The Strange Language Used by Police
By Grant Ainsley | Tips | [comments] | Posted [date]
Virtually every time I do a media training workshop, I remind participants not to use jargon from their industry. Realtors talk about the MLS, construction groups use the term WHMIS training and government agencies have a ton of acronyms that I need to rid them of.
No groups are worse than police and fire departments though. Their culture has given them words and phrases they use all the time that aren't what most of us use. That's how they communicate.
I have pulled together some examples of the strange language we hear from police and fire departments. Some phrases often appear in the media because of unsuspecting reporters.
A couple of weeks ago, I did a blog on how poor use of grammar in the news media is happening more often and annoying me more often too. I got a note from a reader suggesting I do a blog on terms that police use that are often referred to as “police speak.” These are words and phrases that police use all the time, but they differ from normal language.
I thought of Twitter colleague Adam Myrick, who is a Captain and Public Information Officer (PIO) for the Lexington County Sheriff’s Office in South Carolina. Like me, he’s a former broadcast journalist. Unlike other PIO’s, he often calls out police forces for the police jargon they use.
I contacted Adam and asked to get a list of his “favourite” police jargon expressions and got these beauties. Next to them, I’ve inserted the simpler words that should be used.
- Roadway (Road)
- Motorist (Driver)
- Wooded area (Forest or Woods)
- Physical/Verbal altercation (Fight or Argument)
- Fled (Ran away)
Adam also added the following phrase, “The suspect was driving a truck that was brown in colour.” Adam wonders why “in colour” is used. Brown is a colour. It’s not a shape. He's right of course.
There are a few others that come to mind:
- Apprehended (Caught or arrested)
- Ejected (Thrown from)
- States (Said)
- Approached (Walked up to)
What's an Officer-Involved Shooting?
I hear local police talking about their “service revolvers.” A simpler word is gun. The other term police use is “firearm.” Once again, gun is much more widely used and understood by the public.
I have also noticed how police and agencies who police the police are now using the term “Officer-involved shooting” instead of “Police shooting.” I guess an officer-involved shooting doesn’t sound as bad to police as the term police shooting. I’m hearing this more and more in the local media and I wish reporters would stop using the officer-involved term just because it’s handed to them. For generations we called them police shootings.
In Ottawa, police use the term “dynamic entry.” It’s a polite term for a police home invasion.
I think there are also some differences between the terms used by police in the US and in Canada. I saw a couple of police shows from the US like Cops and when officers were busting down the door of a home to arrest somebody inside, they yelled “WE HAVE A CANINE WITH US!!” and “POLICE CANINE INSIDE THE HOUSE!!” A powerful dog snaps some bad guys to attention quite quickly I’m told, so it’s being used as a threat. That is, if the suspect knows what a canine is. Maybe a "police dog" would get the message across better? You need to communicate differently, depending on who you are communicating with.
Fire Has Jargon Too
Fire Departments have their own jargon. When I was in radio, I remember asking a fire spokesperson what a “working fire” was. I was told it’s a fire that is large enough that the fire department needs to work to put out. I thought about that and realized that a “working fire” is really just a “fire.” Same thing.
“Fully involved” is another term used by fire spokespeople. I guess it’s a term that means there’s a big fire to put out.
Fire departments also like to use the term “structure” instead of something more specific like a house, or business. In the huge Fort McMurray fire a few years ago we constantly heard the media recite the number of “structures” destroyed or damaged, but that didn’t tell us how many were homes and how many were businesses.
“Apparatus” is another term that fire departments use. That means the number of fire trucks and other vehicles on the scene. They also talk about “ladders.” That’s the number of fire trucks with ladders on them.
Just last week, the Edmonton Fire and Rescue Service told the media the cause for a large house fire was “improperly discarded smoker’s material.” I'm not kidding. If it’s a cigarette, then say so.
When you hear this phrase in the media “Fire crews responded to a working fire this morning to two structures in a residential area that were fully involved when firefighters arrived” you know you’re getting Fire Talk and whoever wrote the story didn’t change the words, so the audience would better understand what had happened.
I would change it to “Two homes suffered major damage in a fire this morning.”
It’s simple, but simple isn’t always easy.
We All Do It
I don’t want to pick on fire and police because they have tough jobs to do, but they do need to find ways to communicate better.
It’s the same with many organizations I do media training for. I am constantly reminding them about jargon and how it distorts their message because people don’t understand what are common terms to them.
Acronyms are a concern too, especially for those working in government. Organizations such as Family and Community Social Services quickly become FCSS every time it’s talked about in the office, but when speaking in the media, acronyms have to be cut out and either the full term needs to be used, or a generic term that explains what the organization does.
Things change over time though. A few years ago, when I did media training for construction-related organizations, I told them to stop using the term PPE and just call it safety equipment. The pandemic has changed that though. PPE can now be used because the majority of people know what it means.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some working fires to extinguish.