My View: Police Need to Stop Using Profanity during Stops and Critical Incidents

STEVE DYKES/GETTY IMAGES

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

This past week I have had the opportunity to view an exceptional amount of police body-worn camera footage.  Following incidents like that in Ferguson and with Eric Garner, there was a big push to install body-worn cameras on officers.

While the hope was that the cameras themselves would deter unnecessary use of force, research has shown that not to be the case.  Watching the footage, you can see why.  They still have not created a system to ensure compliance of officers—and departments are reluctant to discipline cops who fail to deploy their recordings.

Moreover, it is often dark, the camera is easily inadvertently obstructed, and the camera shot itself is often in too tight to really determine what happened.  We need to continue their use, but reformers should think about more reliable ways to capture a complex and dynamic scene.

Here I discuss something seemingly more mundane, but still rather important.  The use of profanity by cops during critical scenes.

In one, they were screaming, “don’t f—ing move.”  Another, “keep your f—ing hands up.”  Another, “I’ll f—ing shoot you.”  Body camera footage has captured far worse.

From my perspective this jumped out at me—if you want a police officer to calm a situation down before it ends in the use of deadly force, shouldn’t they themselves attempt to de-escalate the situation?  And yet, yelling profanity, as we shall see from research, actually does the opposite—it escalates the situation.

Moreover, from my perspective, it conveys three important qualities.  First, the officer is highly emotional and operating from fear and adrenaline which is not what you want in a crisis, even though it is understandable in a way.  Second, it confirms in the minds of many that the police are out of control in moments of critical incident.  And finally, it is unprofessional.

When I asked Davis Chief Darren Pytel about it, he agreed.

“It pretty much does always sound unprofessional,” he said adding, “unfortunately it seems to come out when stress hits which is the worst time for it to come out.”

The public doesn’t like it.

A 2016 CATO Institute/ YouGov survey found that nearly 20 percent of Americans (that’s one in vie) report a police officer having used profanity with them.  Three of four believe they should be prohibited from using profanity or swearing at citizens while on the job.

Richard Johnson, with a PhD from the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati, writing a Research Brief for the Dolan Consulting Group, notes that this issue has been debated in law enforcement circles for years.

“Most law enforcement leaders argue the use of profanity with members of the public is unprofessional and should be avoided whenever possible,” he writes.

But not everyone agrees, as some argue “officers often need to use the “language of the street” in order to be understood and viewed as authoritative by some segments of the population.”

I think this misses the point, it is one thing to use it in casual conversations, but in a crisis situation screaming profanity is problematic.

Johnson notes that other research shows “the use of profanity generally has negative repercussions in various social settings.”

The issue of police use of profanity, though, has been unstudied, but research conducted by a team at West Virginia University, in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, examined the influence of profanity on public perception of police use of force.

“The findings revealed the participants were more likely to believe that the officer’s use of force was excessive in the scenario where the officer used profanity,” he writes.

Psychologist Christine Patton, writing in Psychologists in Public Service in 2018, wrote that prior studies conclusively “have established that the use of profanity in a professional capacity can lead to unfavorable or outright negative evaluations of performance.”

In her study, she found, “When profanity was used by police during a mock arrest scenario, participants were significantly more likely to negatively evaluate performance and to rate force as excessive.”

She writes, “Results indicated that participants who rated force as excessive had significantly less trust in police performance and in police use of force. That is, they doubted whether police agencies would fairly investigate citizen use of force complaints, felt police did not always choose the appropriate amount of force during an arrest, and did not believe police treated members of the public with respect or effectively reduced crime in their neighborhoods.”

These findings make a lot of sense.  It is basically demeanor evidence.  If someone is calm, in control and professional, the viewing public is more likely to see the officer in control, acting professionally, and so when they use force, it is far more likely to be seen as legitimate.

Whereas if they are screaming profanity and issuing threats, it feeds into a perception that police are operating on adrenaline and are out of control at best—and at worst confirming the fears of many that police are simply out to get segments of society.

This is illustrated in a 2012 incident in Davis where two UC Davis students were tased and the officer was ultimately found not to have used improper force, but instead used unprofessional language.

