Your 'offensive' police t-shirt: Would you say that out loud?

People who don't understand police work simply won't understand police humor


Numerous online retailers (Busted, Roadkill, Snorg, and Zazzle) have gotten filthy rich by producing garments adorned with slogans, messages, and pictures that deliberately offend certain people. These “irony-on” t-shirts are basically ubiquitous. 

Meanwhile, we’re all aware of t-shirts made by and for cops. These shirts are emblazoned with witticisms tailored to the peculiar sense of humor found only in law enforcement circles. 

The problem is, “cop humor” can cause civilians chills.

This shirt - originally designed to raise money for fallen officers - caused controversy back in 2011. (Video capture)
This shirt - originally designed to raise money for fallen officers - caused controversy back in 2011. (Video capture)

Quoting Hemingway
A friend of mine sent me a link to a Huffington Post article by Radley Balko entitled “What Cop T-Shirts Tell Us About Police Culture.”  

Balko’s article quotes from a Gothamist article, which in turn uses SocialistWorker.org as its original source for their story. 

All three articles have one image in common, allegedly of an officer who serves with the NYPD warrant squad in a shirt bearing one of Ernest Hemingway’s most famous quotes:

“There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.”

Hemingway is a great writer, and like so much of his writing, that line is brilliant. But it provides all too perfect an opportunity for the likes of SocialistWorker.org to snap a picture and post an article which perpetuates the negative (and false!) narrative that NYPD cops treat “many city residents as subhuman.” 

A Time and Place
As maddening as it is, there is a lesson to be taken from the article. It’s already an uphill battle to be seen in the eyes of the public as the good guys and good gals you are. 

So don’t make your PIO’s job even more difficult than it already is by wearing stuff that gives people who dislike police officers additional fodder for their anti-cop rhetoric. 

Think of the last time you laughed out loud at a fellow officer’s cynicism-laced one-liner. Would you say that joke out loud, in public, surrounded by civilians who have no understanding of your job? 

Probably not. 

In an otherwise jaded article, this passage holds a great deal of truth. 

“Policing is a high-stress job, and one that often puts officers in contact with some pretty awful things. Like other high-stress professions, and professions that encounter difficult subject matter — defense attorneys, medical examiners, emergency room doctors and nurses — cops often develop a morbid sense of humor. It’s a coping mechanism. But it's one thing to crack jokes inside the department, or at the bar after work. It’s quite another to openly advertise and promote a culture of abuse.” 

People who don’t understand police work simply won’t understand police humor. 

Just as there’s a time and a place for your best cop joke, the time and place for some of our favorite t-shirts might be the department workout room, or when you’re off duty and hanging around the house with friends. 

And there’s a much more practical consideration to the clothes you choose to wear off duty. Unless you carry off duty and maintain a constant condition-yellow situational awareness, wearing hats and t-shirts that proclaim to the world your law enforcement status is probably inviting more trouble than it’s worth.

About the author

Doug Wyllie is Editor at Large for PoliceOne, providing police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column, and has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips. Doug hosts the PoliceOne Podcast, Policing Matters, and is the host for PoliceOne Video interviews. Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

Contact Doug Wyllie

  1. Tags
  2. Officer Safety
  3. Patrol Issues

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

logo for print