Reminder to the SPD: Words Matter

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Many people were shocked to hear a Seattle Police officer threatening to “kick the fucking Mexican piss” out of a Latino man in South Lake Union last April.  Why did he choose to use those words when the man was already face-down on the ground in the middle of a circle of police officers and physically under their control?  The officer’s action and words were defended by the president of the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild, who said that gang officers deal with plenty of rough characters and often need to use coarse language. 

But did the officer need to degrade and humiliate the man? Did the officer need to let him know that he is not worthy of respect? 

The Chief of Police appropriately has let his officers know that this kind of behavior must stop. He has re-issued the policy prohibiting the use of derogatory terms and clarifying that officers who use profanity will be required to explain why they needed to use profanity.  Chief Diaz understands that words matter.  This policy is a step toward regaining the trust that has eroded in communities of color.  The policy must be enforced to truly establish that trust. 

Police officers are ambassadors for their department.  Their uniform, badge, and gun are reminders that that they have special authority. But their behavior is what earns them respect.  The SPD’s policy manual describes the department’s philosophy on professionalism in part like this:

Being an employee of the Seattle Police Department and, in particular, a sworn officer places all of us in a position of trust and high esteem in the eyes of the public.  … Members of the policing profession are respected and admired by the public for they truly know and appreciate the demands placed upon all of us as we strive to protect them and preserve civil liberties.  Our jobs require professionalism and dedication and it is incumbent on all of us to adhere to the rules and regulations of the Department and to constantly remember the special place we hold in society.

Seattle police officers are prohibited from using: “[w]ords which imply derogatory connotations or manifest contempt or disrespect toward any race, creed, religion, sexual orientation, or national origin”?   “Profanity is discouraged” though its use might be excusable in the heat of the moment. 

An officer’s use of profanity directed against an individual can breed disrespect and resentment of law enforcement.  In defending the use of harsh language, the head of the Police Officer Guild has said that Seattle isn’t Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. That’s true, but in saying this, he misses the point. What an officer chooses to say makes a difference.  An officer who uses derogatory terms is communicating that he holds the listener in contempt.  

Chief Diaz is right to demand that his officers maintain the most respectful and professional demeanor possible while they serve the public.  Professionalism requires that officers think about the impact of their words and understand that if they do not respect the people they serve, then the people they serve will lose respect for them.

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