Watch Their Hands, Your Partner’s Six and Your Language

Watch Their Hands, Your Partner’s Six and Your Language

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

A Cincinnati Police Officer was recently fired for using the N-word on duty and recorded on her body-worn camera in a moment of frustration. She may appeal the decision, but in these volatile times, the firing is likely to be upheld.

A recent article in Sports Illustrated reports that NBA basketball players are being more frequently fined for using foul language on the court, especially when directed toward the crowd. The article quotes research that indicates a lot of people are not bothered by coarse language, but the league wants to create a better image that includes more gentlemanly conduct by its players.

Racial epithets and insults are a special category of bad language. These derogatory remarks used in a way that uses race to assign malignant characteristics to a person are hurtful and incite anger or even rage. Ordinary swearing is scaled well below racial slurs on the offense scale according to Professor Ben Bergen, professor of cognitive science at UC San Diego. In Bergen’s survey of students – typically younger, more liberal, and less religious than the general population – the “F” word may not even break the top ten of bad words and the “S” word ranks at the bottom of the top fifty, if that.

Other research and commentary claim that cursing can increase the effectiveness of an argument, reduce feelings of pain, and that even chimpanzees do it. Mark Twain opined that Americans were the best at it. “When it comes down to pure ornamental cursing, the native American is gifted above the sons of men.” One count claims that Americans say 80-90 curse words a day. The emotional relief reportedly provided by swearing even has a scientific word: Lalochezia.

Should police officers be allowed the benefits of lalochezia? After all, words have meaning to the hearer. A citizen hearing a police officer swear, especially at another citizen, appears to take offense. The citizen may suffer a moral injury, cognitive dissonance, and disappointment that the perception held by most that police officers should be better than that. With the arrival of nearly constant video surveillance of police officers as they go through their day, the pressure of always having to say the right thing and perform flawlessly is an impossible burden.

But words do have meaning. When directed at another person in anger or frustration the hearer, especially in an already tense situation, can feel deeply insulted. They can also become very aware of the seriousness of the officer. They might even feel relieved that the officer is human and relates to them at a basic level.

Sensibilities have changed since the movie censors allowed the word damn to be in Gone With the Wind. There are no boundaries in today’s television entertainment that includes streaming of non-network media, and fewer even in the archaic concept of prime time designed to the suitability of the whole family watching together.

One of the ways that police officers can maintain the aura of professionalism is still the absence of routine foul language. Most police agencies take complaints of cursing by officers with a degree of seriousness and maintain a policy, whether formal or by generally accepted practice, of disciplining officers for their speech as well as their conduct with the public. It is often argued by officers that swearing has a certain utility, but it is still something that juries may not want to hear. One could argue that the loud and stern command to an arrestee to get on the ground is made no more effective by saying get on the F-ing ground, but it does seem to punctuate the command.

One could hardly commend the use of swearing. Discipline in moments of anger and frustration is a hallmark of self-control that should be practiced by a police officer. It is a good practice to rehearse silence or less offensive language to be used when ordinary citizens would show no such restraint. Racial terms and disrespect have no place in the officer’s communication toolbox. But a little grace to officers who are in tense moments and let slip some salty language is not an unreasonable ask of the public and supervisors. As Mark Twain advised, “When angry count four; when very angry, swear.”