Former Chief Landy Black in a report released in 2019 through SB 1421 writes: “Officer Benson begins his interactions with the people he encountered at the wrong end of the escalation/de-escalation continuum. Without provocation, the first words out of Officer Benson’s mouth are rude and uncivil; issuing orders in a manner and tone that could reasonably be expected to cause most recipients to recoil and act indignant. And Officer Benson ultimately reaped the crop he’d sown.”

Chief Black writes: “Threats of arrest and continuing to use harsh, uncivil, unprofessional language—telling (him) to ‘Shut up!’ for instance—further did nothing to deescalate tensions…his, other officers, suspects, or members of the public.”

What you see in a lot of these incidents is that the situation escalates to the point where the use of force becomes authorized, but better de-escalation techniques could probably have avoided the use of force in the first place.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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21 Comments

  1. Keith Olsen

    Sir, while I’m out here trying to control the riot can I ask you nicely not throw that brick at me or my fellow officers, it might harm someone.  Thank you very much for for your consideration.

  2. PhilColeman

    I’ve been party to many discussions on this particular topic, from the law enforcement perspective.

    For those who can only be described as incredibly naive, the language that you find offensive is the argot of the street in every urban area in America. This language is infectious and absorbed then expressed by everyone in a highly stressful situation. Why? Because it works!

    To say that police unilaterally should not use profane-laced street language in stressful situations is folly. The exception is “stress situations,” swearing while doing routine police activities such as traffic enforcement or mediating disputes is prohibited in almost every law enforcement agency. Making urgent commands spiced with profanity in combat situations is actually effective in defusing the hazard.

    Where I will agree with the unpleasantness of the body cam videos is the volume. Far more effective is a command with sprinkled expletives that’s slow, measured, and low volume. Think of a Clint Eastwood movie. That tactic is something that should be taught in every police academy in the country.

     

     

    1. Bill Marshall

       the language that you find offensive is the argot of the street in every urban area in America.

      And, many suburban and rural areas…

      Phil speaks truth… to a certain extent, polite/respectful language to respond to much more coarse language, is akin to bringing a knife to a gunfight… can easily demonstrate weakness.

      Making urgent commands spiced with profanity in combat situations is actually effective in defusing the hazard.

      Using profanity can also be a ‘release’, lowering the anxiety in one’s self… ‘you got it out!’.  less likely to feel a need to escalate/retaliate, more violently…

      It can (and often is) be a form of non-lethal ‘parrying’… it may be counter-intuitive, but it is real… particularly if ‘started’ by another… this isn’t a “Mr Rogers” world… Phil clarifies,

      swearing while doing routine police activities such as traffic enforcement or mediating disputes is prohibited in almost every law enforcement agency. 

      As it should be… and subject to serious disciplinary action…

      Proportionality…

      Those who doubt, only need to review the video of the Inyo Co incident… listen carefully… that is not to say that the PD was ‘righteous’… far from… [we still do not know the drug/alcohol/MH parameters of the man approached by the PD]… using profanity with someone heavily “influenced” can indeed escalate things… but in those cases, other behaviors will likely escalate things as much or more, in any event.

      The dog was shot and killed, for trying to ‘stop the escalation’… mainly attacking the Taser wires, the baton… we know how well that worked out for the dog.

      Profanity can be a ‘tool’… well used in some situations, poorly used in others… it can get someone’s attention, where they know the other is ‘serious’, and give each other the opportunity to “cool their jets”…

      And yes, I am fully aware that no one will agree… but I’ve experienced it… several times, I have ‘neutralized’ and toned down a stronger opponent because of “words”… profane or otherwise…

    2. David Greenwald

      One thing of note here, while I always appreciate hearing Phil’s perspective, his conversations on this subject are likely at least twenty years old. There has been a lot understanding about the need for de-escalation techniques since that time and policing as a whole is starting to rapidly change.

      1. Alan Miller

        his conversations on this subject are likely at least twenty years old

        how trivial and insulting.  Typical progressive attitude – dismiss the wisdom of experience.

