Avoiding 'cop talk' for journalists

NewImageDo you speak cop talk? It's that exaggeratedly wordy, frequently passive voice, descriptive-but-vague language that police officers sometimes use when describing a... situation. You can learn more about it here. Once you are aware of cop talk, it sounds fairly ridiculous, especially coming from someone who isn't a police officer. (In fact, I once knew a US marine turned IT guy who would frequently fall into cop talk when describing network security issues.) You'll sometimes hear cop talk from green journalists sometimes get caught up in "cop talk" when reporting on a crime. Newswriting For Radio has a nice lesson in "Avoiding 'Cop Talk'"...
Here's an example of "cop talk," a story only slightly modified from what was broadcast on a small-market station:

TWO MEN ARE UNDER ARREST FOR ROBBING A JEWELRY STORE. POLICE SAY THE MEN ENTERED THE VILLAGE PAWN SHOP AT 1407 MAIN STREET AT APPROXIMATELY 10:15 YESTERDAY MORNING. AFTER WAITING INSIDE THE STORE FOR A FEW MINUTES, ONE OF THE MEN DISPLAYED A GUN AND ORDERED TWO EMPLOYEES TO PLACE INTO A DUFFEL BAG ALL THE CASH FROM THE REGISTER AS WELL AS SEVERAL ITEMS OF JEWELRY. THERE WAS NO ONE ELSE IN THE STORE AT THE TIME. THE MEN LEFT THE STORE, AND ONE EMPLOYEE WAS ABLE TO SEE THE MEN DRIVE OFF IN A BLUE DODGE ARIES. THE EMPLOYEES NOTIFIED POLICE, AND AT APPROXIMATELY 11 O'CLOCK A VEHICLE MATCHING THE DESCRIPTION OF THE GETAWAY CAR WAS SPOTTED PARKED IN AN ALLEY IN BACK OF A HOUSE AT 684 WILLOW STREET. POLICE ENTERED THE HOUSE WHERE THEY FOUND TWO MEN, AN AMOUNT OF MONEY, AND ITEMS OF JEWELRY LATER IDENTIFIED AS HAVING BEEN TAKEN FROM THE STORE. A COMPUTER CHECK OF THE VEHICLE DETERMINED THAT IT WAS STOLEN. THE MEN WERE IDENTIFIED AS 34-YEAR-OLD MILES STANDISH OF MIDDLEVILLE AND 28-YEAR-OLD JOHN ALDEN OF SMALLTOWN. THE MEN WILL FACE A VARIETY OF CHARGES.

This script (which runs about 54 seconds) is far too long, with irrelevant details such as the make and model of the getaway car, while the identification of the suspects isn't revealed until the very end. It is obvious that the reporter merely repeated the words of a police officer or of a police press release. Here's a brief rewrite of the script (which now runs 31 seconds):

TWO MEN ARE BEHIND BARS THIS MORNING AFTER AN ARMED ROBBERY OF A MIDDLEVILLE PAWN SHOP. POLICE SAY 34-YEAR-OLD MILES STANDISH OF MIDDLEVILLE AND 28-YEAR-OLD JOHN ALDEN OF SMALLTOWN ROBBED THE VILLAGE PAWN SHOP ON MAIN STREET YESTERDAY, FORCING TWO WORKERS AT GUNPOINT TO STUFF A DUFFEL BAG WITH MONEY AND JEWELRY. THE SUSPECTS WERE LATER ARRESTED IN A HOUSE ON WILLOW STREET AFTER POLICE SAY THEY SPOTTED THE GETAWAY CAR BEHIND THE HOME AND ITEMS TAKEN IN THE HEIST WERE FOUND INSIDE THE HOUSE. STANDISH AND ALDEN ARE EXPECTED TO FACE A VARIETY OF CHARGES.

"Avoiding 'Cop Talk'" (Thanks, Jess Hemerly!)

(CC-licensed photo by Lukeroberts)

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  1. The writer apparently alleges that law enforcement personnel engage in needlessly polysyllabic and convolutionary language when describing scenarios where an event has occurred involving a perpetrator and a proprietor. 

  2. The example, if I might be so bold, doesn’t quite capture the passive-voiced motiveless beauty of cop talk. It derives from the language used in police reports, which must stand up in court under scrutiny: the wording has to be as free as possible from any suggestion of subjectivity, interpretation or perceptive fallibility. The result is like journalism’s “voice from nowhere” taken to a duckspeak-like extreme of simplicity.

    The corollary is perp talk, identical in its obliteration of human agency: “the gun fired”

    1. I blame Chuck Yeager.  Seems like everybody in uniform AND their cousin attempt (poorly) to emulate the man’s vocal stylings.

