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Doug  Wyllie

Doug Wyllie

Doug Wyllie has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips aimed at ensuring that police officers are safer and more successful on the streets. Doug is a Western Publishing Association “Maggie Award” winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column. He is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers’ Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).
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Profanity as Verbal Judo

Sometimes a four-letter word is the most effective weapon in your arsenal.

March 14, 2008  |  by - Also by this author

It's been said that profanity is a sign of a limited vocabulary. I beg to differ:

I see it as a sign of an unlimited vocabulary.

But while unchallenged as a means of consolidating frustration, agitation, and aggrieved thought processes, obscenities aren't for everyone. In dealing with hostiles, police adherents of "better to light a candle than curse the darkness" philosophies may shun four-letter words, opting instead to enlighten their quarry with 50,000 volts via a TASER.

And I say, more AC power to them.

However, I've seen numerous incidents wherein the timely drop of a four-letter word successfully mitigated a use of force. Time and again, this point would be driven home when the non-shot, non-sprayed, non-electrocuted, non-ass-kicked suspect in cuffs would say, "Damn, dude—you were pissed off! You scared me!"

Well, hell, dude – that's the idea.

Put yourself in the addled mindset of Sam Suspect: Confronted by a cop telling you to "drop the f***ing gun or I'll shoot," some of the thoughts you might entertain include

1) That cop is obviously thinking outside the box when it comes to service oriented policing;

2) He could use a "verbal judo" refresher course;

3) He is obviously less concerned about any political repercussions of his rhetoric than going home in one piece;

4) I have a very strong likelihood of having more than one orifice in my ass if VerboCop has to make good on his word.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, cussing isn't always a good thing. Indeed, some studies indicate that an escalated use of profanity can actually precipitate a use of force. A good rule of thumb: If one f-bomb doesn't do the job, a baker's dozen probably ain't gonna help, either. Indeed, backing off from the profanity and speaking slowly and calmly may actually convey a growing sense of control over the situation, as well as strike a chord with the suspect whose sense of masculinity might otherwise be challenged. (Or, sense of femininity for those differently constituted).

Prudence and decorum should govern one's decision as to when and where to use such language. Like most things in life, time and place is everything. Uttering curse words in the secretariat is probably not a good idea, unless having hostile workplace complaints filed on your ass is your idea of a good time; channeling Eminem in the classroom thing will probably get you 86'd out of the DARE program.

(Parenthetical thought: Although—again in the interest of full disclosure—given the sophisticated vocabulary of some second graders, it might be a case of tailoring to one's audience. As one Associated Press headline noted: "It's OK to Curse Cops, Court Says Teen's Conviction Overturned on First Amendment Grounds." In the body of the ensuing article, Randall Marshall, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, made the salient point, "Police officers are professionals, and they certainly ought to be able to withstand someone cursing at them." I say, "Try telling that to Human Resources, you b******!")

But when someone fixates on some vulgarity to the exclusion of whatever good has been accomplished by its use, they betray a skewed sense of priorities. The fact remains that many a cop has saved another's life by leaving zero ambiguity of his willingness to do whatever was necessary to get the job done. I remember reading years ago of a man who jumped from a bridge to drown himself, only to find himself confronted by a cop who yelled at him, "Look, you dumb son-of-a-*****, if you don't get your ass to shore, I'm gonna plug a cap in it." The man swam like a dolphin.

Yet we hear of a retired sheriff's lieutenant testifying against an officer who used profanity, condemning the man for not remaining "calm and assertive," as officers are trained to do. But as the Force Science News online newsletter asserts, a consultant for the officer's defense "took Webb's words out of the context of antiseptic Monday morning quarterbacking and put them in the context of his on-the-spot fears"—something that the mercenary consultant should have done, as well, in considering the officer's frame of mind prior to becoming involved in a shooting.

Look, it'd be nice if we could always be as gentile and polite as the cops in "Demolition Man." But then, we'd probably get our collective asses kicked like 'em, too.

Consider the reality of the inner city gangsta, a creature congenitally immune to civil overtures, with a tendency to regard extensions of respect as signs of weakness.

"Excuse me, sir. Would you mind adopting a sedentary respite at curbside?" certainly sounds professional enough. "Sit your ass down on the curb!" is far more apt to get our rag wearing li'l wannabe on the concrete.

Unfortunately, those sitting in ivory towers, and those who have spawned the illiterate little bastards that cops routinely deal with, don't cotton to what I characterize as just another form of cultural sensitivity being exercised.

So rather than backing the officer for taking a reasonable, prudent, and effective posture in some volatile field situation, they side with the offended illiterate and the creatures that spawned him. This is due to a number of factors, not the least of which is that they're often clueless.

Thus, the officer who operates from the position of strength might just be able to finish his tour of duty in one piece, but not without earning the occasional black mark. I guess it comes down to a question of priorities.

Don't get me wrong. I think it'd be great if cops used a G-rated vocabulary, 24/7.

It's just that I think things would probably go to shit if they did.

Comments (14)

Displaying 1 - 14 of 14

buford tune @ 3/14/2008 12:08 PM

I agree 100%, in most cases the suspect does not understand Sir or anything close to that and always trying to be politically correct will get you hurt or killed. TALK TO THEM IN WORDS THEY UNDERSTAND AND HEAR ALL THE TIME AND THEY WILL UNDERSTAND COMPLETELY!
I have seen cases where the liberal thinkers try to take the work "THUG" and turn it into something racial and a bad use of words. Supervisors, Media, the public and the liberals need to grow up and get into the real world where real things happen.
Most of our street cops are so worried about doing the wrong thing that they place no only theirselves but others in danger by trying to please everyone and being politically correct so they will not get in trouble.

