The thin 'blanking' blue line

Should Seattle cops be punished for swearing at suspects? Do we really want Nordstrom standards for policing our streets?

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Seattle police: not all fun and summer parades.

Should Seattle cops be punished for swearing at suspects? Do we really want Nordstrom standards for policing our streets?

My father was a doctor, but he swore like a sailor. Or a lumberjack, and perhaps you can attribute some of it to his summers working in remote logging camps near Neah Bay in the 1930s. He avoided the f-word, but otherwise used a broad vocabulary that was the product of an education courtesy of Yale and Crown-Zellerbach.

My mother got after him about it: She rarely said anything worse than an occasional "damn" and when we heard that, we all knew something really, really bad had happened.

One morning, over breakfast, my mother obtained promises from my dad that he would clean up his language around us kids. He swore he would, then left for work. Moments later, on his way downstairs to the garage, be banged his head on a beam. "Goddamned son-of-a-bitch" and worse resounded through the house, perhaps the shortest duration of a promise on family record.

Despite his cursing being pretty common, it could be intimidating. If my dad howled imprecations at a stubborn nail or piece of wood in his shop, it could be entertaining, like watching Donald Duck fly into a rage. But when the language was directed in our direction, it got our serious attention and quickly put you into "Yes, sir," mode.

Mother was unsuccessful at micromanaging my Dad's language. I can't imagine the Seattle Office of Professional Accountability will be any more successful reigning in the cursing of cops. Three Seattle police officers have been suspended for using profanity while making arrests. 

From news accounts, you have to figure it out for yourself. One said to a suspect, "(blank) my (blank)." Another said "I'm going to break your (blanking) neck." One wonders, was the officer punished for the "blank," or for the threat? Because if it's for the profanity, you're going to have a "blanking" hard time cleaning up the "blanking" potty mouth of every cop who talks "blank."

Another officer who drew a 20-day suspension was reported to have said to a gang banger (a term which seems a little vulgar itself): "I’m going to skull (blank) you and drag you down the street."

If my dad had said this to me, I would have been scared "blankless," but I doubt many gangbangers would be offended at phrases you can hear "bleeped" on Comedy Central from Jon Stewart. Bleeps, by the way, are token nowadays because everyone already knows the words and phrases. They've become part of the joke. So has hyperbole.

The level of shock value increases with the person being addressed and the context. If it's an old lady pulled over for California-stopping a stop sign in Laurelhurst, the threat of a "skull 'blanking'" might be a tad overblown.

Police clearly use heavier weapons depending on the perceived threat to public safety and themselves. Sometimes the heavy verbal guns of vulgarity are a way of intimidating suspects so that real weapons won't have to be used. Or maybe it's a way of letting off steam in a pressure cooker.

I'm not sure the Nordstrom standard of customer service on the streets is always appropriate for the police department.

I also wonder if Seattle really wants a police force that speaks to criminals as if they're issuing an invitation to tea. Assuming you could police the profanity, doesn't the toughness — and the refusal to be intimidated that it can represent — actually provide some comfort for the law-abiding? I certainly liked it when my father's profanity was rolled out in my defense. Message: I "blanking" care.

My own language has evolved over time. I recently talked to a former newspaper colleague about a new editing job he had. He told me it was great. "I can even say 'blank' in the newsroom!" he enthused. Saying "blank" in newsrooms, for fun, for intimidation, or for the utter gratuitousness of it, seems like a right, but as political correctness has slowly squeezed the spontaneity out of many work environments, the roaring guns of profanity have tended to be silenced. I don't think I ever threatened anyone at the Weekly with a "skull 'blanking'" for having missed a deadline, but I have carpet f-bombed a newsroom.

Being out of the newspaper pressure-cooker and talking on live public radio every week, my act is much cleaner these days, though I did say "piss" on KUOW recently and was surprised to find that this word is still one of broadcasting's forbidden ones. Perhaps I have been coarsened by a "skull 'blanking'" culture.

Still, I have to say that while I expect the police be fair, to strive to operate without racism or bias, I also don't expect them to take Miss Manner for a ride-along every day.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.