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Randy Sutton is a 33-year law enforcement veteran, a trainer, and the national spokesman for The American Council on Public Safety. He served 10 years with the Princeton (N.J.) Police Department and 23 years with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, retiring at the rank of lieutenant. He is an author who has published multiple books on law enforcement.

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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.

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