On the threshold between the sacred and the stupid

When I think about my wife, the first things that leap to my mind are her beautiful smile, her amazing singing voice, and her deep and genuine faith.  About the last thing that would occur to anyone who knows her is that that a couple of years ago she was almost hauled off to jail.

It was pretty much like any other evening at the Stephens residence, that is, until 10:15pm when the police knocked on the door.  Jeanne got home around 10pm from rehearsal for a musical that she was in.  On the way home she had stopped at a local convenience store for a snack.  She thought pack of peppermint patties would be the perfect post practice treat, so checked her purse to see if she had enough cash on her.  As it turns out, she did not.  Disappointed, she put the patties back, put her billfold back in her purse, and the loose change she did have on her back in her pocket.  She browsed for another minute, nothing that she could afford appealed to her, so she left.

Up to that point, I had my hands full between doing laundry, giving haircuts, and bathing the kids.  I was ready for a break. So, Jeanne took over and I sat down to watch a little TV.  A few minutes later there was a knock at the door and as I approached I saw two officers through the window.  I opened the door, “Are you Christopher Stephens?” one of them barked.  “Yes,” I replied.  “Is your wife Jeanne Stephens?” Again I replied, “Yes.”  Keeping the same harsh tone he then said, “She needs to get out here right now!”  Jeanne walked outside with a look of absolute bewilderment on her face. I took a moment to settle the kids down and walked out to where the officer was interrogating her.  As I approached, I was trying to imagine what this could be about.  I was thinking maybe it was about a traffic violation or parking ticket.  As I listened to the officer’s line of questioning I figured out that she was being accused of theft.  “DOES NOT COMPUTE,” was all I could think.

I could hear my wife telling the officer that she did not steal anything and it was clear that he did not believe her.  I then heard him say, “If you admit to it now, I will write you a citation and all of this will be over.  If you are not going to admit it, then I will be taking you to jail.”  “WTF,”  I thought (The “F” is for Frankincense).  He then had her get into the police car and continued his questioning.

I want to pause here for a moment to highlight a few things that impact all of us.  We live in a society where the pace of life is only increasing.  Furthermore, we are being inundated with information, all of which is competing for our attention.  Recently, I was reading an a book by Arizona State researcher Robert Cialdini PhD.  In his book, Cialdini points out that in this environment of information overload there is a grave danger.  The danger is that people will draw conclusions, even form convictions, based upon a minute amount of data.  Furthermore, people typically will fill in these massive information gaps with the worst kind of assumptions.  Relatively insignificant acts are imbued with dark and sinister meaning in the minds of friends, neighbors, and even those who have sworn an oath to protect and serve.  And that brings up another point; the perception that we have any real privacy is an illusion.  Our behavior is being recorded: our movements captured on video camera, our purchases digitally logged, our whereabouts tracked via GPS, and our Internet activity stored.  All of this information is wide open to interpretation.

What’s worse is that living in this state of information overload leaves us vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation.  All of us are at risk of becoming a victim of those who use manipulative language and are eager to abuse whatever measure of power they possess.  According to Cialdini, there are “6 weapons of influence,” employed by those who wish to take advantage of us.  In the case of my wife being falsely accused, two of these weapons were particularly evident.

Social Proof – We decide what is correct by noticing what other people think is correct.  The police officer was convinced of my wife’s guilt based upon the ill-founded assumption of a convenience store clerk and some grainy surveillance video.  The clerk believed it, thus he believed it.

Authority – People will tend to obey authority figures.  The officer came to our home, not as an open-minded investigator seeking the truth, but as an authority figure demanding compliance.  He was not interested in finding out what really happened; instead he attempted to intimidate my wife into telling him the answer he wanted to hear.

Several of my friends have suggested that my first response should have been to ask the officer if charges were being filed. I genuinely wish I had been composed enough to think of it. The truth is that the officer’s first moves were so strong that he was in control and we were simply complying. The technique he used is called a “pattern interrupt.” It is a technique used by practitioners of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) to induce a state of suggestibility or even hypnosis. Now, neither Jeanne nor I were in a trance, but his using a surprise and command approach successfully put him in control. In retrospect, it is probably better that we did not do anything that would be seen as stonewalling. This would only have reinforced his position.

