In This Issue

Police profanity: How “tactical language” can lead to excessive force complaints

When profanity was used by police during a mock arrest scenario, participants were significantly more likely to negatively evaluate performance and to rate force as excessive.

By Christina L. Patton, PhD

Christina L. Patton, PhD Police contact 40 million citizens every year—a number that represents 16.9 percent of individuals over the age of 16 in the United States (Eith & Durose, 2011). When contact is made, the majority of citizens (9 out of 10) feel police acted properly. A small percentage (1.4 percent) have force used or threatened against them during arrest, and when that use of force is perceived negatively, it can impact later individual and community-level opinions of police (Eith & Durose, 2011).

Excessive force occurs when officers use an amount of force greater than what is needed to gain compliance in a situation (Adams, 1995; Crank & Caldero, 2000; Micucci & Gomme, 2005). Of the previous studies examining officer variables related to general citizen complaints or complaints of excessive force, several identified aspects of unprofessional police conduct more explicitly tied to citizen discontent, including: improper police action, unprofessional conduct (Harris, 2010), a “more aggressive” police stance (Holmes & Smith, 2012, p. 345), and discourtesy toward citizens (Terrill & McCluskey, 2002). Sometimes referred to as “extra-legal aggression,” police actions which violate departmental regulations and may come to cause harm to citizens are viewed on a spectrum, with excessive physical force on one end, and racially-motivated traffic stops, racial slurs/hate language and profanity on the other (Holmes & Smith, 2012).

Many have established that the use of profanity in a professional capacity can lead to unfavorable or outright negative evaluations of performance (Johnson & Lewis, 2010; Morgan & Korschgen, 2001). Despite the importance of the quality of verbal interactions with members of the public, few studies have considered the impact of police use of profanity on these exchanges (Cox & White, 1988; White, Cox & Baseheart, 1988). Though many police officers may use profanity (sometimes referred to as “tactical language”) as an additional use of force tool, its use may lead to increased risk to the officer by way of subject retaliation or backlash from the public due to a perception that the officer is “out of control” (Baseheart & Cox, 1993).

The current study sought to extend the findings of previous research by evaluating the extent to which police use of profanity influenced not only ratings of police performance, but also the likelihood that participants would find force to be excessive. The researchers recruited 320 undergraduate psychology students and 320 adults in the community and asked them to view a video of a mock traffic stop and answer questions about the appropriateness of the police officer’s use of force during the video. The arrest video was filmed by troopers and staff at the Pennsylvania State Police Academy and in it, troopers either used profanity or did not while attempting to subdue the subject. It was predicted that when the troopers used profanity, they would not only be viewed more negatively, but that participants would view the level of force used as excessive (after controlling for race, gender and previous negative experiences with police).

Results indicated that participants who rated force as excessive had significantly less trust in police performance and in police use of force. That is, they doubted whether police agencies would fairly investigate citizen use of force complaints, felt police did not always choose the appropriate amount of force during an arrest, and did not believe police treated members of the public with respect or effectively reduced crime in their neighborhoods. When troopers used profanity, not only were their interactions with subjects rated as significantly more negative, they were also considered to contain significantly more excessive force than the arrest scenarios in which profanity was not used. When asked about what led to their decision to rate force as excessive, participants mentioned things like “the officer cursing and yelling,” “language that was completely inappropriate,” “having a problem with the profanity,” and “police using curse words when they shouldn’t have.” When the troopers used profanity, they were described as “lacking self-control,” “loud and obnoxious,” “verbally abusive” and “frustrated too easily.”

We know that using explicit language negatively impacts police-citizen relationships, but never before has it been shown that profanity can also lead to more citizen complaints of excessive force. These findings have direct implications for police training, such that if police officers are directed to monitor and restrict their use of profanity, this could result in not only improved quality of interactions between police and the public, but also a reduction in allegations of excessive force and improvement in community policing strategies. To ensure adherence to such a policy, a training mandate addressing this change would be best disseminated by not only leaders in the field of police policy (e.g., International Association of Chiefs of Police), but also by police training academies to ensure implementation early in an officer’s career. Police department leadership may consider addressing this in the form of department memorandums, role-call training or announcements at officer association meetings.

In a time of increased scrutiny of police behavior, we cannot afford to continue to teach principles that might put our officers at risk or impair their relationships with the public.


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Baseheart, J.R., & Cox, T.C. (1993). Effects of police use of profanity on a receiver's perceptions of credibility. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 9, 9-19.

Cox, T.C., & White, M.F. (1988). Traffic citations and student attitudes toward the police: An examination of selected interaction dynamics. Journal of Police Science and Administration, 16, 105-121.

Crank, J., & Caldero, M. (2000). Police ethics: The corruption of noble cause. Cincinnati: Anderson Publishing. 

Eith, C., & Durose, M.R. (2011, October). Contacts between police and the public, 2008. Retrieved from (PDF, 883KB).

Harris, C.J. (2010). Problem officers? Analyzing problem behavior patterns from a large cohort. Journal of Criminal Justice, 38, 216-225. doi:10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2011.05.001.

Holmes, M.D., & Smith, B.W. (2012). Intergroup dynamics of extra-legal police aggression: An integrated theory of race and place. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 17, 344-353. doi:10.1016/j.avb.2012.03.006.

Johnson, D.I., & Lewis, N. (2010). Perceptions of swearing in the work setting: An expectancy violations theory perspective. Communication Reports, 23, 106-118. doi:10.1080/08934215.2010.511401.

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Morgan, B.L., & Korschgen, A.J. (2001). The ethics of faculty behavior: Students' and professors' views. College Student Journal, 35, 418-432.

Terrill, W., & McCluskey, J. (2002). Citizen complaints and problem officers: Examining officer behavior. Journal of Criminal Justice, 30, 143-155.

White, M.F., Cox, T.C., & Baseheart, J. (1988, April). Perceptions of police verbal abuse as an influence on respondent attitudes toward the police. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, San Francisco.