        1. David Greenwald

          Alan – I thought you were talking about your own comments 95 percent of the time substituting conservative for progressive, of course.

          My comment was not meant to be insulting to Phil’s knowledge, but rather to express how much things have changed. In 2014, President Obama appointed a task force to develop what became the 21st Century Policing Guide. That report, issued in May 2015 heavily changed how police are changed.

          The big focus has been on the use of de-escalation. Below is the POST training guide on de-escalation.

          https://post.ca.gov/Portals/0/post_docs/publications/DeEscalation.pdf

          In that guide: “The use of profanity with members of the public by law enforcement has been debated for years. Many law enforcement leaders contend that profanity is unprofessional and should not be used, as it is conduct that is unbecoming an officer. Profanity used toward an individual may be heard by other uninvolved parties and such language might cast a poor image of the
          officers and the organization or profession. An officer who uses profanity might be viewed as angry, hostile, unprofessional, or out of control. Profanity, used for compliance or control, might not have the desired result; causing the situation to escalate and its recipient to become confrontational or combative.”

          Further: “If an officer chooses to use profanity, it should be used tactically, sparingly, within department protocols, if any, and responsibly to achieve a specific desired result.”

          They continue: “Profanity should be applied with consideration to volume, location, and proximity to others. Inappropriate profanity that is vulgar or gratuitous is not conducive with de-escalation efforts and it does not look or sound professional when used by uniformed officers. Profanity sounds even worse when listened to in a video or audio recording by a third-party, such as a jury, the media, or the Chief of Police, especially when it is after the fact and without context. The belief that profanity or “street language” is sometimes needed to be effective should be carefully weighed against the likelihood that members of the public hearing officers use profanity may view them as unprofessional or illegitimate.”

          What I am referring to and heard on the body worn camera videos is escalating not deescalating. And it’s not tactical.

          And of course your comment like 95 percent of your comments is free of any content, you just snipe.

        2. Alan Miller

          I thought you were talking about your own comments 95 percent of the time substituting conservative for progressive, of course.

          What does that even mean?  Is that just the ‘adult’ form of ‘I know you are but what am I’ ?

          And of course your comment like 95 percent of your comments is free of any content, you just snipe.

          Is that 95% based on science?

          The last few weeks ‘95%’ of your comments aimed at those you disagree with — either what they say or how they say it — is to be dismissive of them.  Dismissivism is de-humanizing, just like racism.

  3. Dave Hart

    Where I will agree with the unpleasantness of the body cam videos is the volume. Far more effective is a command with sprinkled expletives that’s slow, measured, and low volume. Think of a Clint Eastwood movie. That tactic is something that should be taught in every police academy in the country.

    Well said and while it sounds almost trivial, modulating and moderating speech is probably the very best first step in training police.  It helps the police get control of themselves if it is a centerpiece of training that is taken seriously and as an ongoing criteria for officer assessment and evaluation.  I am reminded of chairing a meeting of 1,200 delegates and how my predecessor would bang the gavel and after a minute of unsuccessful attempts to establish order, began yelling himself and, yes, using profanity.  It always made things worse.  When I found myself in the middle of a similar situation I was advised by a former teacher to do the opposite and it worked like waving a magic wand.  “Shhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” at a very low volume into the microphone, then “thank you so much, let’s get started” in a very low voice.

    1. Ron Oertel

      I was initially thinking that profanity has no place in police work, but I “frickn” love many of Clint Eastwood’s lines.

      Of course, there’s Dirty Harry (especially the original).  “Do you feel lucky”?

      But there’s also this, that I recently re-discovered:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Ahn7dSjid4

      Of course, one could say that this could have been avoided, as well. Regardless, it’s amusing.

      Not so much of a fan of, “Go ahead, make my day”.  (Too heavy-handed/obvious.)

    2. Ron Oertel

      Also saw this “cameo” recently, though I believe it’s another actor voicing the lines.  Note the “Oscars” in the golf cart:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=de_Dik7HT6E

      Pretty good movie, for those who haven’t seen it.

      As long as Clint Eastwood isn’t addressing comments to an “empty chair”, he seems to command a fair amount of respect across the political spectrum. Though honestly, I understood what he was trying to accomplish with that, as well.

