When police use profanity, it poisons the relationship with the public

A 2017 poll found that one in five Americans has been cursed at by a cop. That means, at the very least, that 20% of Americans were treated disrespectfully and given cause to dislike and suspect the police.

SHARE When police use profanity, it poisons the relationship with the public
Demonstrators protest the death of Tyre Nichols on January 28, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee. The release of a video depicting the fatal beating of Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, sparked protests in cities throughout the country. Nichols was violently beaten for three minutes and killed by Memphis police officers earlier this month after a traffic stop. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775930043

Demonstrators protest the death of Tyre Nichols on January 28, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee. Obviously, in the Nichols case, the profanity was the least of the offenses the cops (and others) committed, but it seems that some police lapse into profanity with citizens regularly, columnist Mona Charen writes.

Getty

Police reform is hard. In the wake of the shameful beating death of Tyre Nichols, we’ve seen a number of promising reform ideas, including dramatically increasing training and disempowering police unions, both of which I support. But resources are finite, special interests are powerful, and inertia always stands in the path of reform like an enormous boulder in the road.

I’d like to propose my own modest idea that will not cost a dime, will not require any changes in law and can be implemented immediately: Let’s police the language police use.

When the “Scorpion” unit pulled Nichols over, almost the first thing they did was to curse at him. Now, if the ex-officers’ story is true (and there is every reason to doubt it), the offense for which Nichols was pulled over was reckless driving. Why is profanity remotely called for in that situation? In a society as gun-saturated as ours, I can understand an order like “let me see your hands,” or if the police are planning a roadside sobriety check, a request to “step out of the car.” But there is no reason that both of those orders cannot be preceded by “sir” or “please” or both.

Our judicial system is founded on the principle of innocent until proven guilty. Yet our police interactions with citizens too often seem grounded in the opposite assumption.

Obviously, in the Nichols case, the profanity was the least of the offenses the cops (and others) committed, but it seems that some police lapse into profanity with citizens regularly. Some departments actually encourage cursing as a way of asserting control. They call it “tactical language.” A 2017 poll found that one in five Americans has been cursed at by a cop. That means, at the very least, that 20% of Americans were treated disrespectfully and given cause to dislike and suspect the police. We don’t get cursed at by firefighters or clerks at the Department of Motor Vehicles or sanitation workers. And if we were, we’d be outraged.

Columnists bug

Columnists


In-depth political coverage, sports analysis, entertainment reviews and cultural commentary.

Sure, police find themselves in situations that those other public employees do not usually face, and it would be unreasonable to demand that in tense encounters with violent suspects, police use only language approved in the Boy Scout manual.

But profanity is a form of aggression, and if police initiate the use of foul language, they become the belligerents. That, in turn, can provoke a heated reaction from an individual (especially if that person has alcohol, or worse, testosterone coursing through his veins). It is too much to ask that in normal interactions, police should not verbally assault the people they are paid to protect and to serve? Shouldn’t the template be one that assumes most people are law-abiding and the police are there to ensure everyone’s safety — including the person who might have been driving recklessly? Is it crazy to imagine a scenario in which police say, “Sir, you were driving unsafely. We’re issuing you a ticket.” Or if the person seems disoriented, “Ma’am, you were driving erratically. Is there someone you can call to drive you home?”

Of course, police don’t live in a vacuum. They live in a society that has normalized obscenity and profanity. Salty language is so common now that its absence is often more notable than its presence. In certain contexts, swear words can be shrugged off, but in others, they raise hackles.

Back to police. It isn’t just a matter of decent manners. Police should control their tongues out of respect for the people they serve, and also because it will be better for them. Research supports the idea that when police use profanity, they are more likely to be perceived as “lacking self-control.” A study designed by West Virginia University in cooperation with the State Police Academy made videos of two traffic stop scenarios featuring people who refused to comply with police directions. The two scenarios were identical except police used profanity in the first scenario and did not in the second.

The study found that the use of profanity caused people to rate the interaction as significantly more negative and intense, and people were more likely to consider the police guilty of excessive use of force for the profanity alone.

This can change. Mayors, police commissioners and other local officials can implement a courtesy policy for their police departments. They can do this tomorrow. No new laws are needed. No new funds required. Explain it this way: Our job is to keep the peace. Foul language degrades and angers. Therefore, we will set a good example of politeness, self-control and respect.

Mona Charen is policy editor of The Bulwark and host of the “Beg to Differ” podcast.

The Sun-Times welcomes letters to the editor and op-eds. See our guidelines.

The Latest
‘‘I don’t like the way the play was called,’’ Grifol said before the Sox’ 6-4 loss Friday to the Orioles.
“And that’s on getting a win in a packed arena, not just cause of one player on our charter flight,” Reese shared in a since-deleted post on X, formerly Twitter.
Notes: Lefty Drew Smyly likely will be activated this weekend in St. Louis.
Imanaga originally was scheduled to pitch Friday, but when the game was postponed, the Cubs pushed his start to the next series in Milwaukee.
While revenue sore spots were a focal point of many meetings among top Democrats, the governor’s office and stakeholders, it appears the governor is poised to get the revenue he had sought in his own budget proposal, with some concessions and some additions.