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Columns : In My Sights

You Said What?

If you say a taboo word, own up to it, but also explain the emotional situation that caused you to use it.

March 12, 2013  |  by Dave Smith - Also by this author

Illustration by Sequoia Blankenship.
Illustration by Sequoia Blankenship.

One of the first things that becomes apparent when I review dash cam footage of incidents is how much vulgarity spurts out of our little brains under stress. It has long been said the last two words on the black box recorder from crashed aircraft are "Oh shit!" and after observing hundreds of high stress moments on video, I know crime fighters blurt out their fair share of expletives. Why? I mean, we know it looks bad, is often against policy, and can certainly make the courtroom an embarrassing place to testify, so why do we do it?

According to Harvard's Dr. Steven Pinker, taboo words are linked deep inside our brains, closer to our emotional centers than to our rational language centers. Therefore these words have remarkable emotional power in conversation. You can't read or hear one of these words—usually related to bodily functions, or religious images or figures—without an emotional response of some kind, whether negative or just intense.

The existence of taboo words is universal, but ironically the words themselves are very culturally specific. Someone swearing in Britain may elicit a very slight response from someone listening in America and vice versa. But every language and culture has these words, these tools that serve many purposes, from conveying emphasis, to anger, to horror.

I myself, gentleman to the end, have blurted out a spontaneous vulgarity (or 10) in the heat of the moment, or in terror. It seems we swear in a variety of situations and my advice is to never deny the words, but rather explain the emotion.

Did you use a taboo word that had no other reason to be in a sentence than to offend? No, you told the subject to get on the "f—king ground" not because the ground was actually doing anything but lying there, but rather because your pucker factor was climbing into the high nineties and you wanted to give a sense of sincerity and intensity to your sentence. If the good doctor is right, the greater your anxiety and stress the more intense the taboo word might be for you. Granted, intensity is in the eye of the beholder, just as it is between cultures.

In the calm tranquility of an office, a report of an officer telling a fellow to copulate with himself as he struggled for the officer's gun might not capture the true emotion of a crisis, while those at the scene might not have registered any words at all, just the intense emotions of the conflict, the emotion the words both triggered and reflected.

In fact, imagine a scene where two officers have suddenly been confronted by a knife-wielding fellow in a bar. "You brigand, drop thy blade!" will not be found in the report or memories of those present since no one would say it. It carries no weight, no intensity, no emotion, in what is a remarkably intense moment. This is a situation where language gives you the tools to have your lizard brain talk to his lizard brain in a way that makes it plain that he doesn't get to stab anyone, or even keep his friggin' knife. See, I added "friggin'" and look how much more intense the sentence was.

So we all know swearing has a place, but when and where? When we talk to each other we often use expletives freely, or maybe not at all, depending on the subject, the location, or our mood. On the job we know we should project a professional demeanor, and regionally the standards of what is taboo and what isn't changes; but if the situation is so intense, the pucker factor so great, that your emotional brain drops an f-bomb or two or an Adam Henry or three, don't deny it; describe it.

In court, explain how you felt, the fear, the intensity, the emotion of a sudden confrontation, a terrifying moment when a drunk driver skids by only a few inches from you, causing an utterance that would make a sailor blush.

If you are a supervisor, explain to your people that even if you can't explain an expletive enough to justify it, lying about it will be far worse. This is just one of those times when you have to simply take your medicine.

My wife, the Sarge, once took a day off for using a taboo word. She said it, she confessed it, and she took her time, but she still talks like she was the one in the Navy, not our son. We have some powerful words that let us express ourselves at the deepest emotional level … we just need to do it carefully.

Dave Smith is an internationally recognized law enforcement trainer and is the creator of "JD Buck Savage." You can follow Buck on Twitter at @thebucksavage

Comments (13)

Displaying 1 - 13 of 13

DPB @ 3/14/2013 6:33 PM

Ain't that the [email protected]#kin Truth!!!

Arby @ 3/15/2013 5:12 AM

Dave, I've been a fan since we wrote our reports on stone tablets, (our agency was a little behind the times)! I've always enjoyed the way you use humor to make a serious point and this article is no different. In my experience viewing numerous dash-cams and Taser videos, the videos have ALWAYS cleared the officer of whatever they were being accused of and I do mean every single time. Now, they sometimes showed the officer dropping a word or sentence or two, but the emotion of the moment was also evident. You made the important point - own up to it and explain why. If your why isn't good enough, own up to that and take your medicine. Mainly, I just wanted to say, "thanks." Thanks for all you've done for the profession and all you continue to do. Well done, sir!

Lt Dan @ 3/15/2013 8:01 AM

You can actually do it, get away with it, and not get days off if you explain the reason and have a semi-intelligent supervisor....or dumb a$$ supervisor as was this case. Picture a felony traffic stop conducted in a parking lot of a drug store because that was where the bad guys pulled into after realizing I was following them but hadn't turned on the lights. The lady who wanted to ask me directions (wheel gun in hand) as I was being approached by two suspects from either side of the uhaul truck was "Horrified at the abusive and obscene way I told her to 'remove herself from my presence'". One bad guy plead to 10 years mandatory for possession of burglary tools. 1 atta-boy, no oh sh*t. A good day from decades ago.