    1. My sainted mum, born in St Louis in 1929, has referred to this shadowy organization she calls “The Pleece” all my life.  It used to bug me until I heard someone say “po-po.”  That day I gave mom an extra-big hug.

      1. If my grandmother had said  “po-po”, she would have meant the poorest of the poor.

        And your mum is very much alive and kickin’, last I heard.  Saintly, maybe.

        1. Nah, she’s a Wesleyan Methodist.  No need to be dead to be canonized, as the Catholics do.  Just sanctified.  And god knows she hasn’t had occasion to sin since the second Eisenhower Administration.

  3. A comment, deploring the prevalence of ‘cop talk’, was posted to the BoingBoing Internet blog by an occasional commenter at approximately 3pm. The commenter, described as a Caucasian male, approved an article that had been submitted to the BoingBoing website by David Pescovitz of [address redacted], stating that he found the article useful and informative. Before posting his comment, the commenter briefly scanned the comments page to see if any similar comment had already been posted. The comment was transmitted from the commenter’s computer using the Hypertext Transport Protocol and inserted into the page by the Disqus software deployed on the BoingBoing blogthing. After posting the comment, the commenter went back to what he was supposed to be doing in the first place, which, his manager stated at press time, was certainly not posting comments to Interthing hyperwebblogsites.

  4. Hmm, wouldn’t the “rewrite” be potentially libelous, pending a court trial to determine guilt? The police would be careful not to “say” that the two men named did the crime. Whereas the original report says that “two men” were arrested, and that the named individuals “were identified” as those two men: there’s a bit of forensic wiggle-room there. 

    1. They are reporting what the “POLICE SAY”.  That doesn’t always make it alright, but it’s popular notion that it does and the first version said it too.

    2. The report format is not so much to avoid libel as to discourage sloppy conclusion-jumping.

      For example, the rewrite opens by more-or-less* jumping to the conclusion that the getaway vehicle was spotted, and police had found their men. That’s great when the story is that simple. It’s worse when you have to use the report to figure out why police broke into some poor SOB’s house because they saw what they thought was a getaway car and a pile of stolen cash, when they really saw just another crappy blue Dodge Aries and a poorly-stored vacation fund.

      (* Note that here the journalists ARE careful to avoid libel, because they never accuse anyone. They merely state that two men are in jail on some-such charges, which is indisputable fact regardless of their guilt or innocence.)

      The police report lives in the moment, it tells you what the logic was at the time any action was made, and it doesn’t rush to divulge information that the actors shouldn’t have yet. They saw some car which matched a description, found jewelery and some amount of cash (no, we did not count it, we’re not sure where it’s from, or if any/all of it is stolen), and darned if the jewelery didn’t come from that store that was robbed.

      The simple report works inward from the edges (the conclusion that X and Y are in jail and the initial case of a robbery) to show how they meet (police found the getaway car and the men had stolen jewelery). One is fine for loose journalism, the other shows a line of thought using limited information to justify actions.

      And the sad thing is, the example has almost nothing to do with the “cop talk” discussed in the other link (“Cops Talk Funny”).

    3. It is kind of a tangent, but in the US libel and slander are almost impossible to win. You basically have to show that you said something untrue, knew it was untrue, said that untrue thing because you were specifically looking to be a hurtful asshole, and that your remark actually caused damage. Truth is always an absolute defense. The US has a lot of dumb laws, but our libel and slender laws are awesome. You can safely put up a website accuse Cory of trafficking in computer on midget porn with pretty much no fear of legal retaliation in the US. They can still TRY and sue you, but they won’t win.

      That said, in this case, you would be pretty safe even in the UK. Two men are in fact behind bars, and this happened after a robbery. The rest is “police say”, which is just reporting what someone said.

  5. Cop Talk! Coming this Fall to PBS!

    On a related note, I’d like journalists to stop accepting cop talk when it comes to one kind of incident. .  “Accidental” shootings. Gun don’t a  will of their own. In most cases the reason the gun “accidentally went off” is because of negligence. 

    Someone was negligent handling the gun. Someone was negligent in storing the gun or someone was negligent while cleaning the gun. 

    My friends in the military talk about how this was pounding into them in training. But we have media that tries to remove the actor from the equation. Passive voice. “The gun went off.” No. someone pulled the trigger. Or pushed the trigger with an object.” This passive voice moves the  responsibility from the person to the object. 

    Wjen we don’t use the language of accountability things don’t change, because you can’t get a gun to change its ways, but you can change people via, culture, laws and attitudes. 

    I’d like to point to driving while drunk as an example. Or smoking in public. 

    So the next time you hear about an “accidental shooting” look at the story, 9 times out of 10 you will find some person involved in negligence. 