After about ten minutes of questioning my wife in the police cruiser, he got out. He walked over to me and asked if I understood what was going on. I told him that I did not. He then proceeded to describe what he saw on the surveillance video. He told me that he could see no explanation for what he witnessed except that my wife committed an act of theft. Falling back on my negotiations training, several things became immediately clear to me. To begin with, what he described on the video were vague actions that were wide open to interpretation. Moreover, I was aware that he had taken an extreme position and that he was emotionally invested in that position.

There is a negotiating strategy called Pendulum Theory. One of the key elements of Pendulum Theory is that when a person takes on a strong positive or negative posture, that it requires a lot of energy to maintain that posture. Over time the person will get tired of expending all of that energy and will return to a neutral state. If you have children, then you have no doubt witnessed this phenomenon: your child is denied something he or she wants, throws a tantrum, and if left in that state will calm down and move on, once the energy reserves are burned up. I decided that this would be the appropriate tactic to deal with this out of control officer. I just needed to be calm, then chisel away at his wrongly founded convictions; in short, just outlast him.

He asked me, “Why would someone go into a store if they were not going to buy something?” In return, I asked him if he had ever gone into a store and then talked himself out of buying something. He admitted that he had. Then I told him that we were people of strong religious convictions. He replied, “That means nothing to me.” I was pretty sure that is how he would react. So I said, “I agree with you, just because someone says they are religious, does not mean that they are innocent. However, it does mean that when we make a mistake, we take responsibility for it. That is the sort of man I am, and that is the sort of woman my wife is.” I then emphasized that if my wife were guilty, I would encourage her to own up to it and together we would bear the brunt of the consequences. I could see that he was starting to soften on his position.

I then made a tactical change. I told him that I respected him for what he did for a living and fully understood where he was coming from. I said, “I am sure people lie to you all the time or make excuses for themselves. You have to be cynical because your job demands it.” He agreed.

I then adopted the posture of a co-investigator. My goal was to demonstrate by example how an impartial officer would have approached this situation. I said that from the timeline it was pretty clear that she came straight home. Therefore, were she guilty, there must be some kind of physical evidence still around. I had him search the contents of her purse. I then led him around our house showing him every room that she had been in. There was nothing in the way of evidence. I then said, “Wait! We still have not searched the van yet.” I then took him out to the van and we searched it together.

At that point I asked if I could speak to her. He led me over to the cruiser and opened her door. Speaking loud enough for the officer to overhear, I asked my wife if she were guilty. “No,” she said emphatically. Again, loud enough for him to hear, I explained to Jeanne that it was clear the officer thought she was guilty. I told her that she should be prepared, that by standing by the truth, she may be unjustly arrested. I then quietly reassured her that everything would be ok. I turned around and walked over to the officer. Looking him in the eye, I said firmly, “I believe her.” I then used a technique called a Negative Reverse. I said, “Here is the problem: based upon what you saw in the video you are 100% convinced that she is guilty, and there is nothing that is going to change your mind about it.” He then threw his hands up in the air and said, “No, no, no. This is really just up to UDF they’ll have to decide what they want to do. I’m done here.” He seemed clearly embarrassed and acted as though he had been unwillingly put up to this whole thing. He then walked to the police car and let my wife out. My wife and I walked into the house and he and the other officer quickly sped away.

To conclude, I would never suggest that you invest a whole bunch of time, money, and effort into studying interpersonal psychology, communications styles, sales, or negotiations. However, I regularly hear stories from those who are exploited by malicious people in the work place, the market place, in government, and in personal relationships. Because we are all at risk, a little preparation may be important. In my case, being prepared meant the difference between Jeanne being wrongly victimized and her walking away relatively unscathed.

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Comments on: "My Wife….A Fugative From Justice?" (1)

  1. Amazing and unbelievable!

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