Why do cops speak like this?

Just saw this article this morning and noticed a few places where they quoted law enforcement officers (aka cops) using stilted cop-language.

For example:

‘Individuals’? Why not ‘dead people’?

‘Transportation vehicle’? Why not ‘van’?

‘Event’? Why not ‘shitty situation’?

It’s not just this article. I have seen lots of interviews with US cops, and regardless of their age, rank, ethnicity or geography, they all seem to use this same stilted language. Where did this come from? Do they think it makes them seem smart and authoritative? Do they teach it at the academy?

(I’m not aiming to trash police officers. I appreciate for the most part what they do. I just wish they spoke like normal people.)

Bolding mine

Of course. Why would someone in such a profession not want to appear intelligent and authoritative? That’s the very nature of their job.

Are these serious questions?

Turn it around. What kind of story would you be reading if the cop had said, “We couldn’t get the dead people out of that van because it was a shitty situation”? I suspect more than a few commentators would be slagging them for being unprofessional and callous. " ‘Dead people’? That was my aunt/grannie/sister, you bastard!"

Police officers are trained to use neutral, non-prejudicial language in reports and public communications so as to not create the impression of bias or implication, e.g. referring to someone as a “person of interest” rather than “potential suspect”. This is no different than an engineer explaining a structural failure using technical terminology or a physician describing an illness or injury in clinical language so that the meaning is clear and not subject to interpretation in multi-valued colloquial language. In casual conversation police officers use descriptive prose, profanity, et cetera just like anyone else, but when they are caught doing so on camera or audio it can often be made to seem that they are unprofessional, prejudicial, or just lacking in compassion or empathy when engaging in gallows humor with other police.


It’s been a while since the academy, but when I went, yes, they did teach how to write a report. I may be over simplifying it, but it comes down to the fact that any report than an officer writes can end up in court. Lawyers pour over these reports and tear them apart. They look for anything they can use to put doubt in the jury’s mind. So they drum it into you to be thorough and precise, remove any doubt about what you are writing about. So saying “van” may seem like the thing to do, but there is a lawyer out there that will question you on what kind of van. By saying “prisoner transport vehicle” it removes any doubt about what they were in and that they weren’t strapped to the floor of a cargo van, etc.
As dumb as it sounds, this is the way it works sometimes.

My favorite example of police-speak is where they refer to those with whom they interact very politely. As in -

"We received a call about a disturbance at 1234 Main St. Upon entering the residence, we observed Mr. Smith standing over the six dead nuns with a bloody axe in his hands.

At this point, we took the gentleman into custody…"


thanks. That makes a lot of sense

When it comes to government employees (and police officers are government employees), you have to understand that the #1 objective at all times is “AVOID LITIGATION”. Everything cops (and all govt employees) do is for the sole purpose of avoiding a lawsuit. When you realize this, it all makes sense.

My anti-favorite is “traveling at a high rate of speed.”

This is overly simplistic at best, particularly given that in many cases law enforcement and federal employees acting in an official capacity are relatively protected against lawsuits at a personal level. The use of neutral language is to be precise in describing a situation and avoiding the appearance of prejudicial views or positions.


Similar thread from five years ago.

I always find it funny (annoying?) when they go overboard on the “alleged” thing. I get it, you didn’t see it happen, he’s only accused at this point, so he’s the ‘alleged shoplifter’. But I recently saw a news story where someone was ‘allegedly arrested’. Well, no, they either were or they weren’t, there isn’t a question, now you’re putting ‘allegedly’ before everything. I saw a cop once say a suspect allegedly did something, even though this was on live tv (Live PD) and we all saw it happen, and it was something that, again, there’s no question about. IIRC, the suspect ‘allegedly escaped from my car’. But, I guess, they can only accuse at that point.

Then, there’s this one (not vouching for it, just ran across it on the internet one day).

This. The reports can & will be subpoenaed if there is any lawsuit or will also be pulled if there’s any internal departmental investigation. No one has gotten in trouble for being overly verbose but have gotten hung out to dry for not putting in details of what they saw/did.

As for the OP’s first quote (“Despite persistent and ongoing efforts, floodwater rose rapidly and the deputies were unable to open the doors to reach the individuals inside the van,”) They were individuals at that time; they were not dead people until the floodwaters rose high enough to drown them, which was after the persistent & ongoing efforts to rescue them.

Prisoner transport vans (cages, locks, etc.) are different than police personal transport vans (more generic 15 passenger vans used to transport PD personal from their station to an event; a parade, concert, VIP speech, used to take kids on a PAL fieldtrip, etc.)

I’m afraid it’s only going to get worse in the future.
Prison guard: Okay sir, now we will begin to proceed to obtain your IQ and aptitude test.

Joe: What for?

Prison guard: Okay sir, this is to figure out what your aptitude’s good at, and get you a jail job while you’re being a particular individual in jail.

I was going to reference this very scene from Idiocracy. It’s satire obviously, but does demonstrate the idea. To be fair, I don’t think we should call it “cop speak”, because I see this in lots of other places. I think of it as a sort of hyper-officiousness and extreme, false politeness often masking contempt.

Can we coin a word for this?

The future? It’s already happened.

We don’t call them prisons or jails. We call them correctional facilities.

And the people in them are not guards or prisoners. They’re correction officers or inmates.

And inmates aren’t given jobs. They’re assigned to a program.

And the inmate whose program is mopping the floor isn’t a janitor. He’s a porter.

Reality has surpassed satire.

A lot of ‘cop speak’ also ends up in court records, so I suspect that they keep it uber professional for that reason too.

Remember, there’s a legion of lawyers out there who are looking for the slightest excuse to confound the prosecution on behalf of their clients.

For example, if the reporting officer uses “dead person” instead of “individual” I, as a lawyer representing my client in a civil suit, could try to make a case that the police gave up on my client’s wife because of the assumption she was dead when, in fact, an autopsy proved she drowned and was not killed in the accident itself.

You get the idea.

It should probably be noted that the quotes in the OP aren’t from cops, two are from the “sheriff’s office” and the last one is from the Sheriff. All these statements likely had multiple (PR trained) proof readings before they were released to the media.

More likely- “At this point we proceeded to take the gentleman…”
I wonder if anyone’s ever actually said “We proceeded to proceed…”

I once read a news story where they referred to “the alleged suspect.”