One of the most daunting tasks a recruit must undertake is learning and mastering the various languages that are spoken in policeland. I laugh out loud when I read police job announcements that encourage bilingual applicants. Yes, at many agencies knowing a second language is a requirement. But, how many languages does a cop speak? Quite a few; definitely more than two, to my mind.

This is why recruits are often left behind by veteran officers who don't realize the "language gap" between the two groups. Veteran officers have been versed in cop speak for so long, they often forget that recruits might not yet be familiar with certain terminology. Assuming communication is clear can be a tactical error.

Within conversational English, there are many sub-categories we must understand. You graduated the police academy so you have a form of legalese in your arsenal that you use to communicate with prosecutors. Each city/county has its own colloquial language and terms. Working with younger citizens, you'll need to be familiar with a hip-hop vernacular, and maybe even gang language as well. In the course of a shift you could speak to a street person and at the next call converse with a PhD. You must have the ability to communicate with both and with everyone in between.

Now, I know that we are supposed to go to common speak over the radio, but the traditionalist in me knows that we will keep some of it, 10-4? Every department has its own terms for locations, businesses, and so forth that are used over the air. And then there is cop-speak. For instance, can a person be a subject, target, person of interest, perpetrator, or wanted person? Just how do you describe a person? And this description can change throughout an incident. Add to this list text messaging or messaging over the mobile data terminals, and you have even more terminology. KWIM?

It is hard enough for a recruit to enter the police academy and then into this entirely new world without misgivings about understanding. As the FTO phase begins, we add even more languages and nuances that cloud communication even further. Yet it's important that communication be clearly understood. In a tactical situation, it could mean your safety or the safety of other officers.

Do not ever hesitate to ask what is meant for the sake of clarity. Misunderstanding could cost you your case or your life. Here the old statement, "There are no stupid questions," really speaks volumes. If you do not understand an order, directions, or instructions because of this convoluted multitude of languages we speak, ask for clarity.

For all this talk of learning multiple "languages," don't push yourself too hard in trying to learn them either; they will come with time. In fact, chances are the next recruit class won't understand you at first because you'll already sound like a veteran.

Author

William Harvey

William "Bill" Harvey is currently serving as chief of police in south central Pennsylvania. He retired from the Savannah (Ga.) Police Department where he worked assignments in training, patrol, and CID. Harvey has more than 25 years of experience working with recruits, rookies, and FTOs.

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William "Bill" Harvey is currently serving as chief of police in south central Pennsylvania. He retired from the Savannah (Ga.) Police Department where he worked assignments in training, patrol, and CID. Harvey has more than 25 years of experience working with recruits, rookies, and FTOs.

View Bio
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