COLUMN ONE : What Does Cop Talk Really Say? It’s Garbled : Some in law enforcement contend that ‘blue humor’ helps police face a grim, dangerous job. Critics argue that it predisposes officers to violence and must be toned down.
Batten down the hatches, several thousand Zulus approaching from the north .
--Los Angeles Police Department computer message, July 9, 1990
OK, I heard he was looking for a few good men, no Puerto Ricans. . . .
No Nicaraguans, Cubans, El Salvadoreans.
--Oct. 20, 1990
I feel like a real stud. . . . I’ve been screwing the public all morning.
--Jan. 18, 1991
By definition, it is a special brand of morbid, cynical, sometimes humorous, often crass and juvenile chitchat by men and women who constantly face life’s disasters and who take pleasure in relentlessly insulting each other.
Some say police funny bones are hooked up a little differently than those of the rest of the world, which is why the grosser aspects of cop joking are often called “blue humor.”
As part of the Christopher Commission’s investigation into the police beating of motorist Rodney G. King last March, the residents of Los Angeles got a glimpse into the uninhibited, off-camera language of cops.
In reviewing more than 3.6 million computer messages transmitted between police cars over a 16-month period, the commission found 1,450 instances of objectionable language. These fragmented bits came across as racist, sexist and ethnically crude--but most often they revealed their authors to be braggarts, prone toward violence and relishing it.
“Capture him, beat him and treat him like dirt. . . . Sounds like a job for the Dynamic Duo,” one officer hailed another. “After I beat him, what do I book him for, and do I have to do a use of force (report)?” Homosexuals were labeled “fruits,” a blond officer was described as having “big kazoopers” and roughing up a suspect was one officer’s “exercise for the night.”
There is no way to determine from the samples released by the commission how widespread this language is among the Los Angeles Police Department’s 8,300 officers. Yet when the messages were paired with the ubiquitous videotape of the brutal King beating, some Angelenos expressed astonishment and disgust and worried not only about the officers’ words, but whether the language betrayed venal hearts.
Don Jackson, a retired police officer, contends that it most assuredly does.
“I think most people know your mouth is the window to your heart, and these comments are not lighthearted,” said Jackson, who left the Hawthorne Police Department in 1987 after complaining of racism and founded a minority police group that includes LAPD officers. “These comments are a justification for all types of misconduct that will follow. . . . It’s almost like they are psyching themselves up for the violence and the mistreatment.”
Jackson said he sees no positive side to the crude language, not even the camaraderie that some officers say cop talk builds: “That is a lot of garbage. Anyone who knows what black people and Latinos have experienced in this country historically wouldn’t say that.”
It was the subtler effect of the unfettered talk that concerned Jim Curran, a former New York City cop who runs training programs for 8,000 officers a year at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice in Manhattan.
“It’s only dangerous when it conveys to a young cop that these people--a whole class of people, victims and criminals alike--are not to be served, not to be taken seriously,” said Curran.
Yet Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates has insisted that the offensive language taken off the patrol car computer system represents language spoken by a very few in the LAPD and is taken out of context. An aide to the chief pointed out that the offensive messages represented only 0.04% of all transmissions reviewed by the commission.
But that, too, is misleading: The vast majority of transmissions were informational, with officers telling each other, for example, that they had arrived at a scene or were on their way somewhere. A minority of messages were “conversational.” Therefore, the offensive talk was a much higher percentage of the conversational minority than of the total.
LAPD defenders said the messages, like any shop talk, must be interpreted for the public. For although they are unacceptable when directed against private citizens, police said, such language is a necessary evil, a slang, meant to cement bonds between co-workers in a grisly and dispiriting job and to exclude everybody else.
“We don’t have 8,300 bigots on this job,” said Detective Kena Brutsch, a 10-year LAPD member and Gates’ coordinator for women. Part of her job is to train officers to avoid sexual harassment.
