$#it that cops say: Profanity and public perception
By Lt. Jim Glennon, Lombard, IL (ret.)
Earlier this year Calibre Press published a book I wrote a called Arresting Communication: Essential Interaction Skills for Law Enforcement. You probably gathered from the title that it is about communicating in a police environment. My goal in the writing was to address the power of communication and its impact on an officer’s career. I also wanted it to be different from other books so I vowed to use real cop humor/stories and to make it realistic. That reality included addressing profanity head on.
So the first drafts that went to publishers included cop stories and real profanities. I received several replies and most of them said that the book had potential but, sure as heck-fire, those profanities had to go. One person even objected to the word idiot. Another person suggested I address the profanities by substituting vowels with symbols in any obscene word that I felt compelled to use. Apparently it’s those nasty vowels that really cause offense to the fragile psyche of the collective masses. So the potential publisher took one of my sentences and sent it back to me and said I should write any profanities in this manner: “You m$th#%f%ck*ng p^ssy-c*cks#k&r, I’m gonna kick you’re a%#!”
Quite a code she had there. Who could possibly figure out what those offensive words might actually be? Even I was baffled — C*cks#k&r? Hmmm... — I was stumped! Fooled completely. What was I trying to say there? Best of all she protected me from that foul and squalid language — thank God she took out those offensive O’s, E’s, and U’s.
The longer I looked at her “suggestion” the more absurd I found the entire premise. I imagined readers buying a vowel in an attempt to solve a word puzzle on some weird profane version of Wheel of Fortune.
But, in an effort to conform to the educated literary elite I actually tried the method for a couple of paragraphs before the absurdity became apparent. I was writing a realistic book about the reality of communication in a real law enforcement environment, and unfortunately, in a law enforcement environment we encounter profanity in all of its forms, all the time. To avoid the words meant that I had to avoid a very real truth: Profanity affects perception!
Whether or not it’s directed toward you, you are a witness to its use, or you are using a stream of it yourself, profanity affects perception. It provokes an emotional, visceral response for anyone hearing it or using it. And that can cause real problems. It can damage a career, limit success on a call, and even worse, contribute to you getting killed!
Dignity and Respect is Essential... But...
Since this is a short and limited article let me again establish my foundational belief: I absolutely believe that police officers should treat the vast majority of people (and students) with dignity and respect. Indiscriminately dropping the “F-bomb” or using invectives and expletives inappropriately is unacceptable. But in the real world, where violence resides and bad guys hunt the weak, a well-placed profanity is sometimes necessary. It may actually save lives.
Administrators may not want to hear that, but cops working the street know it’s true. Finally, profanity used against us, can derail a promising career because of our over-reaction to it or cause us to be killed because we under-reacted to the obvious message and pre-attack behavior of a predatory human. So we should deal with the reality of profanity in our training. But...
No Poo-Pooh, Caa-Caah Words
Some say, “There is never any reason to use profanity in training.” I’ve heard that statement — in some form or another — many times. I’ve even had to sign a form prior to training in a Midwestern state that basically said that I agreed to “not offend anybody, in any way, for any reason, and if I did I would apologize and afford an opportunity for the offended to grieve my behavior to me.” I signed it and did my regular shtick anyway with no problems even though in the course of the Seminar I used real and actual profane language.
I just had a video sent to me where a Trooper shoots and kills a guy who just shot his wife. The guy alights from his car with a rifle in hand. As he turns towards the Trooper the Trooper shoots and kills the assailant. However, the version I have has a ‘bleep’ in it. Apparently the Trooper, in the midst of shouting repeated orders for the murderer to drop his gun, dropped something himself — the “F-bomb.”
Here is what gets me. The Trooper does a good job (well, he actually waited too long to shoot in my opinion), shouts for the murderer to drop his gun, and in the midst of it curses. Once. So, to the person who sent out the copies, the most egregious thing in the whole video wasn’t the death of the bad guy or the danger to the officer, it was the Trooper saying during the encounter “Drop the f*cking gun or I will kill you!”
So me being me, I called somebody from that agency and asked why. His explanation? “We don’t want anyone thinking we condone that type of language.” So I responded; “In a gunfight?” His response? “Never. It doesn’t look good for us.” I then asked for the unedited version, explaining who I was (an instructor for law enforcement), and that I trained thousands of cops a year and wanted to show the reality of stress in a gunfight to police officers. But I was refused. “We can’t give that out with that type of language. Sorry.”
Under Stress You Revert to the Way You Trained
In one course I conducted in a large metropolitan agency (which included veteran cops as well as dozens of recruits still in the Academy) I addressed this issue head on. A young female cadet in the front row caught my eye. I walked up to her and asked this question, “What if someone, in the middle of the night, in an alley, while you are all alone, walks up to you and yells in your face, ‘Fuck you, you cop bitch!’ Does that matter?
Quite stunned, the twenty-something recruit said, “No, we are supposed to ignore that type of language.”
My response to her was; “Well whoever is telling you that is wrong and may get you killed.”
I adamantly disagree with those that say foul language should never be used in training. Don’t misinterpret me. I don’t think an instructor should use this language out of context. They shouldn’t say things such as, “Now on this next f*ck*ng slide...” but to avoid using the language in proper context is simply nuts!
Communication is a Constant
My belief — and one of the foundational principles in my classes and book — is that communication is a constant. It is always, always happening. People are always communicating with others in their visual or auditory field. So we must be aware of what people are saying with their verbal and with their non-verbal signals.
In the case with the young female recruit, what is her would-be adversary saying to her when he shouts, ‘Fuck you, you cop bitch!’? Pretty obvious isn’t it? He is telling this officer that he doesn’t respect her, he doesn’t recognize her as a threat, he challenges her authority and he is ready to fight! He may be telling her that he is mentally unstable. All things she needs to understand, recognize, and maybe most importantly, feel.
In training you should actually use the bad language for the purposes of creating a realistic stress response in order for the recruit to gauge the reality of what would happen in a like circumstance. We should train for the reality in which we live and work.
You can try to ensure that no one gets insulted, upset or have their feelings hurt. Simply put that officer in a scenario and tell her that she is alone in an alley in the middle of the night. Then have the veteran officer playing the bad guy approach her, put a grim (not too mean) look on his face and in a very menacing (but not too menacing) tone yell at that top of his lungs:
“I need you to pretend that I am swearing at you right now! But since I can’t use foul language in the academy I need you to imagine a really, bad profanity that would upset you if were actually used! So pretend that I just said some kind of really, really bad curse word to you, but please understand my tone is not meant to offend! I am just acting and playing the role of a bad guy and only using this tone as part of that role! Thank you for your cooperation! If you have any emotional problems from this experience we have counselors waiting in the hallway!”
For more ten years I worked part-time at the Suburban Law Enforcement Academy (SLEA) in Glen Ellyn, Ill. I was in charge of the scenario-based training. We yelled, swore, pushed, shoved, and generally caused distress for the recruits. You know what? At least 99 percent of the recruits learned about real stress and it was the most memorable and impactful part of their academy experience, and it readied them for the reality of carrying a gun and dealing with the belligerent degenerates they will encounter out on the street.