Line of Duty’s daft jargon masks a big real-world policing problem

Line of Duty’s daft jargon masks a big real-world policing problem

The sixth series of Line of Duty, which continues tonight on BBC1, began with a dizzying assault of police jargon. In the first few minutes alone, we met a DCI from the MIT receiving intel that was graded 1A on the Matrix, leading to an IRV with an ARU in tow. There were TLs and TFCs and the now infamous ‘CHIS handler’. It was enough to make even the most patient viewer consider carrying out an AOABH.

Policing is steeped in this type of technical language. Line of Duty may have been slightly over the top, but current and former police officers confirm that it’s a largely accurate portrayal of the way that they interact with each other on the job. A glossary on the Metropolitan Police website lists more than 1700 different acronyms ranging from AABC (Action Against Business Crime 2008) to YOTs (Youth Offending Teams).

The rich soup of acronyms and slang terms has become an almost “tribal” language, according to one former detective. And that’s potentially a problem, because it creates a disconnect between the police and the people they’re meant to serve – if the two sides can’t understand each other, it could be bad for transparency, accountability and ultimately, for society.

For law enforcement, jargon serves multiple purposes. One is purely practical. “There’s a lot of process, a lot of procedure, a lot of law, and often jargon is used as a way of summarising that,” says Rick Muir, Director of the Police Foundation think tank. It saves time.

But there’s another aspect to it too, argues Tony Thorne, a linguist and visiting professor at King’s College London. Thorne researches the niche language used by subcultures – earlier in his career he focussed on business jargon, while more recently he’s become an expert in the slang used by young people and groups such as drill musicians. “These are what linguists call ‘in-group’ varieties of language,” he says. “The dual function is to include members of the in-group, and by implication exclude outsiders.”

There are two priorities for good communication, says Thorne. The first is ‘intelligibility’ – making what you say understandable. The second is ‘appropriacy’ – a piece of jargon in itself, but one which means using the right language in the right context.

Officers are trained in how to talk to the public, but they still sometimes use jargon as a means of intimidation or coercion, as witnessed in the recent case of PC Oliver Banfield, who was off duty when he violently assaulted a woman who was walking home alone, drunkenly citing the ‘Criminal Evidence Act’ as he attempted to drag her to the ground. “Jargon is often used, maybe deliberately, to intimidate people who don’t have access to it,” says Thorne.

Even official communication sometimes gets this wrong: a form introduced to try and increase accountability as part of stop and searches in the wake of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry was criticised, for instance, for being full of jargon and difficult for members of the public to understand, damaging the accountability it was trying to promote.

“Clearly there are some cases where police officers are maybe using some of the language in ways that may be intimidating,” says Muir, although he points out that public complaints tend to be about the tone or aggressiveness of communication rather than the words used. “There is an asymmetry there. They’re trained in the law and members of the public aren’t.”

But that’s not the only problem. The language we use can change the way we think, and jargon could have an effect on the sometimes fraught relationship between public and police – one that’s been thrown into sharp relief by recent events. We become reduced to numbers or codes – to a watching police officer, I’m not a man walking to the shops, but an ‘IC4 male proceeding in a southerly direction’. This can feed into a dehumanising effect – if officers say CHIS (covert human intelligence source) when they really mean ‘informant,’ it could have an impact on the way that person is treated.

It’s also been identified as a potential contributor to police brutality. Jargon can become one of the “linguistic tricks people use when they want to achieve moral distance from their surroundings,” writes David Brooks in an Atlantic article about the militarisation of American policing.

That’s also evident in the neutral, corporate language used by police forces when communicating to the public through more official channels. Rendered in this impenetrable format, the killing of Breonna Taylor last March was not ‘an innocent woman being shot to death in her own house,’ but “an officer-involved shooting” inside “a secured home”.

That’s partly a legal issue – the police are often dealing with allegations rather than fact so have to be very careful not to prejudice events – they may have to call someone a ‘complainant’ rather than a ‘victim’ until the case is solved, even if that seems callous and unsympathetic. “They’ve become much more conscious of the absolute need to be very rigorous,” says Thorne, who often works with police in an advisory capacity.

But these apparently subtle changes in language can make a big difference. A study by Stanford psychologists Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky asked residents to come up with solutions to a crime wave that was framed either as either a virus or a beast ravaging the city. When it was framed as a virus, participants suggested preventative measures – social reforms, eradicating poverty and improving education. When it was described as a beast, they suggested harsher enforcement laws to catch and jail criminals. “Though euphemisms and other linguistic hedges have their place in how we communicate, the repeated use of troubling euphemistic messaging, such as “officer-involved shooting,” does have an impact on whether perpetrators are ultimately held responsible for their crimes,” writes Chi Luu.

When the Metropolitan Police was founded by Sir Robert Peel in 1829, it enshrined the British model of ‘policing by consent’ – the police rely on the public’s cooperation to do their jobs. Jargon isn’t a problem if it’s used internally – but when it starts to leak out into other contexts, it threatens the foundations of that contract between police and public, which have been under serious strain in recent weeks with the killing of Sarah Everard, and demonstrations in Bristol against draconian anti-protest measures being introduced by the British government.

Police jargon has shifted over the years from being rooted in the language of the white working classes – of being a genuine form of slang, into a new, corporate-speak, rich in acronyms and euphemisms. “You don’t get imagery, metaphor or figurative language,” Thorne says. “It’s technical language, it’s the language of authority, it’s legalistic language.”

The nature of the policing profession can create a tendency for officers to see themselves as separate from the population. “When you become a police officer you’re stepping over a threshold,” Muir says. But one of the nine founding principlesof the Met was the idea that ‘the police are the public and the public are the police’ – and the changing jargon on shows like Line of Duty represents a potential shift in that reality. “The police don’t always live up to those principles,” Muir says, “and perhaps the language reflects that.”

Amit Katwala is WIRED’s culture editor. He tweets from @amitkatwala

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Published at Sun, 28 Mar 2021 06:00:00 +0000