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Just the facts, Ma'am

My eminent colleague Peter Hermann invited me the other day to think about posting on crime story cliches — you know, the kind of cop speak argot that creeps into the text because reporters have echolalia. Mr. Hermann started Fout as a police reporter, and he now writes about crime, so he understands the hazards of the job.

Rummaging around on cable the other day, I came across an episode of Dragnet, the early television police procedural with Jack Webb only slightly more animated than a test pattern (Children, you can ask Grandfather what a “test pattern” was).* This was a late episode — I could tell, because it wasn’t in black and white (While you’re at it, children, ask Grandfather about “black and white”) — but the dialogue was every bit as wooden as in the original.

Cop speak prose in newspaper stories is also solid mahogany. Some examples:

Exited the premises: “Left the house.” Houses and apartments are always premises. And people, as if they were following stage directions, always exit.

Altercation: “Quarrel” or “fight.” Once someone gets shot or stabbed, the "altercation" has "escalated." Afterward, the “perpetrator” exits the premises.

Ejected from the vehicle: Think “thrown from the car.” It’s always a “vehicle,” not a “car,” even if the officer knows full well that it is a Ford Crown Victoria the size of your parents’ first house.

Discharged his weapon: “Fired his gun.”

The unit block of X Street: Never just “the first block.”

Failed to negotiate a curve: “Ran off the road.”

Wooded area: Where vehicles wind up when they fail to negotiate a curve. Bailed out: No one just “jumps out” of a car — it’s more like a parachutist leaping from a plane.

Fled on foot: Mere laypeople would probably say “ran away.” But for police, a suspect flees on foot after bailing out of the vehicle that failed to negotiate a curve and crashed in a wooden area.

Police believe: Let’s leave belief to the theologians. When the police offer a theory or supposition, let’s say that they “think.”

Person of interest: A weaselly term that has come into vogue when police have someone in for questioning who may well be a suspect but whom they shy away from identifying as such. This is treacherous for journalists, who are reluctant to make a characterization beyond what the police are willing to say publicly, but “person of interest” is probably already understood by the public to mean “suspect.” Just as readers of British newspapers understand “helping the police with their inquiries” as meaning “shut up in a small room for prolonged interrogation.”

10-4: Not sure that anyone still uses this, but those old enough to recall Broderick Crawford growling into the police radio on Highway Patrol (Children, you might have to ask Great-grandfather about this one) understands that this is a sign-off.


* “Just the facts, Ma’am” was Webb’s signature phrase as Sgt. Joe Friday.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:35 PM | | Comments (12)


wouldn't it be more correct to say "police said they think"? we don't really know what police think; we only know what they said.


Give my generation some credit. We were raised on Nick at Nite. Not only do we know what a test pattern is, we watched Dragnet regularly and were familiar enough with it to find the Mathnet parody hilarious.

As for black and white, my family didn't buy a color TV until I was eight years old.

But Highway Patrol, that I'll give you. Never heard of it.

Hah! Next you'll be telling me you never heard of Spring Byington.

Back in the day

That would be correct.

"Unit Block". Yes, it's a clunky phrase, but in Baltimore, all the street numbers stretch away from Charles and Baltimore streets. Wouldn't it be odd to think of the first block of a street as one from which it stretches for miles in both directions?

You think you're old because you have a dim memory of test patterns on TV? I'm old enough to remember sitting around the radio on Sunday evenings listening to Jack Benny and Our Miss Brooks and another show that can no longer be mentioned (I don't mean to condone soft-core racism, though).

One Halloween, long, long ago, in a city called Baltimore, two uniformed officers hid behind curtains with the family of a teen-aged girl and watched a fifty-year old neighbor masturbate in his front window. He had been doing this for some weeks after switching his lights off and on when the young woman would begin to retire each evening.

The police report described the game with the lights - the victim switched her bedroom light off. The suspect switched his light off. The victim switched her bedroom light on after thirty seconds and the suspect immediately switched his light on. After three more cycles, with the light off, the suspect stood in his front window, opened his bathrobe, and, standing nude, began to fondle his genitals.

There was more in the report that was submitted to the hardened Sergeant, a former homicide dick. As he signed it, he directed his young officers to testify graphically and exaggerate hand motions in court so that the judge could understand what happened that night.

At the trail, the officers testified as directed, recalling the "long strokes of the right hand of the defendant standing at trial table." The defense counsel objected to no avail. On cross examination he challenged the officers' testimony with the words in the report.

The officers' explained that there was no room in the report for the illustrations that would have been necessary to fully describe the defendant's actions. The attorney moved to strike the officers' testimony.

"Denied!" declared the judge.

Turning to the defendant, the judge added, "You're a sick, sick man. A guilty, sick man."

The sergeant snickered from the hallway.

All this jargon sounds horribly familiar to me. I used to write for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, covering cops and breaking news on the weekends and holidays when everybody else was off enjoying their days off.

The thing that struck me most about the jargon cops use is how easily they use it, almost as if it's second nature. I could always spot a rookie by the directness of his speech (and the emotion contained in it). Veteran cops, for the most part, spew these terms.

Alas, the jargon is enticing. I'm sure several of these phrases crept into my stories, and not contained in quotation marks.

As I imagine many copy editors do, I occasionally wonder what it would be like to rob a bank (a colleague at the Arizona Republic held up a downtown depository in the 1980s and fled on his bicycle). Lacking any certain knowledge about a robber's getaway gait, I am loath to change "fled on foot" to "ran away." Mightn't a thoughtful robber attract less attention if he briskly walked from the scene? A purposeful kind of "fleeing" that stops short of breaking into a canter?

I know some editors bristle at "cop speak," but sometimes I think these editors are just hand wringing. I had an editor who wouldn't let me use the word "suspect" to describe the person ... well, suspected in the crime. I would have to resort to clunky phrases such as "the man alleged in the crime" or "the person police suspect committed the crime." Give me a freakin' break!

And I also have a problem with "ran away." How do you know they actually ran away? Shall I write: "The person police allege committed the crime ran, or possibly walked (perhaps loped), from the scene."
More hand wringing!

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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