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David Brittan
Photo: Alonso Nichols


Word Police

In this year of public reflection on the proper role of the police, there have been many calls for demilitarization—for getting rid of the mine-resistant vehicles, body armor, assault rifles, and other equipment bestowed upon police departments by the Pentagon. President Obama took action in May, banning federal agencies from supplying many types of armament. “We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there’s an occupying force as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them,” he said.

But the militarization of policing is not just about gear. It’s a whole way of thinking and speaking—one that assumes police power is based on military might rather than the consent of the policed. Martial language can divide police from their communities just as scary-looking weapons can. Here are a few of the terms that ought to be jettisoned along with the grenade launchers and camo uniforms:

Civilians. It’s how police often refer to the rest of us. But in the United States, the police are not a branch of the military—they, too, are civilians. They police their fellow citizens, residents, or community members. We are, at least in theory, all on the same side.

Police force. Of the many things police do, the use of force may be the least central to their job description. Calling the police a “force,” or “the force,” makes them sound like a quasi-military body that exists to quash dissent and prop up the dominant culture. No wonder the phrase “police force” (according to Google) peaked during World War II and again during the Vietnam era. “Police department” is a benign substitute; “police service,” an even better one.

Deploy. In polite society, missiles and troops are deployed; police officers are dispatched. Yet nowadays, the more Rumsfeldian verb is applied to our keepers of the peace. In Boston, the official report on the police response to the Marathon bombings complained of officers “self-deploying,” like so many RoboCops. I say the officers “arrived on their own initiative.”

Troopers. When state police adopt this handle, it’s hard to avoid the association with paratroopers or storm troopers—especially when, as in Massachusetts, they inhabit “barracks” and seemingly dress to intimidate (nothing says totalitarian excess like a shiny pair of jackboots).

Colonel, major, lieutenant, etc. American police borrow most designations of rank from the military. Many other countries use civil titles such as inspector and superintendent, and the trusty constable (from the Latin comes stabuli, comrade of the stable, which at least implies kindness to animals). We should follow suit.

This is, after all, America, where the people govern themselves and “occupying forces” are decidedly unwelcome. If we truly want the police to be of our society and not outside or above it, the language of policing needs to lose its military swagger. Let’s keep it civil.


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