Change the Language, Change How People View the Police

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Language is important, but precision in language is crucial. I learned this not only as an English major and a writer but also as a cop. I watched and learned who changed the language, who resisted the changes, and why. I reflexively identified with the resisters.

I thought about how George Orwell may have mused about language before and during his writing Nineteen Eighty-Four. In his iconic novel, he shows how a totalitarian government can change the language, to change how people think, to control them.

An unidentified author wrote in an example essay titled, The Use of Language to Control People in 1984, “The power of words is enough to control an entire nation. Although many would consider physical power and brute force to be absolute power, George Orwell’s 1984 demonstrates a dystopian society where language is the ultimate form of government. The Party… has dominion over its citizens mainly through the manipulation of language.” In Orwell’s novel, the enforcers are the “thought police.”

Part of law enforcement’s myriad struggles today includes the consequences of changing the language. For example, some politicians assert the police are “guardians” not “warriors.” They argue guardians are protectors compared with warriors who are “inciters of violence.” I contend cops are both protectors of society and warriors prepared to do necessary violence to preserve or restore the peace.

To punctuate the sentiment, we return to Orwell and a quote often ascribed to him. “People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”

Another language game I saw played in my department was changing how to refer to suspects in a report. My city decided that “suspect” was too inflammatory to call a… well, a suspect. Instead, on police reports and statements, officers must now refer to suspects as “community members” (if you just laughed out loud… that means you’re normal).

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Also, at various times over the years, we were “nudged” not to use the term “white-out” when referring to the correction fluid called “White Out.” Why? Apparently, it offended black people (Who knew? Certainly, none of my black friends). They also warned us not to say, “straight talk.” Why? You guessed it. Because gay people might be offended (again, who knew? Certainly, none of my gay friends).

Probably the foulest mutilation of the language I witnessed during my career was how officers were told no longer to call street people “transients.” Transient was not derogatory and was actually accurate. A person who moves around rather than staying put in a permanent home is literally transient.

It was better than calling them a hobo, vagrant, vagabond, beggar, or bum, right? Even though it can be argued, those terms are also accurate to a person’s circumstance. Those terms evolved to phrases such as “street person.” Calling someone who lives on the streets a street person is also accurate.

I recall a term uttered by what appeared to be two liberal female college students. My partner and I were standing by with an intoxicated man passed out on the sidewalk. We were waiting for the accurately named, “Detox Van.” But the city unceremoniously changed it to the Emergency Services Van (ESV). At least, saying “ESV” the expended fewer letters so was more efficient.

As the young women walked by, we expected the litany of leftist drivel about how we were violating the man’s rights to be horizontal rather than vertical on a city sidewalk. Instead, as they stepped over him, one girl looked at us and said, “speed bump.”

My partner and I were so utterly offended, so caught off guard by this callous affront, there was only one thing we could do: laugh. Now, at the scene, we recognized the impropriety and political incorrectness of both her comment and us laughing at it. So, we contained our mirth—until we were safely in our car and back en route to Starbuck’s—I mean, back on patrol.

Back to my point. At least a decade and a half ago, city leaders decided we could no longer use the words bums, street people, or even transients. Instead, they changed the language—again. The cops would call people who lived on the streets, even those who lived that way voluntarily (most), as “homeless.”

Why homeless? Because it turns people living on the streets into automatic victims. While those living on the streets are, accurately, “homeless,” they are also Mercedes-less, Rolex-less, and whatever else-less you can think of. But it diminishes the people and circumstances society used to think of as truly homeless.

The truly homeless used to be people suffering a temporary lack of housing because of a sudden financial or legal upheaval in their lives. People used to understand “homelessness” as people suffering true hardship through no fault of their own. Victims of domestic violence, house fire, crime, or sudden loss of employment.

Because of leftist leadership, today, when the homeless are mentioned, people no longer think of the true victims listed above. Instead, they think of people most of whom choose to live outside conventional society. They often commit crimes, abuse alcohol and drugs, and suffer from mental illness.

Except for people with severe mental illness, which I have abundant sympathy for, the “homeless” people mentioned above have largely made bad choices in their lives. And rather than clean up, or at least try harder, many continue to make bad choices and often blame others.

But the changes in language have made it so, if people call the police to deal with “homeless” people engaging in bad behavior, there is an automatic connotation they are victims because they have no homes. Even if they are criminals and if it’s their choice. And if a suspect is presumed a “victim,” what does that make the cops who must deal with them? Oppressors. And that’s the point, isn’t it?

meet the author

Steve Pomper is a retired Seattle police officer. He's served as a field training officer and on the East Precinct Community Police Team. He's the author of four books, including "De-Policing America: A Street Cop's View of the Anti-Police State." He's also a contributor to the National Police Association.

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10 months ago

This is exactly why we must resist these language changes. If we allow use of the term economic migrant rather than illegal alien, we are according victim status to those who invade our Country illegally. But such a language change has profound societal implications to those of us who are citizens. We lose jobs, we lose higher pay, we must accept a lower more unsatisfactory career. We are the ones losing out on the American Dream because others not citizens are being elevated above us.