Lt Dan @ 3/15/2013 8:01 AM

You can actually do it, get away with it, and not get days off if you explain the reason and have a semi-intelligent supervisor....or dumb a$$ supervisor as was this case. Picture a felony traffic stop conducted in a parking lot of a drug store because that was where the bad guys pulled into after realizing I was following them but hadn't turned on the lights. The lady who wanted to ask me directions (wheel gun in hand) as I was being approached by two suspects from either side of the uhaul truck was "Horrified at the abusive and obscene way I told her to 'remove herself from my presence'". One bad guy plead to 10 years mandatory for possession of burglary tools. 1 atta-boy, no oh sh*t. A good day from decades ago.

Lt. Sal @ 3/15/2013 8:30 AM

In my line of work I have done many interviews, backgrounds and some public speaking. In many of these cases I apologize before hand that I may curse a tad. Depending on the audience I can keep it well under control, but have always explained that the use of the "F" work was to give the following word more Umph. being I grew up in an NY Italian household many words had no effect on us. Itwas common place to hear "Pass the FN salt." When I have viewed police videos and heard them curse, it never bothers me and you can clearly see it was in the moment. I do mind my and others manners when in the public. When there is a comfort zone you may be able to speak more freely, but you really need to be sure of your comapany. We are and will ever be held to a higher standard, but as most forget, we are human. I thought the article was very good and relevant. To all, stay safe.

Siggy314 @ 3/15/2013 1:14 PM

Oh boy does this sound familiar. I was in a car chase with a murder suspect. It went on for quite a while. During the chase I made a few comments that were recorded for prosperity. The only thing I can say is in the heat of the pursuit you never know what you will say. When the video was played in front of the jury during the murder trial, I was lucky enough that one of the jurors coughed about the time I cursed on tape during the pursuit. During the 40 mile chase I was happy that I only cursed twice during the pursuit.

Mark Tarte @ 3/16/2013 9:46 AM

Dave, good article. How about some latitude for officers under a stressful moment or three in the rule book? Why not have a "street language" section of the use of force policy? I don't know about anyone else, but in my career, I rarely came across an Oxford educated gentleman speaking upper crust British English committing crimes, at least sober. When I did, they were usually drunk and swearing like a drunken sailor on leave in Hong Kong. A simple notation about "street" language might go a long way to keep simple-minded supervisors (those with street experience but never learning from it) from busting some poor cop's chops over an F-bomb or Adam Henry blurted out in the heat of a physical arrest.

Anthony Manzella @ 3/18/2013 2:22 PM

When you present the tape to the investigating officers, and they present the tape to the prosecutor, make sure the prosecutor is told about the language used by the involved officers. That knowledge will alert the prosecutor to handle the tape correctly before the jury by setting the scene, including describing the emotions at the scene. My partner and I have never had even one juror even mention the language used by the officers. Jurors, in our experience, are very understanding when they are not blindsided.

Anthony Manzella
Deputy District Attorney
Major Crimes Division
Los Angeles County (Retired)

Ima Leprechaun @ 3/22/2013 7:56 AM

I used to have the job of providing copies of camcorder case documentation to Attorney's based upon writs of Discovery. Everything documented on an audio and/or video recording of anyone's arrest is admissable in court. Anything on the recording that occurs during the time the suspect has been under the arresting officer's control is subject to disclosure. Having said that I have had to make copies of tapped arrests where officers left their recording device on while they discussed their personal vulgar derogatory feelings about their Sergeant. Anything said on that recording during that particular arrest is fair game in court. While it rarely costs anyone a conviction it does significantly embarrass the officers and their agency. How hard is it to remember to turn off a microphone? Or cease a recorder once the arrest has been made? I have had officers forget about their recording device and leave their mics live while they were inside HQ in the prisoner processing area. Even when they are not involved with the suspect that mic goes on recording everything as long as it is active. Including some embarrassingly loud moments while in the bathroom. Just be aware that every mic is live unless you know for sure it isn't. The Police Officers are only human and I think use of questionable or fowl language during moments of high stress is a minor thing but please be aware that anything you say can and will be used in Court.

Walt @ 3/25/2013 11:55 AM

All of the above are valid. I am also convinced that many of the miscreants with whom we deal, whose vocabularies tend to consist solely of four letter words, do not believe we are serious when we tell them to drop the gun or get on the ground unless we swear forcefully.

Howard @ 3/25/2013 1:50 PM

I know Buck Savage would never use such language, but I did know an Officer once who used salty language so freely that at Thanksgiving dinner, he asked Grand Ma to "pass the f--king mashed potatos...please...!!!!"

Kevin Sailor @ 3/25/2013 9:03 PM

What's all this talk about swearing like a sailor?

Packet Guy @ 8/11/2013 4:16 AM

Alas, in my experience most LEOs pump out the F-word and worse continuously in their public contacts. Look at the recent Decalb County sheriff's incident, recorded by the citizen assaulted at 1:30AM for a mere civil warrant. Continuous F-bombs, threats and personal insults for 30 minutes (!) in an action that the LEOs had to know was way overboard. I see this all the time. This is both unprofessional and childish. Be a man! Speak respectfully to the public, and keep your emotions in check. Don't use the lame excuse that adrenalin made you do it. If you can't control your mouthy mouth, get in another line of work.

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