"I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant." —Robert McCloskey
Ours is a profession that places emphasis on saying what we mean and meaning what we say. However, what we say and what we mean can be wildly divergent in the minds of our audience. What follows are some cautionary tales about using ambiguous wording.
During a major riot, a deputy points to a possible rooftop threat and asks some military personnel to "cover" him. As "cover me" means something entirely different in military parlance than just keeping a vigilant eye, an entire portion of a building's façade is decimated some .50 caliber rounds later.
At the conclusion of one helluva vehicle pursuit, the driver suspect bails out of the stolen ride on foot and darts for some foliage at the side of the freeway. The next transmission that already adrenaline-enhanced officers copy over the radio is:
"The suspect just shot through some bushes."
You can probably infer the type of response that update will garner.
A female suspect flees from pursuing police vehicles only to find herself hemmed in at a parking lot. Finding no escape due to parked patrol cars blocking each of the exits, she starts circling the lot in her SUV. A supervisor's voice comes over the radio: "Somebody take her out." Though intended as an order for an officer to ram her vehicle to stop it, another officer takes it to mean "shoot"—and fires.
Fortunately, his aim is as poor as his judgment and he misses.
Cops are increasingly encouraged to move away from coded communications to "plain
speak." Ironically, such edicts will create their own problems, as "plain speak" can ultimately become "ambiguous speak."
Telling a unit over the radio "HE'S RIGHT THERE!" doesn't really clarify where a suspect is. Is he under a car? Up a tree? Hiding in a shed? Yelling for a unit to "go the other way" doesn't let them know if they need to make a right turn or an about face. Sometimes, additional direction is needed.
Officers need to continually consider the points they want to make, and how they want to make them. Sure, there will be the occasionally excited expletive, such as when a helicopter pilot sees a suspect vehicle crash into a gas station that explodes and spontaneously exclaims, "Oh, shit!"
I seriously doubt he'll be grounded for that.
But when it comes to updating information and telling others what we want them to do, we should leave no ambiguity as to our intentions. That way everyone is on the same page, things get handled as accurately and quickly as possible, and we can avoid needless episodes of confusion.