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“Tactical Language” in the Correctional Setting: Lessons Learned from a Study of Police Profanity
By Christina L. Patton, Ph.D.
Published: 05/07/2018

Tools of the police Summary: Several researchers have examined how police performance impacts community policing and police-citizen relationships, but none have considered the impact of police use of profanity during arrest on public rating of force. Results of this study indicated that when profanity was used by police during a mock arrest scenario, participants were significantly more likely to negatively evaluate performance and to rate force as excessive. What this means for officers working in a correctional environment is discussed below, with training recommendations for corrections provided in the conclusion.

Excessive force occurs when police use an amount of force greater than what is needed to gain compliance in a situation (Micucci & Gomme, 2005), more force than an “experienced” officer would employ in that situation (Klockars, 1996), or more force than what is recommended by administrative, professional, or legal guidelines (McElvain & Kposowa, 2004). Overall, police do not often use physical force during arrest, but when they do, 8%-10% (Hickman, 2006) to as much as one-third (Worden, 1995) of these arrests are determined to contain excessive force or warrant officer disciplinary action. In the correctional setting, the cost of inmate perceptions of excessive force can be massive. Research has shown excessive force in the correctional setting is associated with inmate perception of unfairness (Frankie, Bierie, & McKenzie, 2010), which could potentially lead to prison disturbances, inmate-on-staff assaults, and rule violations (Henderson, Wells, Maguire, & Gray, 2010; Robertson, 2006). Excessive force complaints in the correctional settings are also associated with costly legal settlements and loss of public trust in corrections in general (Rembert & Henderson, 2014).

Improper police action, unprofessional conduct, and excessive force are described as the top three reasons for excessive force complaints (Harris, 2010). Verbal aggression, a special type of improper police action, includes racial slurs, gratuitous threats and profanity, and can be viewed as humiliating and degrading by recipients (Brunson & Miller, 2006). When police use profanity in the context of an arrest, they are viewed by the public as less friendly, less professional, and less fair (Baseheart and Cox, 1993). Officer use of profanity is sometimes used to gain compliance or to convey a sense of urgency, and is referred to as “tactical language” in some jurisdictions. Officer use of tactical language (including profanity) is associated with negative public opinion and subject aggression/retaliation (White, Cox, and Baseheart, 1988). Although tactical language is commonly used by police in crisis situations, its use could result in alienation of the public from law enforcement, misconduct allegations, the perception that the officer lost control during the arrest, or a “clouding of the issues” pertaining to the arrest. In corrections, the cost of using profanity could also include loss of control of the prison environment—potentially putting the lives of inmates and correctional staff in jeopardy.

Though some departments and training agencies have specific policies regarding use of profanity, many do not explicitly advise officers against it—which could put them in hot water when it comes to interacting with the public. Despite this, there has been no research examining whether police use of profanity could also be associated with a greater tendency to rate force used during arrest as excessive.

Because of this gap in our knowledge, researchers at West Virginia University (WVU) and staff at the Pennsylvania State Police Academy (PSPA) created a study to evaluate what happens if police officers choose to swear, and to determine if members of the public see it as excessive force (Patton, Asken, Fremouw, & Bemis, 2017).


We recruited 320 undergraduate psychology students and 320 adults in the community and asked them to view a video of a mock traffic stop and answer questions about the appropriateness of the police officer’s use of force during the video. The arrest video was filmed by troopers and staff at the Pennsylvania State Police Academy (PSPA) and in it, a subject was shown as passively resistant (i.e., resisting arrest without using physical force) after being pulled out of the car due to having a bench warrant during a traffic stop. The trooper attempted to control the subject using physical techniques, to which the subject responded aggressively. Troopers making an arrest in the video either used profanity or did not while attempting to subdue the subject. We predicted that when the troopers used profanity, they would not only be viewed more negatively and the scene viewed as more intense, but that participants would view the level of force used as excessive.

After watching the video, participants answered questions about their attitudes about police performance in their neighborhoods, police use of force generally, and overall police effectiveness. They were also asked to describe whether they had ever been arrested, knew someone who had been arrested, had friends or family who were police officers, or viewed news stories about police online or in the newspaper.


Participants who rated force as excessive had significantly less trust in police performance and in police use of force. That is, they doubted whether police agencies would fairly investigate citizen use of force complaints, felt police did not always choose the appropriate amount of force during an arrest, and did not believe police treated members of the public with respect or effectively reduced crime in their neighborhoods. Participants who had friends or family who were police were less likely to rate force as excessive, and people who had been arrested more likely to do so.

People who had greater exposure to online news about police behavior were more likely than those who did not to rate force as excessive. Adults in the community had significantly greater general trust of police than psychology students, but psychology students reported greater trust in police use of force.

In line with our prediction, the results of this study showed that when troopers used profanity, not only were their interactions with subjects rated as significantly more negative and more intense, they were also considered to contain significantly more excessive force than the arrest scenarios in which profanity was not used. When asked about what led to their decision to rate force as excessive, participants mentioned things like “the officer cursing and yelling,” “language that was completely inappropriate,” “having a problem with the profanity,” and “police using curse words when they shouldn’t have.” When the troopers used profanity, they were described as “lacking self-control,” “loud and obnoxious,” “verbally abusive,” and “frustrated too easily.” In a nutshell, participants felt that trooper use of profanity led to the perception that the trooper was being overly harsh, disrespectful, and out of control during the interaction, and officer profanity was just enough to tip the scale toward a rating of force as excessive.


This finding is in line with previous research on the impact of profanity use in a professional context, which shows that those in a professional role who use profanity are viewed negatively (Morgan & Korschgen, 2001), as less competent (Johnson & Lewis, 2010), and even as being out of control (White, Cox, & Baseheart, 1994). We know that using explicit language negatively impacts police-citizen relationships, but never before has it been shown that profanity can also lead to more citizen complaints of excessive force.

If police use profanity during arrest and there is a negative public response to the force used during that arrest, it could lead to not only decreased police legitimacy and negative impact to community-policing efforts, but potentially sweeping civil judgments, criminal prosecution, civil disorder, and loss of life (Gau & Brunson, 2010). In correctional settings, officer use of profanity could be tied to negative inmate evaluations of fairness, which could later result in tension directed at officers and prison violence.

These findings have direct implications for police officer training, such that if officers are directed to monitor and restrict their use of profanity and other harsh language, this could result in not only improved quality of interactions between police and the public, but also a reduction in allegations of excessive force and improvement in community policing strategies.

In a correctional setting, this change in interaction style between correctional staff and inmates could de-escalate threats of inmate violence, which has the benefit of improving staff safety and reducing the need for special response teams within prison walls. To ensure adherence to such a policy, a training mandate addressing this change would be best disseminated by not only prison administration and local training sections, but also by correctional training academies, to ensure implementation early in an officer's career. Correctional training departments may consider addressing this in the form of department memorandums, roll-call/on-the-job training, staff recalls, or announcements at officer association/union meetings. In a time of increased scrutiny of law enforcement behavior, we cannot afford to continue to teach principles that might put our officers at risk or impair their relationships with the public.

This article as been reprinted with permission from the March 2018 Issue of Correctional Oasis, a monthly e-publication of "Desert Waters Correctional Outreach".

Christina L. Patton, Ph.D., is a forensic postdoctoral fellow at East Central Regional Hospital and Augusta University in Augusta, Georgia. She is also a U.S. Air Force Security Forces officer and researcher with interests in first responder psychopathology and performance, forensic and military psychology, and violence risk assessment and management. She may be contacted at cpatton@augusta.edu with questions or comments.


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