Linguistic Features of Police Culture and the Coercive Impact of Police Officer Swearing in Police-Citizen Street Interactions

Register and Context, March 2008

15 Pages Posted: 3 May 2010

See all articles by Janet Ainsworth

Janet Ainsworth

Seattle University School of Law

Date Written: 2008

Abstract

Not infrequently, police officers will use taboo language – swearing, cursing, and similar kinds of obscene and insulting language – the course of their encounters with criminal suspects. This linguistic practice is characteristic of the norms, values, and behaviors of police culture, which is preoccupied with issues of control, dominance, and the performance of masculinity. Because of its congruence with other aspects of the occupational culture of patrol policing, swearing has specific delineated roles within that culture in its illocutionary force and predictable effects on criminal suspects in its perlocutionary impacts. Swearing – particularly by those in authority – is a powerful signal of role-transgression, and as such, signals the possibility of other forms of role-transgression as well, including the potential police use of physical force against the suspect. This meta-pragmatic analysis suggests that police swearing should be contextually relevant in determining such legal questions as whether the suspect voluntarily consented to a search or validly waived her right not to answer police questions. American caselaw currently gives inadequate attention to this problem.

Keywords: Police culture, consent to search, abusive language, pragmatics

Suggested Citation

Ainsworth, Janet, Linguistic Features of Police Culture and the Coercive Impact of Police Officer Swearing in Police-Citizen Street Interactions (2008). Register and Context, March 2008, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1598512

Janet Ainsworth (Contact Author)

Seattle University School of Law ( email )

901 12th Avenue, Sullivan Hall
P.O. Box 222000
Seattle, WA n/a 98122-1090
United States

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