“I think some of the transmissions were unprofessional and stupid,” particularly those that refered to female officers by their anatomy, Brutsch said. But, she quickly added, even these reflected a “dark humor and a lot of mouthing off. When I see ‘Capture him, beat him and treat him like dirt,’ I hear some guy imitating Superman talk like ‘Faster than a speeding bullet.’
”. . . It’s ego, bragging, a musical pattern in language, coming from some guy who probably has spent all day in court, hasn’t seen his family, hasn’t slept, just got exposed to a suspect with syphilis, had to search a female between her crotch for drugs, saw a baby thrown against a wall. . . . It’s occupational joking, but not something you act on.”
One white LAPD detective who has been on the force for 30 years said he could imagine an inoffensive context for the message sent just before the King beating, in which officers coming from a domestic disturbance call described it as a scene “right out of ‘Gorillas in the Mist.’ ”
The detective, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said in the movie of the same name, naturalist Dian Fossey would watch one gorilla, and “all of a sudden there would be the whole group of apes watching her.” Perhaps while checking out the domestic fight the officers were suddenly surrounded by people, he conjectured, and thus no racial reference was intended.
When pressed, the detective conceded that the use of “gorillas” to refer to African-Americans was “the more obvious interpretation . . . but to seize on it and call it racist, I think, is unfair and inflammatory.”
Joseph Wambaugh, author and former police officer, told The Times in a July interview that he believed that the Christopher Commission report was “inherently” trivial because it missed the psychology underlying the offensive remarks.
“We have in police work, not just in Los Angeles but everywhere, we have super-aggressive 22-year-olds full of testosterone, full of energy, absolutely immortal and unable to admit fear, unable to verbalize fear--even to themselves,” Wambaugh said. “Hence, they get caught in all this damn silly defense-mechanism business, this dehumanizing gallows humor and all of that--and don’t even understand that they are doing it most of the time.”
If Wambaugh sounded as if he was making excuses for the police, he also acknowledged that some of the humor went overboard, and he concluded that what is acceptable and what is not comes down to common sense:
“Can I define when it goes beyond that, what the dominant group does in joking ethnically with his fellow officers? No. But I know it when I see it. Some of this definitely goes beyond the pale. . . . It should not be tolerated.”
And it’s a sign of the times that the public is not tolerating it now, said Placentia Police Chief Manuel Ortega, who has been in law enforcement for 24 years.
He was one of a very few Latino officers when he joined the police force, Ortega said.
“I was Hispanic, and I was called called up in front of the classes at the academy to call cadences in Spanish,” the chief recalled. “The instructors and every one got a laugh out of it, and I got a laugh out of it, as well. But, could we do that today?”
The raucous banter often is a reaction to the racial and ethnic realities of the street, all agree. While the language has been somewhat scrubbed up over the years to match changing political climates, efforts to do so are sometimes laughable.
For example, one standard phrase in the New York Police Department used to be “Puerto Rican mystery,” according to Joe Zecca, who served 20 years in the NYPD and teaches, like Jim Curran, at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice.
“That’s when you stopped a vehicle and ended up issuing a summons for it being unlicensed, unregistered, uninspected, with no insurance and improper plates,” Zecca said, laughing.
Added Curran, “There’s usually 17 relatives involved, and to round out the story the car has to have passed through each one of their hands.”
Over the years, a “Puerto Rican mystery” has evolved into a “Hispanic” or “Latino” mystery. “It’s the same thing, but we have expunged words that relate to a specific ethnic group unless we know for a fact it is that group,” explained Zecca.
Several officers said the LAPD also has sanitized its language over the years and, as one noted, “moved with the times.” The veteran LAPD detective insisted that both wetback and nigger are finally out of the LAPD lexicon, although he said people in the Latino and black communities might use those terms to refer to themselves.
The detective said he approves of those changes, but he also complained about the brand of political correctness that has seeped into the LAPD and forced him to stop using “manpower” because it offends some women in the department.
