Verbal Contact and Cover Protecting Your Colleagues and Your Profession

Far too often today, I believe, police officers are being ‘rope-a-doped’ by manipulative people out on the street. Taken from the tactic famously employed by boxing legend Muhammad Ali, the ‘rope-a-dope’ is when a challenging or manipulative person says things that are intentionally crafted to get under your skin, make you angry, and get you to act unprofessionally. YouTube© is filled with videos of officers who have fallen prey to the rope-a-dope by a citizen who has taunted the officer into acting like a “dope”. Individuals and organized groups with anti-police agendas are actively trying to entice officers to act inappropriately so that they can catch the officer’s reaction on video and become the next viral video sensation. We need to keep our guard up against the rope-a-dope.

We need to be aware that the tactic exists, watch for it, and identify it for what it is. Just as you watch the driver’s hands, scanning for weapons or any furtive movements indicating an attack, we need to listen to the citizen’s words and scan for signs of a rope-a-dope. Consider a rope-a-dope to be an attack on your career because it is. If you fall prey to it, you could easily do or say something that could ruin your career and deny you that pay, benefits package, and pension you have worked so hard to earn. Falling prey to the rope-a-dope also tarnishes our entire profession as video of your unprofessional response is broadcast around the world on the internet.

When you spot the rope-a-dope, you should be able to say to yourself, “Aha, the rope-a-dope. Well this guy isn’t going to get me.” Use verbal deflectors to step over the insults and keep the conversation on topic, avoid getting angry, and explain the options to the citizen to gain their compliance. You are a professional: you cannot let yourself be rope-a-doped. However, what about letting your partner get rope-a-doped? In public safety we are very good about protecting each other and looking out for one another’s physical safety. Do we also look out for each other’s career safety? I believe we need to do a better job of helping each other on the street by protecting each other from the dangers posed by the citizen rope-a-dope.

Verbal Contact and Cover

Law enforcement officers, firefighters, and paramedics across the country would not hesitate to risk their lives to ensure one another’s physical safety, but we also need to be doing the same to protect one another’s career safety. You might start to see the warning signs that a colleague is about to make a career-altering statement or action. If so, it is imperative that you step in to save that officer from doing or saying something they will long regret. Just as we use the contact and cover method to protect each other’s physical safety, we also need to do the same for career safety.

In the contact and cover method practiced for officer physical safety, the primary officer deals directly with the citizen, while the second officer stands back, remains quiet, watches the primary officer’s back, and scans the area for danger. In verbal contact and cover, the backup officer also listens to the primary officer’s words and scans for signs that the primary officer is falling prey to the rope-a-dope. If the primary officer does fall prey to the rope-a-dope, the backup officer can step up and take over the interaction, allowing the rope-a-doped officer to take a break from dealing with the manipulative citizen. The rope-a-doped officer moves back from the interaction and takes over the backup officer role, remaining silent as the other officer takes over interacting with the citizen. We teach this verbal contact and cover technique in our Surviving Verbal Conflict® course.

How do you know when your partner is becoming rope-a-doped? There are several warning signs. One warning sign is the resume recital, which sound something like, “Do you know how long I have been a police officer? I do not have to take this crap. I was a cop since before you were born!” Another is the Robert De Niro impression from the movie Taxi Driver, which sounds like “Are you talking to me? I know you aren’t talking to ME like that.” A third warning sign is the insult seesaw, such as “Screw me? Well, screw you!” A fourth warning sign is statements like “You know, I don’t get paid to take this crap.” A fifth warning sign is when your partner disregards his or her personal safety by moving in close, nose-to-nose with the citizen. A final warning sign is when your partner threatens to arrest the person when the person has cleverly avoided doing anything that would give you probable cause to support an arrest. When you are serving as the backup officer, seeing any of these warning signs should motivate you to step in and help your partner, because your partner can no longer help himself.

One discrete and tactful way to communicate to your partner that he or she is being rope-a-doped is to develop a code word. Develop a code word on your department, or in your squad, that will signal to your partners that they have been rope-a-doped, that they need to take a breather, that you are stepping in to take over, and that does so in a manner that still allows them to save face in front of the citizen. In a past conversation with Vistelar instructors Gary Klugiewicz and Tony Pinelle, we discussed that they often trained medical professionals dealing with irate patients to advise an emotionally compromised co-worker that “Supervisor Coffee” needs their help elsewhere. In the public safety context, I always use the “Sergeant Coffee” rescue.

