Thursday, 28 July 2016

The Police and Profanity

The recent transcript by police officers (reported in the JEP) discussing whether or not to charge the suspects in the Morgan Huelin case. There was a considerable amount of swearing by the Detective Sergeant and his plain clothes counterpart.

While the transcript was of an informal discussion between colleagues and never intended for public consumption, I thought it might be interesting to look at the subject or of the use of profanity by the police and for that matter, towards the police.

Verbal Profanity in interaction with members of the public.

There’s an interesting question asked about Profanity and the Use of Force (2010) with a reply given by a U.S. Attorney, Brian S. Batterton. The police officer had recently taken a course and was told that, according to the instructor, a ruling of the court stated: "In certain circumstances the use of profanity by officers could be an appropriate action by officers."

Batterton suggests that: “The use of profanity, in and of itself, is not likely to be considered a constitutional violation. It is a matter of courtesy, personal preference and, obviously and importantly, department policy. Thus, the use of profanity is most often a matter of department policy in the context of ‘courtesy’ and it is within the discretion of the law enforcement agency to restrict or prohibit the use of profanity when dealing with citizens."

In “Theoretical considerations of officer profanity and obscenity in formal contacts with citizens” by Barker and Thomas (1994), they look at the evidence and suggest that:

“Research indicates that verbal behaviour in the forms of profanity and obscenity by police officers sets the occasion for an aggressive response. Theoretically, these behaviours substantially increase the risk of a consequential physical altercation where the use of force becomes necessary. Obviously, numerous cases that involve the use of profanity or obscenity by police officer result in passive submission. Reinforcement resulting from such submission will likely strengthen this approach for the officer into a routine pattern for some categories of behaviour and of people.”

And they also note that “A potentially harmful effect is the formulation of negative attitudes toward the police”

Use of Profanity Against the Police

The UK situation was set out in a Court ruling noted in the Daily Mail 2011. Previous to this case, language deemed insulting could result in an arrest, but this changed as a result of the judgment.

The Daily Mail, of course, had its own spin on the matter:

“Police chiefs were accused last night of surrendering to foul-mouthed louts who subject their officers to vile abuse. Officers have been banned from arresting yobs who insult them with the most offensive swear-words in the language.”

"Many judges and magistrates have taken the view that police officers should have a thicker skin than ordinary members of the public. As a result police must prove that someone else found the suspect’s behaviour ‘abusive’ or ‘insulting.”

The Daily Mirror, 2011, also looks at this decision:

“Swearing at police is no longer a crime because officers hear foul-mouthed abuse too often to be offended, a High Court judge has ruled. The landmark judgement came as Mr Justice Bean overturned a public order conviction of a young suspect who repeatedly used the F-word while being searched for drugs.”

I have considerable sympathy for the police, who have to stay calm when being used as a verbal punch-bag by those who insult them. However, the likelihood is that the behaviour, designed to provoke, will cross the boundary of merely being verbal when it ceases to have any result. On the other hand, by judicious psychology, the officers may well equally manage to diffuse the situation. The police don't want confrontation if they can calm the situation.

I remember a situation when someone at a party I was invited to attempted to pick a fight by verbal insults, and eventually lashed out physically. Given levels of intoxication, as in the case I observed, lack of response to verbal assault has a high probability of escalating to attempts at physical assault.

In fact, Bernard Hogan-Howe, Scotland Yard Commissioner, said that "there were still opportunities for that arrest to happen' if a member of the public was being abusive towards an officer. Quite often they are threatening in their behaviour. They are being aggressive or moving towards you, waving their arms about or making threats as well as using abusive language". 

And he noted that "often when people are swearing at police officers, there are other things that are happening, for which they can be arrested. 'What we decide to make a charge on is a matter for either ourselves or the Crown Prosecution Service. So if we stick the charge at using obscene language, then it can be we make the wrong charge according to the Court of appeal, I understand, that's what I'm saying I accept. However, at the same time, if the person is using threatening behaviour or acting violently, or it looks as though there's going to be a breach of the peace but we decide not to charge that, we've missed an opportunity.."

Police and Profanity in an “In Force” situation

Neither of these addresses the matter of profanity used in the circumstances of talking "within the ranks".

US Lawyer Richard D. Alaniz sets out some basic rules of thumb:

“Virtually every workplace will have one or two, or even several, employees who use crude, obscene, and profane language. Many workplaces will also have employees who find such language deeply offensive. Balancing those competing concerns, while at the same time staying in compliance with all relevant laws, can be a tricky task unless employers actively address the issue before significant problems arise.”

“For some employers, profanity may be common and accepted. For others, it may be unacceptable. For some organizations, it may be both. At a restaurant, cursing in the kitchen may be a regular occurrence, but the same cursing may be considered unprofessional in front of patrons. Blue language that may be heard regularly on a shop floor is often unacceptable in the front office, where it might offend customers. “

So for instance, as anyone who has seen the fly-on-the-wall documentary behind the scenes at the “Fifteen Restaurant” apprentice scheme, Jaime Oliver swears profusely. And yet in his TV cooking programmes, there is no evidence of that.

The question then arises – what kind of workforce does the police fit into? Is it more akin to the kitchens and the shop floor, where profanity is more acceptable between colleagues? Is it perhaps close to the army, where profanity is permitted?

However, the use of language may be found offensive depending on circumstances. As Alaniz warns:

“The issue of profanity can seem like a no-win proposition for employers, so ignoring it often is the easiest approach. However, ignoring profanities can leave the organization even more vulnerable to complaints and lawsuits.”

This is the more so as Discrimination Laws are enacted, and language may seem to be making sexual slurs, or mocking religious beliefs. The whole area of profanity in a workplace can become a minefield. That is why context matters:

“Companies should also differentiate between the occasional outbursts of foul language, and sustained cursing directed at a particular employee or group of people. Rough language used as a weapon to intimidate or bully employees can lead to potential claims of a hostile work environment or harassment.”

That is of course always a problem. In the discussion in question, there is no sign of intimidation, but the use of profanity by and only by the senior officers present mean that such a risk could be present. When used to drive an argument forward, the use of profanity could be seen as giving an emotional force to silence dissent. As I note, there is no indication that it has done so here, but the fact that such a perception could arise does raise another issue about the use of profanity in that context.

It would be interesting to know, however, if the local force has any guidelines on its officers use of profanity both to members of the public, and within its own ranks.

1 comment:

Roisin said...

As a retired police officer in the 80s and 90s, we were told by our superiors that we couldn't be "offended" by bad language on the streets by members of the public if that verbal insult was aimed at us. However, I do take the point that often the use of bad language is, more often than not, accompanied by other actions that may constitute an offence eg conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace or assault etc.
With regards to swearing in certain situations. Some people find that the more stress they are put under, the more likelihood it is that swear words will enter the dialogue, especially between colleagues in a high stress situation. Sometimes, it is replaced, in the down time between incidents, with black or gallows humour that would be considered totally inappropriate if delivered in the presence and hearing of the general public, but is used as a release valve in high stress or particularly horrific situations. Police officers are human after all.