In the post-King beating environment, he added, “Everybody is now so on pins and needles about joking in that fashion that those things (racial comments) aren’t happening and supervisors are stepping in a lot sooner. . . . We are being looked at with a microscope.”
Police seem to reserve some of the most rank talk for each other. Sgt. Michael J. Barela, a training officer in Los Angeles’ Rampart Division, says nicknames like “Dieselhead,” “Lurch,” “No Neck” and “Cookie Monster” are given out freely to cops.
“I would think that if you got called a name you didn’t like, you would let people know about it right off the bat,” Barela said. " . . . If you just roll with the flow, it’s just a way of laughing at yourself.”
Don Jackson didn’t laugh when he was called a “nigger” while on the Hawthorne force. But even though he went on to protest, he insisted that most minorities were pressured into accepting derogatory language by fellow officers. In taking a jaundiced view of minority groups, minority officers therefore take one of themselves, he contended.
Jackson said he had been lectured about being “blue,” not black.
”. . . I was told by a superior that if he called someone a nigger I should not be offended because I was not black, I was blue,” he said. “Blacks have every right to be sensitive to racial slurs. . . . It’s just too damn familiar.”
Yet several cops interviewed--primarily Anglo men--lamented the decline of humor and camaraderie in the LAPD and blamed it on various social policies such as affirmative action that allowed black and Latino rookies to come in at higher pay grades.
The races in the LAPD, a white veteran detective concluded, are becoming polarized, and because officers are being forced to tone down their language, police work has become “very bland.”
Despite all the explanations and psychological analysis of police culture, most experts agree that the basest cop talk has to be toned down and that officers must be taught to have a better public face--and perhaps even a better private face, the one that shows when they are within their own circle, with two or three buddies.
Yet none of the experts say they expect police departments to be able to completely screen out racism and sexism, although many try.
“We’re talking about controlling language and behavior that is in the normal range for males but that when they become police officers and get into power opportunities blows up in their face,” said Curran.
His prescription, shared by Kena Brutsch and many others, is fairly predictable: training, training and more training, on top of better supervision by veteran officers who clamp down on the most outrageous language.
The Garden Grove Police Department has long implemented a policy that requires department supervisors to monitor computer messages regularly, officials said.
“We read our messages constantly and make sure that they are strictly business,” said Lt. Scott Hamilton, who heads a monitoring group at the department. “If there is any indication that there are racial overtones, and let me add that we haven’t had that problem, (the officers involved) are confronted immediately.”
Wambaugh suggested that the LAPD would be better off with more women on the force--the figure is now 12.8%--because women are better at expressing themselves, particularly their feelings.
But others contend that language--florid, powerful language--can be used effectively, even by white men, without being harmful, and that barring it would force them to sound like high school English teachers, which would cost them stature with their peers.
Yet Jim Fyfe, a professor of criminal justice at American University in Washington who has studied attitudes in police agencies nationwide, said Los Angeles officers may just have to put a lid on the most racially tainted talk when they are within earshot of anyone who might be offended. The LAPD, he said, might benefit from the public paranoia that other city police, such as those in Miami and New York, went through when they had a “watershed” experience.
After the Knapp Commission concluded two decades ago that the NYPD was rife with corruption, the department became cautious with everyone--all the ethnic groups and media--who was monitoring the police.
Said Fyfe, a former officer who has testified against the LAPD in several brutality cases, “It was fine for them (the LAPD) to be so tough when everybody was Ozzie and Harriet. But L.A. has gone through as great a social change as any place in the country and become ethnically mixed. The police have to change too.”
Yet Edwin Torres, a New York state criminal judge who wrote a book about rough cops called “Q & A,” laughs at the notion of a polite police force that deletes its own expletives and racial slurs.
“That language is a fact of life,” said the judge, who grew up in Spanish Harlem and now tries some of the highest-profile crime cases in state court. “It always has been and always will be.”