Verbal Survival: Terminology Traps

I remember a late-night squad room argument (philosophical discussion) over whether or not police work was a "profession." Some of us said it was, and some said it wasn't, and, of course, both sides of the debate had plenty of emotional ammo to keep the conversation lively. Ultimately we decided it was, mainly because we liked it better that way. We all agreed to agree.

Whatever side of that debate you might come down on, one of the things that can frequently impact someone's perception of us as professionals is our use, and often misuse, of language. And no, I'm not referring to profanity, although that can influence perception as well. That's an entirely different article.

If you look at the other generally accepted professions (e.g. medicine, law, accounting and architecture) you will note that each has a universally accepted lexicon of terms and phrases that is agreed upon by all members of that given profession. A scalpel in New England is also a scalpel in the southwest, and an appellate brief in Florida is also an appellate brief in Wyoming.

A profession generally will give rise to a body of knowledge which is contributed to, and drawn upon, by its members. In order for that body of knowledge to become standardized, and universally accepted, it takes the form of written information. For that to happen, universal terminology is required.

In law enforcement, we have a significant body of professional knowledge, and we have a large (and growing) body of written work. Unfortunately, we have not, as yet, progressed to the point where we have a common lexicon of terms that we can all agree upon. Until we do, we won't be able to call ourselves a true profession.

Why is this really important? With all the high intensity activity that we engage in on a daily basis, does it really matter how picky we get with details? Of course it does. You know it does. Still doubt it? Consider this: How much does it irritate you when someone calls in a "robbery", and when you get to the scene, you discover it's actually a burglary? How about that one member of your department that's always calling in a "pursuit", when it's usually just someone that hasn't seen his or her lights yet, and hasn't pulled over? Or what about that "verbal reprimand" that, since it's written down in your personnel jacket, is actually a written reprimand--or what we sometimes refer to as a "recorded verbal reprimand"? Would you ever put out an "Officer needs assistance" call when all you need is some advice?

Picky, picky, picky. Details matter. More importantly, attention to details matters. Think about the people at your department that you respect the most. Why? I'll bet that most of them earn that respect by being as professional as they can be, and paying attention to details--everything from whether their reports are clean of typos, to whether their hat is on straight. Again--ask yourself why. Because you know that, if they pay attention to those little things, they are also paying attention to the big things--those details that could get someone hurt, or sued, or both. Like a clean weapon, like properly completed reports, like accurate testimony, like proper tactics, and like paying attention to their training.

Wow, this pontificating and preaching is hard work. I gotta' sit down.

Okay, so how do we start? I don't mean to imply that I've got all the answers, but I know a few places to start, technology-wise. Here are a few of the terminology "burrs" under my saddle:

  • 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!)