Say your partner is being rope-a-doped and starts playing the insult seesaw with a manipulative citizen. Step forward and say, “Hey Kevin, Sergeant Coffee wants you to call him right away. I’ll talk to this guy while you take care of that.” This allows your partner time to back away from the conversation and calm down while he pretends to call “Sergeant Coffee” on his cell phone or radio. You can then take over the interaction while allowing your partner to save face in front of the manipulative citizen.


Always remember that public safety professionals are, in the overwhelming majority of cases, following their life’s calling to be of service to others. They will risk their life at one o’clock in the morning to save a perfect stranger. They run toward danger, all the while hoping they get there first to be of service. Why do they stand by when a partner is suffering from the rope-a-dope? The answer is that they are human beings who can suffer from the “bystander” or “groupthink” effect like anyone else in any profession. They tend to look around at others for social clues and see that no one else is doing anything to intervene either. When we train public safety professionals in the verbal contact and cover principle, they learn to overcome the bystander effect and act.

In the public safety profession, we trust one another with our lives. We should also protect one another’s careers, and protect the image of our entire profession. Too often public safety officials on the street, in a moment of frustration or mental exhaustion, have said or done something that cost them their careers or even their freedom. I bet these individuals would give anything to have had a partner there who truly had their back and was willing to step in and save them from themselves. Are you willing to be that kind of partner to your colleagues?

Confronting the “Gypsy Cops” Problem: Understanding State Statutes that Give Legal Protections to Those Who Speak Out

The national problem of “gypsy cops” is not a new one. Toxic officers engage in misconduct in one agency after another over the course of a career and, in the meantime, inflict damage to agency reputation and morale along the way. These officers leave one agency where they are widely known to be a serious problem only to find a new home with another agency where the behavior continues until it is time to move again.

One of the most significant factors aiding gypsy cops in finding employment in a new agency is the unwillingness of past agency representatives to divulge facts that would disqualify the officer in the eyes of any reasonable background investigator or agency leader. Serious problems—in the form of frequent citizen complaints, disciplinary write-ups and suspensions—are often documented but not shared with new agencies considering hiring these officers.

So, why are agencies failing to cooperate with other departments engaged in background investigations on these officers? One of the most common refrains is that sworn personnel refuse to cooperate based on the advice of Human Resources or attorneys. There is an overwhelming, though often vague, fear that any cooperation whatsoever will result in costly lawsuits filed by the toxic officer in question.

However, in the majority of states, employer immunity statutes protect agencies from being held liable for communicating past performance issues to a potential employer so long as those statements are truthful and made in good faith. The simple purpose of this legal article is to bring to the attention of agency leaders—and those who advise them—these employer immunity statues. This article will explain what these statutes mean for law enforcement leaders who would like to speak up and put an end to the perpetuation of gypsy cops, helping them overcome their often-misplaced concerns regarding legal liability.

State-Specific Employer Immunity Statutes—A Legal Right to Speak Up

Employer immunity statutes at the state level vary dramatically. In some states, like Ohio, the immunity is fairly straightforward in that truthful statements given in good faith are legally protected. In states like Michigan, the employer immunity protections have caveats, including the requirement that the employee in question be notified of disclosures and the requirement to purge personnel files of disciplinary actions dating back more than 4 years. In states like Florida, there is not only employer immunity for truthful good faith disclosures, but an affirmative requirement that employers cooperate with law enforcement agencies conducting background investigations.