      1. Not entirely.  When you’ve gone to some effort to try not to be responsible for a situation that you would normally be in charge of, that’s willful negligence. 

    1. Sadly there is much effort spent in making sure people don’t have to face responsibility.
      Like the story of a mother who’d kids were found wandering the streets, I don’t know how they got away, I turned my head for a moment.
      You failed to watch your kids, they could have come to harm but your more concerned with making sure no one suggests your a crappy parent.
      My kid was hurt at the park, I’m going to sue for millions!
      vs
      I wasn’t watching my kids leaping from the playground equipment so the fault has to be someone else and I deserve to get paid for being a bad parent.

      But then… I usually detest crotchfruit of people who refuse to keep them from being little hellions but the moment someone says anything about their lack control they get all mad about how dare you tell them how to raise their children.

      1. Agreed. Kids are not stupid. I knew where my Dad kept his guns and ammo. He went though an effort to keep them safe, but not all parents do. 

  6. Tangent: maybe journalists would get more respect from the public (and police) if they dressed differently. For instance, if the standard journalist outfit was the same as the motorcycle cop in the picture above. How great would that be to wear a motorcycle helmet everywhere ala Judge Dredd with “Journalist” printed on the back?

      1. Seriously – you’d prefer a fedora to riot gear? you’re not living in the post-apocalyptic dystopia that I am, and that’s a pity.

  7. My favorite is “at this time”. It is used not only by police, but by officious people everywhere. We have a word that means “at this time”. Now. 

    1. Not sure that fits, not in the way people normally talk anyways. Saying “at this time, we do not know what happened” is not equivalent to “now we do not know what happened”.

      Other ways to phrase it could  be “we don’t yet know what happened” or if you really want to use the word ‘now’ you could try “now we are trying to figure out what happened.”

      So I guess what I’m trying to say is that ‘at this time’ is a valid construct, though I will agree it does suffer from overuse.

  8. Yeah, but the good thing about “Cop Talk” is precisely that:  that it allows you to identify situations when the reporter is just regurgitating the cop’s version of events to you without digesting it.

  9. Reminds me of the “particular individual” talk in Idiocracy.

    I suppose using all capital letters is one way to style one’s writing after an authoritarian police attitude.

  10. When speaking with police, even off duty, it is often useful to speak to them in their own language, because a lot of words they use when they try to speak English have different meanings to them than they do to a native English speaker. The journalists, having learned the language through immersion, are just trying to be accomodating.

  11. My all-time favorite military speak term is “be advised,” a pointless and prevalent introductory clause that adds absolutely nothing to what follows. Strangely, radios seem most frequently responsible for Be Advised Syndrome — especially amusing as radio communication is supposed to be as brief and efficient as possible. I had a commanding officer who deplored the expression and worked hard to eliminate it from radio transmissions. He had mixed success — Marines love their jargon! 

  12. It’s not quite cop talk, because he wrote “men” instead of “individuals.” 

    Incidentally, this cop talk exists in all languages AFAIK. In French the above would be further rendered as “les individus de sexe masculin” (individuals of the male sex, instead of “men”).

  13. On radio that “be advised” has a very good reason for existence: to provide an “alert” hook to get someone’s attention without having any information that’d be critical if missed. People aren’t always focusing on the radio, so that extra lead-in to tell me I need to pay attention to the radio now is really helpful. It also distinguishes “you ought to know this” from “do this now”. Think hearing “All units be advised, pursuit in progress on 19th west of Main.” vs. “All units please assist in pursuit on 19th westbound from Main.”. The first is informational, the second is an order.

    1. Once in Italy, a hotel entrance was closed and locked, we were several groups of people waiting for somebody inside to show up so we could get in.
      Then somebody mimicked throwing a chair through the window, smiled and said “defenestrati”.  First and only time I’ve heard the word used in casual conversation.  Which made my day, many years later it’s one of 3-4 things I remember vividly from that day, everything else is a blur.

  14. The one that annoys me is the use of “person of interest” rather than suspect — seemed to emerge after 911.

      1. I still feel sorry for Richard Jewell, the cop who was crucified by the national TV news as a “person of interest” in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing. If any of the network news directors had worked as a cop-shop reporter, they would have known any person reporting a crime is automatically a “person of interest” routinely at the start of an investigation, in no way a “suspect,” and usually quickly eliminated.

  15. The above seems more like a Statement Of Charges report that we “former officer here” place before the Court Commissioner. The facts have to be present in a fashion that smoothly takes the Commish through the events that took place. Indictaing every turn place and time of events.

  16. Another obnoxious variant of cop talk is when they say they’re trying to protect the public from “the bad guys.” 

    Do they think we’re all mentally five years old?

    On second thought: don’t answer that.

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