As two Los Angeles Police Department officers stood over a machete-wielding man they had shot last year in the San Fernando Valley, they joked about how they would soon be earning overtime pay — presumably from filling out paperwork in the aftermath of the incident.
It was the sort of off-color banter that might have gone unnoticed in the era before body-worn cameras and other technology began to routinely capture candid conversations between cops. But the brusque parlance of police, which used to be confined to squad cars and roll call rooms, is increasingly on full display. Some law enforcement officials defend gallows humor and profanity as a necessary, if unsavory, part of the job, while linguists and others who study policing say obscene language only escalates encounters and undermines public trust.
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The LAPD’s Inspector General’s office is conducting a study on officer language use, and the city is partnering with several universities to produce a second, more robust report on the issue, which has been the subject of several studies in recent years by researchers at Stanford and the University of Michigan.
“There’s going to be a training component once the study comes out to train folks on how to speak to members of the Black and brown community and other communities,” Police Commission President William Briggs said.
In the Michigan study, researchers played audio recordings from hundreds of routine traffic stops for participants, who were asked to rate officers’ interactions with motorists, whose race wasn’t revealed. The report found that officers communicated in a more respectful and friendlier manner with white men, while taking a less positive tone with Black men.
Nicholas Camp, an assistant professor of organizational studies who led the research at Michigan, said he and his colleagues found that an officer’s first 40 words were a strong predictor of how the rest of the encounter would go and “whether that driver was searched or arrested.”
Officers seemed to extend more patience to white drivers, Camp said.