Verbal Survival: Terminology Traps

Law enforcement needs to stay focused on the details, and potential fall-out, of improper terminology.


  • It's not a pursuit, unless they're trying to elude. Otherwise, they're just not pulling over yet. Hit your siren.
  • "Deadly Force" is a legal construct, drawn from the definition in the Model Penal Code, and adopted by the federal courts. "Lethal Force" is force with a fatal outcome. There is a difference. There is no lethal force standard, there is a deadly force standard.
  • An "ASP" is a brand of collapsible baton--it's not a generic name for all collapsible batons.
  • Ditto for words like TASER, Xerox, Maglite, and Mace.
  • There is no such thing as "less-lethal." Something is either deadly or it's not. And whether it is, is based on the court accepted definition of, "...force that is likely to result in death or serious injury..." The key word is "likely." If the use of a weapon or technique is likely to result in death or serious injury, then it's a deadly force option. If its unlikely, then it's a non-deadly (or as we, unfortunately, almost universally refer to it, non-lethal) option.
  • "Less-lethal" is a made up term for certain non-lethal options, based upon our fear of the possible result of improper use. Impact munitions are non-lethal, if properly used. So is an LVNR (lateral vascular neck restraint). Even so, improper use is not likely to be lethal, but it may increase that possibility. Because of this, law enforcement has decided that a separate class is necessary for these tools. If you think about it, however, in that context, anything becomes "less-lethal." That does not make use of those options "deadly force."
  • While we're at it, "less-than-lethal" is just another term for "non-lethal." I don't care which, but let's pick one and stick with it!
  • "Qualification" is not "training." In fact, many times it's not even qualification.
  • There is a difference between a "pistol" and a "revolver." Neither one is an "automatic."
  • Just because "Officer Presence" and "Verbal Direction" are levels on your "Use of Force Continuum" does not make them uses of force. The courts have been quite clear, they may both be control mechanisms, but neither (by itself) constitutes "use of force."
  • When you are driving somewhere, you are "en route", which is French for "on the path." Your report should say you went there, not that you "en-routed to the location." Speak English, or at least, French.
  • There is a difference between "objectively reasonable" and "absolutely necessary." Something may be objectively reasonable, but not have been absolutely necessary.
  • A "bullet" is just one part of a cartridge.
  • "Negligence" is a legal land mine. When a weapon discharges unintentionally, it is no more than an unintentional discharge. Routinely calling it a "negligent discharge" might help trainers to make a point, but it also creates a legal loophole a plaintiff could drive a truck through.
  • A "clip" is something you're not supposed to do to a linebacker; it's not something you stick into your pistol.

Speaking of that, I'm running out of ammo (actually, I'm just running out of space). I'll bet you can think of a dozen more terminology traps without even trying. Besides, I probably said enough in my list to upset a good portion of the law enforcement community.

Here's the thing. We are all members of a profession (there, I said it--profession, profession, profession!) that has to dot all the i's and cross all the t's every day. To not do so leaves us and our partners exposed to physical danger, disciplinary action, and legal jeopardy. We do a pretty good job with the part that we've dealt with so far. It's time that we started paying attention to the "rest of the story."

Terminology traps are avoidable land mines. There are enough hazards inherent in the job--let's not create more.

Stay safe, and wear your vest! (and Buckle Up!)

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