Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Needed: Plain English, not “Copspeak”

Until I read Professor Helen Anderson’s article, Police Stories (here),I had not thought about the jargon of police officers as calling for a plain English reform. Professor Anderson states:

One interesting way in which the police narrative makes its way into appellate opinions is in the use of police language.

Police language is marked by at least two features, somewhat in tension: police slang, and overly formal—yet vague—official


To explain, she offers this example:

The opacity of copspeak is frustrating to some judges. More than thirty years ago, a judge commented with irritation on the way officers testified:

The agents involved speak an almost impenetrable jargon. They do not get into their cars;

they enter official government vehicles. They do not get out of or leave their cars, they exit them. They do

not go somewhere; they proceed. They do not go to  place; they proceed to its vicinity. They do

not watch or look; they surveille. They never see anything; they observe it. No one tells them

anything; they are advised. A person does not tell them his name; he identifies himself. A person does

not say something; he indicates. They do not listen to a telephone conversation; they monitor it. People

telephoning to each other do not say “hello;” they exchange greetings. An agent does not hand money

to an informer to make a buy; he advances previously recorded official government funds. To an

agent, a list of serial numbers does not list serial numbers, it depicts Federal Reserve Notes. An agent

does not say what an exhibit is; he says that it purports to be. The agents preface answers to simple

and direct questions with “to my knowledge.”

United States v. Marshall, 488 F.2d 1169, 1171, n.1 (9th Cir. 1973). (Still true today.)

Note how “copspeak: is often vague, but sounds precise.


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