How Cursing is Different When a Cop is Involved

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a program that will retrain police officers, trying to help harness ego, adrenaline, and use of profanity.
Photographer: Jacom Stevens

It once may have seemed unlikely that Bill de Blasio would ever become mayor of New York City, but his vocal rejection of the New York Police Department policy of stop-and-frisk—and his decision to frame the practice in personal, and racial, terms—helped lift him to victory in a fed-up city. Now, as New York grapples with an official response to the recent deaths of two unarmed African-American men at the hands of his police force—Eric Garner by chokehold, Akai Gurley by “accidental discharge” of a gun—de Blasio is being tested by some of the same, politically vexing issues that helped get him elected. 

On Thursday, as New Yorkers took to the streets after a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict a white police officer in Garner’s death, Mayor de Blasio announced that “the way we go about policing has to change.” At a press conference that afternoon, he put forward details of a new training program, a three-day course that twenty-two thousand police officers will complete. The training will encourage them to better understand the communities they patrol. It will explore ways to interact with people with mental illness, to deescalate charged situations, and to persuade people who are under arrest to respond and comply without the use of force. According to the New York Times, “the police will be taught strategies to control ego and adrenaline, and urged to suppress profanity.”

The behavior of a police officer is of particular import to his or her professional conduct, but these measures seem to go deeper, almost veering into character or personality. To make sense of the policy, and to learn how profanity can exacerbate tension in interactions with law enforcement, I spoke to Timothy Jay, a professor of psychology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. Jay is an expert in psycholinguistics, “a world-renowned expert in cursing,” and said he believes communities today are “more segregated from each other than ever, physically and philosophically." This tends to makes interactions between police and civilians, who often hail from different spheres, “very confrontational.”

When I asked him about de Blasio's new program, he replied, “I don't think there is a one size fits all solution; whether profanity is good or bad depends on the situation and the relationship between the speaker and listener.” Officers patrolling in communities that aren’t identical to their own might have different perceptions—different thresholds, Jay said—which can lead to misinterpretation. Another factor, of course, is stereotype.

“There’s a research literature on this,” Jay said, “on different dialects and discrimination. When whites watch blacks argue, they perceive more aggression than blacks would perceive.” He attributed this to a tradition of “verbal play.” It makes a difference: “Back in the early days of rap music,” Jay told me, “N.W.A. had that song ‘Fuck Tha Police,” and cops wouldn’t provide security in their concerts.” That doesn’t make much sense to Jay, he said. “These are just words.”

But the jury’s still out on what words do to people, and precisely when and where the First Amendment stops protecting speech. Jay told me that he has been involved in several cases in federal court on these questions. In his book Cursing in America, he details the 1990 case of Lu Ann Buffkins v. City of Omaha:

The Buffkins case involved a woman from Denver who was flying to Nebraska to visit her family. Local police had received a tip that a 'black' person on her flight was carrying drugs. The officers stopped Buffkins, told her that they had received the tip and took her to an office. She was not permitted to use the phone, and she was questioned for over an hour about her trip to the area.

Finally, they decided that they had no grounds on which to detain her. An officer released her, and told her to "have a nice day." Buffkins replied, "I will have a nice day, asshole.” The police arrested her, took her to police headquarters, and charged her with disorderly conduct. In the ensuing case, her attorneys called on Jay to provide expert testimony. Eventually, Buffkins was acquitted.

Jay told me the Buffkins case reminds him of one he teaches on clashes between law enforcement and aboriginal youth in Australia: “a situation where police will provoke youth into swearing and then arrest them for disorderly conduct if they resist arrest. When you look at police and citizen confrontation there’s a lot going on there, real cultural stereotypes. A lot of the time the police can be very provocative—provoking—to the people they arrest.” Not to mention, he went on, “the white police can misinterpret the level of threats sometimes in what people are yelling at them.”

For Jay, it comes down to the question of “whether police should be treated like any other listener or should they be able to tolerate a higher level of verbal confrontation.” He believes de Blasio’s training will be successful if it brings about more tolerance and less overreaction. “Police should not have a pass to use profanity against citizens, as sometimes that leads to retaliation. In other words, the police can provoke a response and then make the responder pay for it.” They’re not just regular people, he said, they're vested with different authority, not to mention instruments. As he put it, “They’re standing there with Kevlar on and weapons and they should be mentally tough as well.”

Jay emphasized that "Fighting Words" cases are almost always between police and civilians. The only civil rights "Fighting Words" case was Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, the 1942 case in which Chaplinsky, a Jehovah's Witness, was distributing literature on the sidewalk, and called a city marshal “damn racketeer” and “damn Fascist.” 

But what counts as "Fighting Words," Jay told me, are “in the ears of the beholder. Normally you have what’s called the ‘average person standard,’ but if the police are saying they feel threatened,” it’s different. Language, decorum, expression, simply carry a different weight when a police officer is involved, and nuance is smaller between strangers. It’s easier to overreact than to know a stranger’s tipping point.

“When people hear profanity from the police they feel that they’re being treated unfairly—not justly,” Jay said, adding that research shows that when people get stopped by police in traffic, and the police use profanity, “people think police are not being just with them. It undermines credibility. But the big elephant in the room is that you’re at a disadvantage.”

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