The Mouth On That Cop

For a brief period years ago, my next door neighbor was a cop. Not just any cop, but an emergency services cop who worked on the SWAT team. Nice guy. Pleasant, friendly, helpful to a fault. Never, during that time, did I hear a mean word, no less a curse, come out of his mouth. And yet, we talked one day about the way in which he executed his duty, and one of the things that stunned me was that his language changed from my good neighbor to a vulgar animal.

When I asked him why, he explained that it had shock value and enabled him to establish “command presence,” the assertion of control over the person he was dealing with. It showed that he was not “fucking” around, but was both very serious and not inclined to tolerate any challenge. As a cop, this was a life or death need, he explained. Any crack in his commanding facade could spell death for him, and he had no plan to die that day.

Did a curse word hold that much power for a cop, or was it just needlessly hostile? John McWhorter, the Columbia linguistics prof, wondered something similar.

Gratuitous use of profanity is of a class with this use of force in shaping perceptions of the cops as menaces rather than public servants.

Whether there is a study proving this, I dunno, but this is my anecdotal experience as well. And there is, I’m told, a reason behind it. In the mind of some cops, black people are presumptively criminals and violent, and cops therefore initiate contact with the immediate need for control. In the absence of a secondary reason to assume a white person is a skel, they are less afraid and thus less inclined to feel the need to seize control of the situation. And so black people tend to be far more likely to be addressed by cops as “motherfucker” than Mr. or Ms.

Profanity can be a form of hostility. To be sure, I am skeptical of claims that injurious words always constitute “trauma” (just as I am that “silence is violence”). However, profanity can still be a game changer. In interactions with cops it influences public perception. One study (of many similar) showed that, when presented with a silent video of a person detained by a police officer with captions in which the officers’ profanity was left out, observers judged the interaction as more reasonable than when the profanity was included in the captions. Other studies similarly document that, when it comes to the cops, profanity matters—profoundly influencing how citizens view their interactions with police.

Putting aside the claim of trauma, the gratuitous use of profanity immediately establishes hostility. It doesn’t have to cause you harm to make you angry, defensive and hostile in kind.

For example, I actually have never been detained by a police officer except for things like minor traffic violations, where I have no friction to report. However, if an officer detained me and the F-word came into play, then that very second would be determinative in how I came away feeling about the incident. The officer cussing at me would come off as someone with authority (and a weapon) feeling entitled to address me however they chose. It would also be a reminder of the weapon. It would be both hostile and demeaning. The schoolyard bully should not be the model for officers’ behavior.

From the perspective of the non-cop (I hesitate to use the word “citizen” since the police officer is no more or less a citizen than the person he stopped), the language leaves them with a significantly negative feelings toward the officer, and perhaps extrapolated to most or all cops. As well it should. Assuming Citizen McWhorter was polite and cooperative, what cause would there be for a cop to use offensive language when dealing with him?

But from the perspective of some cops, as long as they walked away alive, they really don’t care. Sure, it could have ramifications with regard to cooperation and public relations later, but in the moment, they care only about making it home for dinner, the First Rule of Policing. If they walk away, then every “fuck” was worth it.

McWhorter, linguist that he is, muses that maybe the word means something different to cops than it does to the rest of us.

On the other hand, we must not fall for a crude, blanket notion that police officers must never be caught in a recording using, say, the word “fuck” on the job for any reason. This would operate upon an almost willfully uninformed sense of how language actually works. Any word remotely interesting likely has a lot of meanings.

Fuck—subject of one whole study on police interactions since it seems so fertile within them—has many meanings and functions. Rather a bouquet of them, in fact. It can be a passing, frustrated interjection, in the function of the Peanuts gang’s “Rats.” It can signal joy of a demotic flavor, a lexical kind of camaraderie, as when then-Vice President Biden used it when Obamacare was signed into the books.

Moreover, McWhorter notes that our lexicon, on the whole, has become far more informal, bring epithets into the workplace that would rarely have happened a few decades ago. And yet, he comes to the conclusion that whatever the reason, the net result is still needlessly wrong and unjustified.

Yet the issue here is not especially complex or subtle. In interactions with the public, police officers should not use profanity in ways that connote hostility, impatience, or dominance. More economically, the idea is that they should not use it in ways that are mean.

Cops shouldn’t be out there cussing at people for sport. It should be classified not as a genuflective no-no tucked away in the books but as a breach of public responsibility subject to fining or even brief suspension. Specifically, police officers should not address people they detain with the words “damn,” “shit,” “hell,” “fuck” or variations thereon. This is not mere 1950’s-style primness: cursing can be a valuable way of letting off steam, bonding with others, and fostering humor—it can be a kind of articulateness. But it has no place in interactions between members of the public and people with weapons.

Let’s assume that the utility of cursing serves a cop’s purpose ten percent of the time, and the other 90% is purely gratuitous, counterproductive and, as McWhorter calls it, “mean.” To the cop, that ten percent is likely worth it if it means he goes home for dinner. To the rest of us, the cop is just being needlessly offensive and vulgar, or in the lingua du jour, disrespectful, and causing or reminding us that cops hate us and we, in turn, don’t like them as much as they want us to.


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