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.



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