I asked him to come in and give us a written statement, which he jumped at the chance to vent. He showed up for the appointment, loaded for vocal bear, and in a small, interview office I let him unload. The guy was panting when the oratory was over. I did not say a word.

     “Okay,” says I. “let's get that whole story down on paper.” I had to read him his rights and now the story was officially counted. And line by line, we got it all down as I typed his words as he said them. He calmed down and his remarks took a turn to another topic. The real cause and motivation. Handicapped people and handicapped parking…
     “What's the ratio of handicapped people compared to non-handicapped people?” he asked.
     “I don't know.”
     “Well you should know. People like you in your business should know.”
     “I know this much,” he continued. “I know that there are too many handicapped parking places. There has to be too many of them compared to regular people. If you go down to Kmart you'll see all those front parking places are reserved for the handicapped. What a dozen? Dozen and a half? Are there that many handicapped people? A regular person has to hike to the store.”
     I did not answer. Then I said,” you want me to mention your parking spot concerns in the statement?”
     “Hell yeah! Maybe someone will read it for a change?”

     This theme rolled on. I realized that the guy wasn't mad at the driver because the driver had pulled into the slot for a second. He wasn't protecting the rights of the handicapped. This guy was mad at handicapped people and how many parking places they got. He was ripping mad because he couldn't park close to his store or post office or wherever. He was…jealous. And our driver was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.

     We all know that driver should have laughed and driven off. Was there anything that driver could have said to diffuse that weird situation? How can you defuse this or any situation, spontaneously when you couldn't guess the real motive of the agitator? The motive was buried in a form of jealousy The motive for many spontaneous fights are often blurred.

     This drop-off-the-wife-driver was just an average joe. He thought the angry guy was a crusader for handicapped rights! When actually the guy hated handicapped people's rights. If the driver tried to mediate and negotiate using that obvious perception – supporting the handicapped? He would be firing that guy up even more? Complicated isn't it. It is in a way and it isn't. The driver lost time and money by not driving away as he had first planned. Now he was involved in a criminal assault case. $$$
     At times like this you might say something generic and just leave, or say nothing and leave, or if you must, say something very simple and generic because you will most likely not be able to psychoanalyze the real heart of the problem and solve it in a few stressful seconds. What your simple generic defusing words might be will depend exactly on the situation. What "movie" is this? What dialogue script? Avoid the classic trigger words and moves. You still won't know his deep-seated triggers.

     And then there's the Brad Pitt, Fight Club crowd. Innocent people don't know it but, a lot of people just want to fight and they use words, any words and comments to corral you and touch something off. While one is considering the intellectual and psychological implications of mediation and negotiation, the left hook comes in. I know this much, lines like "I don't want any trouble," or "I don't want to fight," just invigorate these people.

     In my lifetime if I told you I worked some 2,000 assaults, (this includes simple assault on up to multiple murders), I don’t rightly know exactly. It could be 1,500 or 2.500? A lot. Either way I have some advice for you. Be somewhat wary of the wave of self defense instructors and their advice on verbal de-escalation. Often the pat, suggested responses some offer may not solve the problem because the real problem, the real motive is not evident.
     Surviving or avoiding or escaping is often about a knack for verbal skills, banter and knowing what movie this script is in. Some people have this knack and some don't, just like some people are athletes and some aren't. Otherwise you can get the feel or the knack through experience. So, further evaluate the advice you receive. Even this advice.
     In another similar case, a concealed carry person, armed with a Glock, decided to warn his aggressor that, “I am armed with a handgun. I am legal, concealed carry person.”

     This often kicks off another whole dialogue string, started with:

     “Oh you are? Well then, go ahead and shoot me! Go ahead and shoot me then!”

     And so it goes. Did I say "Detective Heaven?" It's "Detective Hell." Scripts of life. This sort of scripting is not new. Scripting is decades old advice. I've liked to refer to it (and life) as a "movie scrip." We have these scripts with everyone, the clerk at the store, spouses, dogs, etc. Police encounters are very script-like. The calls to service are very much the same. Sometimes we just need better writers,


     …but there are no writers off-stage to shout in the next, or better line. But, then we can go -"off script," so we can change the flow and direction of some problem times. I’ve done and I’ve seen it done in all kinds of confrontations. But we can't go off-script until we know the original script is. So, as with “on-scriptt” and “off-script” terms, these pidgeon-hole nicknames can be helpful. A so-called, good "de-escalator has to wing it as talented as an improv comedian. A trip to "Chicago's Second City" may be better than attending a seminar? Simply put – this sort of improv develops the creative language skills of your brain. 

     Anyway, yak-yak-yakkers advising you about de-escalation skills? Warning! Simple and generic dialogue might be good?. Or not! Sometimes your verbal skills are nowhere near as fast and effective as your “leaving” skills.

Hock's email is

This is an excerpt from Hock' s upcoming book ( due in late Winter, 2017)

1-cover Fighten words_med

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