Does Profanity Have a Place in Law Enforcement?
I had the opportunity to sit down with Chief (Retired) Ed Medrano to talk about police professionalism, the growing trend to reduce profanity used by officers while interacting with the community, and his work in this area with Laura Cole, President and Founder of Cole Pro Media
Medrano has been working with Cole for about five years teaching crisis communications. Through her advisory firm, Cole helps law enforcement build trust and legitimacy with the community, with a focus on transparency. Her experience has found that the way officers are being viewed on their body-worn video - particularly in how they are speaking to members of the public - is having a powerful impact on public perception, especially when the language being used by the officer is negative or unprofessional. Incidents that may be objectively within policy and the law can still look incredibly bad to the community when the officer appears out of control because they can’t maintain a professional demeanor.
This was the catalyst for the Swear Not to Swear pledge that Cole developed, and she asked Medrano to join her in this project. Medrano and Cole presented this class recently at CPOA and received positive feedback from not just executives, but across all ranks in attendance, which is why I wanted to learn more.
A Research-Based Approach
Medrano, in researching this topic, reached out to several prominent law enforcement executives and attorneys who represent law enforcement to get their thoughts on this and gained some interesting insights. All of them agreed that unprofessional language like profanity has a negative impact on community trust and how juries view these cases. Often police executives face harsh criticism for the language and tactics used by their personnel. Attorneys that represent law enforcement regularly recommend that these cases be settled - despite the officer’s actions being lawful and within policy - because the optics of the encounter are so horrible. One even characterized these cases as sometimes being a popularity contest with the juries, and you’re not going to win any popularity contests when you’re using profanity and speaking unprofessionally.
Medrano and Cole also looked at the research on the thinking mind and the emotional mind, and how the two affect behavior. All of us, especially those that have been in the profession, understand that when we use our thinking mind, we make better decisions. Whether it’s using sound tactics, de-escalating a situation, or even making difficult force decisions, we all do better using our thinking brain versus our emotional brain. Similarly, we’ve all been involved in incidents where we or someone else was operating from the emotional brain and made, shall we say, less than optimal decisions (myself definitely included). We know this is going to happen, so it’s important to prepare for it through training.
Training for Success
Just like any skill in law enforcement, language has to be trained so that when officers are inevitably in those emotional states that come during high-stress incidents, the profanity and unprofessional language doesn’t come out as readily. Simply changing department policy to say that swearing is prohibited is not going to be effective - it has to be reinforced with training and a culture change that not only discourages swearing but incentivizes professional language. Whether it’s recognition from department leadership when officers are professional, or having peers share their experience of how difficult it was to have one of their profanity-laced videos played in court, the reason for change can’t just be “Because that’s the policy”. Whatever the strategy, it ultimately takes a personal investment by individuals to make a change to the language they use, which could really make a significant difference during a critical incident.
None of this is to say that there aren’t going to be times when profanity is used by officers, and neither Cole nor Medrano are suggesting that there be a zero-tolerance policy under all circumstances. There will be terrible, even painful situations where some profanity will likely come out. Under those circumstances, the community - and juries - will likely understand and give some leeway. But it’s the incidents that aren’t extreme, where profanity flows to such a degree that it serves no purpose, that harsh judgments of the officer’s actions will occur. Saying, “Get your f***ing hands up” one time might be excusable; saying it 18 times does nothing to either de-escalate the situation or instill confidence that the officer was in control and acting appropriately.
I enjoyed this conversation with Medrano, and I think it’s an important one that all law enforcement should have. I know it’s difficult to consider officer profanity as a high priority when there are so many other, larger issues that impact law enforcement today, but they are certainly interconnected. From reducing crime to recruiting and retaining officers, community trust in law enforcement plays a role. Without professional officers, trust is diminished, and it makes every goal the police - and the community - are trying to achieve that much more challenging.
Chief Medrano has over thirty years experience in public service, including eleven years as a Police Chief and two years as a City Manager. He's been the President of both the California Police Chiefs Association and The Los Angeles County Police Chiefs Association, and recently served the Attorney General as the Chief of the Division of Law Enforcement (DLE) for the CA Department of Justice. Chief Medrano is the founder of Integrated Leadership Solutions.
Laura Cole is the President and Founder of Cole Pro Media. The Transparency Engagement Advising firm takes an innovative approach to helping numerous district attorneys and law enforcement organizations build trust and legitimacy with the communities they serve. Cole is passionate about teaching agencies the best practices for engaging with the public. With a “no spin” policy, Cole places a strict emphasis on transparency.
Chief (Retired) Ed Medrano - Advisor
FOUNDER AND CEO
INTEGRATED LEADERSHIP SOLUTIONS
Chris Sansone - Host
DIRECTOR OF STRATEGIC PARTNERS
Truleo analyzes police body camera videos using artificial intelligence to help promote police professionalism. Truleo worked with FBI National Academy alumni to build the models that deconstruct officers’ language into professionalism and risk metrics to help agencies promote best practices, train new officers, and mitigate risk. To learn more about Truleo’s mission to improve trust in the police with body camera analytics, visit www.truleo.co.