Police Should Chill the F**k Out
Police reform is hard. Not that there’s any shortage of smart proposals. 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, the world being what it is, resources are finite, special interests are powerful, and inertia always stands in the path of reform like an enormous boulder in the road.
But 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 percent 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.
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 the citizen (especially if said citizen has alcohol, or, worse, testosterone coursing through his veins). Is it too much to ask that in normal interactions with citizens, 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. In 1972, comedian George Carlin delivered a famous riff about the “seven words you can’t say on TV.” By 2020, the president of the United States was saying some of them in the East Room. And while Trump was the first to introduce BS (in more ways than one) to public statements from the White House, his successor had used the term “BFD” (spelled out) when, as vice president, he congratulated President Obama on the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
Salty language is so common now that its absence is often more notable than its presence. And yet, while some podcasters, writers, and broadcasters (I will not name names) seem unfamiliar with any intensifier that doesn’t start with F, the words have not been tamed. In certain contexts they can be shrugged off, but in others, say, when used in a first encounter with someone you don’t know, they raise hackles. They are—and I know I’ll be accused of pearl clutching for writing this—offensive.
This brings us back to the police. This 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. Their potty mouths can reduce public perceptions of police fairness. There is research supporting the supposition 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 that in the first one, police used profanity and in the second they did not. When these two videos were shown to 640 people, they found that the use of profanity caused people to rate the interaction as significantly more negative and intense. They also found that citizens were more likely to consider the police guilty of excessive use of force for the profanity alone.
Across the political spectrum, 77 percent of Americans (including high percentages of both Democrats and Republicans) believe police should not curse. Unsurprisingly, men were twice as likely as women to report that police swore at them (23 percent versus 12 percent) and young people more commonly experience this (22 percent) than those over 55 (13 percent). Blacks had more negative experiences (26 percent) than whites (15 percent) or Hispanics (22 percent).
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. They can 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.