    3. Keith Olsen

      When I found myself in the middle of a similar situation I was advised by a former teacher to do the opposite and it worked like waving a magic wand.  “Shhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” at a very low volume into the microphone, then “thank you so much, let’s get started” in a very low voice.

      Apples to oranges comparison, a cop’s work is far different than lecturing a crowd.

      1. Bill Marshall

        Apples to oranges comparison, a cop’s work is far different than lecturing a crowd.

        Feel a need to correct you Keith O… more like apples to aardvarks comparison… meant as a friendly correction…

        The Inyo County thread comes to mind…

  4. Ron Oertel

    I think it would be interesting if David wrote an article on Clint Eastwood movies, in regard to how they’re viewed in today’s light.

    For those who remember Siskel and Ebert, they had some interesting thoughts regarding Dirty Harry movies, even back-in-the-day.

    As I recall, Ebert equated it with fascism, while Siskel viewed him as, “judge, jury, and executioner”.  (Basing this on memory, so not sure of accuracy.)  In any case, one of the climaxes regarding that conflict occurred in the old Kezar stadium, in San Francisco.  Shortly after the S.F. 49ers stopped playing there, I understand.

    In many ways, those movies are a mirror of today’s debates, as well.

    The original Dirty Harry had to do with Miranda rights vs, “justice” and protection of the innocent, etc.

    My guess is that today’s “social justice warriors” are more on the side that Ebert was on. But that ultimately, society at large may be on “Siskel’s” side.

     

      1. Ron Oertel

        According to the author, was it “constitutional” before that time?  🙂

        I’m out of comments for the day (in this article), but would look forward to an article regarding this.  (Semi-seriously.)

         

  5. Ron Oertel

    Given that they’re both from the same city, how might Dirty Harry get-along with Chesa Boudin?

    Now that’s something I’d watch, for sure.

     

  6. Alan Miller

    This piece is among the most humorous if not divided between domestic and combative situations.  Are people who sited the cops as swearing talking about in a normal conversation, or while they are under attack?  Of course cops shouldn’t approach people and swear at them, and de-escalation rarely includes profanity.  But in the case of the closed Chevron, the guy ran AT them despite their telling him to stop, he was resisting them and grabbing at their tools, and his dog was attacking them.  How about a small-town blogger being attacked by dog and human, does the blogger not get to say F? 

    I’ll agree before one is in a situation with violence, but who the F can speak softly while being attacked and bitten?  Had you divided it up between approach-interaction/public-service and being attacked by dogs and people and made a clear distinction, fine.  But whereas you might say a blogger or a city councilperson or a plant salesman should not use profanity, those who engage with criminals in hand-to-hand combat while in that mode mode should get a green to drop some F-bombs, S-bombs and even when warranted MFer-bombs, even if one has not actually F’d an M. 

    What wouldn’t be OK is dropping racial slurs even in the heat of a fight.  But while I am a huge fan of NVC (nonviolant communication) and de-escalation techniques, the perps don’t always react to that well or they strike first – and there isn’t a human being on earth that isn’t going to be filled with adrenaline, and expecting perfection of language of our cops in such a situation is to de-humanize them. 

    Perhaps what we need is not just de-escalation training, but training of cops of how to deal with their own reactions when filled with adrenaline – there must be techniques to channel that energy in constructive rather than destructive ways – and maybe that’s already part of the training – but it seems to me a few F and S bombs are possibly constructive outlets in such situations.

    1. David Greenwald

      Not sure why this is humorous when you have laid out some serious issues and questions about the best way to handle such situations. Nor am I sure how this article is humorous given that it pulls research from POST, the 20th Century POlicing, and academic research on this material.

      Even the language from POST that I cited above shows there are gray areas.

      I think on your final paragraph, part of the key handling stressful situations is to manage the emotions. Is that difficult? Of course. But that is why they are supposed to train to handle those. One of the big problems as critics has pointed out – you really don’t get a lot of de-escalation training other than in the academy and even then it is dwarfed by tactics and use of force techniques. I think that is a huge problem here.

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