Falcione @ 3/14/2008 4:14 PM

I nominate Dean Scoville for President!

baby huey @ 3/14/2008 6:22 PM

One of the best articles I have read in a long time! Very well articulated, and very true!

mtarte @ 3/15/2008 11:22 AM

Excellent article. A friend of mine, who is still an active-duty cop, suggested that agencies should incorporate "street language" into the force continuum with the idea when a cop drops an appropriate "F-Bomb", he'll be covered from the Nanny Crowd of the 4th estate and their lapdog politicians. I found what worked for me was getting wild-eyed, pointing my sidearm at the miscreant (when appropriate of course) and saying through clenched teeth, "don't make me kill again!" Only used it a few times, but the effect was amazing and the suspect as docile as a newborn lamb after that. No shots fired, no nightsticks used, no grappling needed. Just handcuffed and sat in the car. This is completely lost on academicians, city councils, CRBs and some police administrators who spent their time studying rather than patrolling the streets of their towns. Use it judiciously though. Like always, we always have those in our ranks that didn't get the memo about moderation and take ideas espoused like this and run it into the ground and ruin it for everyone else.

[email protected] @ 3/15/2008 1:28 PM

There is no substitute for a well placed word at the right time and place. Some are subtle some are harsh. Delivered with the appropriate body language, they will do the trick every time. If thugs can play dumb an get away with it, so can we... "Did I say that!" "Oh my gosh!" "My, my, my." Hey, that's life... Great article.

lzehnder @ 3/15/2008 4:47 PM

[email protected]%$*&%-a right!

entryman22 @ 3/15/2008 6:31 PM

I second that nomination. Very well written.

tpr1649 @ 3/16/2008 7:24 PM

I agree with the article and buford tune. I see it every night I work. My guys as well as myself are running scared due to IAB and the administration always looking for a way to stick it to us so much so that we are afraid to say anything out there. We have to be politically correct and aim to please everyone, all the while looking like a bunch of pansies. I'd love to tell Joe Scum off just once w/out worrying in the back of my mind if he will go and file a complaint against me. It may go unsubstantiated, but its still in my file. Let alone the memo, the paperwork and just the headache of being called in and having to defend myself...its a nightmare. I do what have to do but its not the way I WANT to do it.

henchman222 @ 3/17/2008 7:52 AM

Just a reminder to posters, please don't stereotype all command with the same broad brush strokes. Many of command have uttered those same words and would back officer’s use of those same words on occasion. The keys as have been pointed out are moderation and context. Just as in a use of force incident, is it reasonable based upon factors believed to be occurring, or known to the officer at the time?

Dale Anderson @ 3/17/2008 10:40 AM

I am not an officer.

I have tried to work with officers as a legal advisor for many years.

I'm not in the street, so maybe I shouldn't comment about this.

But I'm going to give a story from my history. In the early '70's, I was a beginning prosecutor. Officers constantly asked me question relating to how to avoid liability. I had no idea, so I asked our civil liability attorney what he would say to these officers in one sentence or less.

He said very bluntly that, in his opinion, the "f-word" had created more punitive damages than all other problems combined. The reason, he said was that most jurors are very old ladies who can't get out of jury duty -- and that they are immediately turned off -- and biased against the officers -- when they hear that the officers used the f-word.

Believe me, I'm not telling you NOT to use four-letter words. If it makes it safer in the field -- by all means -- but remember when the f-word is repeated in the courtroom -- it bounces around off the walls for about 3 hours -- and it probably (still) does prejudice the jury against the person who uses that word,

(That's also a good reason to include the fact that a suspect -- or defense witness -- used a four - letter word in your report.)

Best -


bluto1900 @ 3/17/2008 12:32 PM

As a union attorney representing an officer in a disciplinary hearing just last week I argued just this issue with a Chief and HR Director for two hours. The male half of a domestic dispute berated an officer for over twenty minutes with over one hundred f-bombs while the officer maintained his composure and tried to communicate with the male. It was obvious he was not getting through to the man. Finally the officer made one statement using the f-bomb that essentially summed up everything he had been trying to say for the last twenty minutes and the man instantly understood. The entire conversation was captured on the body mic. Still the officer's reprimand was upheld as being disrespectful to the public. Well, maybe next time ...

44sgt @ 3/18/2008 8:04 AM

Using F-bombs is an excellent, yet unwritten law enforcement tool. Being nice and respectful can only go on for so long before the officers are placed in a position of weakness. But everyone must remember that in our line of work there can be no empty threats. If you tell some one that unless they comply they are going to get an a$$ kicking you had better be ready to give an a$$ kicking or you will be viewed as a ......punk a$$ed [email protected] ! Be safe

Vatopcop07 @ 3/25/2008 1:18 PM


Great write up and more truer words could not be spoken. You have to communicate with the person you are talking to and sometimes strong verbal language is all they understand.

Thanks for the article and keep on writing reality instead of political correctness!

JJ Wilson

mrcolemanfra @ 4/2/2008 2:24 PM

Most of the comments have stated profanity's use when dealing with the more criminal element. There is however a different group that we have to deal with, the little rich kid that has never been told no. I have found that they are more than happy to throw a few bombs around. They also feel that anyone making less than 60 thousand a year is a second class citizen and not to be respected. These idiots will not only complain, but file a million dollar lawsuit for hurting their feelings. So again, time and place is everything.

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