Cussing Cops Poison Race Relations
This demeaning show of dominance needs to be severely penalized
A recent documentary on the George Floyd incident includes body cam footage largely unseen by the American public until now. There are some important revelations in this footage that I suspect will enter national discussion gradually. What first struck me was that Officer Thomas Lane, who approached Floyd sitting in his car, addressed him with profanity (specifically, the word “fuck”) very freely. This is a problem endemic to the way cops in the United States speak to people they detain—it goes some way towards explaining what happened with Floyd, as well as countless other incidents—and it needs to be penalized.
Floyd, likely because of the drugs in his system, was confused and anxious about what was happening and resisted putting his hands up. Lane’s response to this was to issue commands, twice using the word “fuck.” One has reason to assume that this is the way Lane addressed people regularly in cases of conflict and that he was not alone on the force in this.
It is in fact documented that it is common for cops to talk to people they detain in this way. Legal literature includes transcripts of encounters in which the officers’ profanity fairly drips off of the page, redolent of disrespect and diminishment. Precincts across the nation do, in fact, have rules against profanity on the job. However, they are barely enforced if at all, as evidenced by behavior like Lane’s. This casual cursing at people is not a mere matter of the informality of our times and it must stop. It is a much more serious matter than it may seem.
Namely, it only helps to poison our national discourse on race. A keystone lesson I have learned in my now 25 years of commentary on race issues is that the main sticking point in the debate, what primarily drives it, what would turn us around a corner in its absence, is the sense of cops as black people’s enemy. Not microaggressions, not how many black people win Oscars, not whether it’s fair to make black people take standardized tests, but the cops. That’s what’s out there on the ground, passed on from generation to generation.
Of course, the main concern in this regard is with shooting deaths. However, while murder by cops—whether of black or other people—happens way too often, it is still rare in the grand scheme of things. A black person is vastly more likely to die at the hands of a fellow black person than a white one, cop or not, for example. However, black people more commonly experience police officers using excessive force than whites do. Gratuitous use of profanity is of a class with this use of force in shaping perceptions of the cops as menaces rather than public servants.
Profanity can be a form of hostility. To be sure, I am skeptical of claims that injurious words always constitute “trauma” (just as I am that “silence is violence”). However, profanity can still be a game changer. In interactions with cops it influences public perception. One study (of many similar) showed that, when presented with a silent video of a person detained by a police officer with captions in which the officers’ profanity was left out, observers judged the interaction as more reasonable than when the profanity was included in the captions. Other studies similarly document that, when it comes to the cops, profanity matters—profoundly influencing how citizens view their interactions with police.
For example, I actually have never been detained by a police officer except for things like minor traffic violations, where I have no friction to report. However, if an officer detained me and the F-word came into play, then that very second would be determinative in how I came away feeling about the incident. The officer cussing at me would come off as someone with authority (and a weapon) feeling entitled to address me however they chose. It would also be a reminder of the weapon. It would be both hostile and demeaning. The schoolyard bully should not be the model for officers’ behavior.
On the other hand, we must not fall for a crude, blanket notion that police officers must never be caught in a recording using, say, the word “fuck” on the job for any reason. This would operate upon an almost willfully uninformed sense of how language actually works. Any word remotely interesting likely has a lot of meanings.
Think of something as simple as the word “go”: we think of it as referring to motion, but we also talk about how a song goes, ask when in the game we get to “go,” and use “and she goes…” to refer to speech rather than locomotion. Words often have several meanings, such as the N-word, used both as a slur and among black people to mean “buddy.”
Fuck—subject of one whole study on police interactions since it seems so fertile within them—has many meanings and functions. Rather a bouquet of them, in fact. It can be a passing, frustrated interjection, in the function of the Peanuts gang’s “Rats.” It can signal joy of a demotic flavor, a lexical kind of camaraderie, as when then-Vice President Biden used it when Obamacare was signed into the books.
We must also allow that speech norms are less formal than they once were. It's safe to say that, now, most people use four-letter words in work settings in ways that would have been unthinkable in the era of fedoras, camisoles, lawsuits over what got sent through the mail, and married couples sleeping in twin beds on television. We can’t penalize police officers for being caught ever using profanity for any reason on the job.
Yet the issue here is not especially complex or subtle. In interactions with the public, police officers should not use profanity in ways that connote hostility, impatience, or dominance. More economically, the idea is that they should not use it in ways that are mean.
I suspect that this would not lead us into the quagmire of arbitrary evaluations such as Justice Potter Stewart’s famously vague verdict on obscenity that “I know it when I see it.” As human beings of normal cognitive ability living in the same real world, we know the difference between profanity used by a warmly grinning Veep as a verbal pat on the back and profanity used by a cop trying to jolt a detainee into compliance with an “It’s on!” demonstration of dominance. The gray zone between these is something of an abstraction, which would muddy things rather seldom.
Cops shouldn’t be out there cussing at people for sport. It should be classified not as a genuflective no-no tucked away in the books but as a breach of public responsibility subject to fining or even brief suspension. Specifically, police officers should not address people they detain with the words “damn,” “shit,” “hell,” “fuck” or variations thereon. This is not mere 1950’s-style primness: cursing can be a valuable way of letting off steam, bonding with others, and fostering humor—it can be a kind of articulateness. But it has no place in interactions between members of the public and people with weapons.
Anything that could help defuse a general conception of our police officers as “pigs” is something that could help knit us together more as a nation and prepare the ground for the color blindness so many hope we can embrace.
This essay was originally printed in Persuasion, The UnPopulist’s editorial partner