Here are some specific statutory examples. Under Ohio law:

(B) An employer who is requested by an employee or a prospective employer of an employee to disclose to a prospective employer of that employee information pertaining to the job performance of that employee for the employer and who discloses the requested information to the prospective employer is not liable in damages in a civil action to that employee, the prospective employer, or any other person for any harm sustained as a proximate result of making the disclosure or of any information disclosed, unless the plaintiff in a civil action establishes, either or both of the following:

(1) By a preponderance of the evidence that the employer disclosed particular information with the knowledge that it was false, with the deliberate intent to mislead the prospective employer or another person, in bad faith, or with malicious purpose;

(2) By a preponderance of the evidence that the disclosure of particular information by the employer constitutes an unlawful discriminatory practice described in section 4112.02, 4112.021, or 4112.022 of the Revised Code.1

In other words, only potentially negative disclosures that are given untruthfully or in bad faith (such as giving incriminating information from an internal investigation while withholding exculpatory information), or otherwise violate state law regarding unlawful discrimination can trigger liability under Ohio state law.

Under Michigan law:

An employer may disclose to an employee or that individual’s prospective employer information relating to the individual’s job performance that is documented in the individual’s personnel file upon the request of the individual or his or her prospective employer. An employer who discloses information under this section in good faith is immune from civil liability for the disclosure. An employer is presumed to be acting in good faith at the time of a disclosure under this section unless a preponderance of the evidence establishes 1 or more of the following:

(a) That the employer knew the information disclosed was false or misleading.

(b) That the employer disclosed the information with a reckless disregard for the truth.

(c) That the disclosure was specifically prohibited by a state or federal statute. 2

However, Michigan law also recognizes an “employee right to know,” and requires employers to notify the individual in question of certain disclosure, and that this notification be mailed on or before the day in which the information is communicated to a potential employer.3

Furthermore, Michigan law requires employers to review personnel files before releasing information and to “delete disciplinary reports, letters of reprimand, or other records of disciplinary action which are more than 4 years old.”4

Under Florida law:

An employer who discloses information about a former or current employee to a prospective employer of the former or current employee upon request of the prospective employer or of the former or current employee is immune from civil liability for such disclosure or its consequences unless it is shown by clear and convincing evidence that the information disclosed by the former or current employer was knowingly false or violated any civil right of the former or current employee protected under chapter 760.5

Florida’s statute goes beyond simply providing immunity for truthful disclosures, Florida law actually requires employers to disclose information when contacted by law enforcement agencies:

When a law enforcement officer, correctional officer, or correctional probation officer, or an agent thereof, is conducting a background investigation of an applicant for temporary or permanent employment or appointment as a full-time, part-time, or auxiliary law enforcement officer, correctional officer, or correctional probation officer with an employing agency, the applicant’s current or former employer, or the employer’s agent, shall provide to the officer or his or her agent conducting the background investigation employment information concerning the applicant. 6

Becoming Familiar with Your State Laws in Addressing the Problem of Gypsy Cops

Agency leaders, city and county attorneys, HR professionals and background investigators should become familiar with their specific state’s employer immunity statutes, where applicable. Background investigators should consider informing representatives from other agencies about these statutes when inquiries regarding past employment only result in “he worked here from 2009 until 2016, and that’s all I can tell you”. Furthermore, agency leaders should keep these statutes in mind when making the crucial decisions as to whether or not to divulge to a fellow agency facts illustrating that the officer they are considering hiring is not fit to serve.

Law enforcement is a high liability profession. Any thoughts of eliminating all liability are misguided. Managing reasonable liability should be the goal rather than eliminating all liability in light of the fact that liability can never be eliminated—especially if law enforcement professionals are actively engaged in activities which simultaneously serve to improve the safety of the community while increasing the risks that lawsuits (founded or unfounded) may result.

As agency leaders consider their options and their ethical obligations when contacted by other departments that are considering hiring toxic officers, they should take time to consider what their state law actually says when it comes to honest, fact-based disclosures of past misconduct. Refusing to cooperate in these background investigations may mean less work and, in some instances, less risk of a baseless lawsuit filed by a toxic officer that once worked for the department. But it may also mean that a bad apple who has no business serving as a law enforcement officer finds a new home, a new badge and a new opportunity to disgrace the profession.



1 ORC § 4113.71(B) (emphasis added)

2 Mich. Comp. Laws 423.452 (emphasis added)

3 Mich. Comp. Laws § 423.506

4 Mich. Comp. Laws § 423.507

5 Fla. Stat. § 768.095 (emphasis added)

6 Fla Stat. § 943.134(2)(a) (emphasis added)