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Why profanity directed toward suspects isn’t worth it

Negative and unnecessary statements made by an officer can taint a justifiable use of force

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There is little good that comes out of disrespecting people by “poking the bear.”


There was a cautionary warning that an old field training officer used while training his new corrections officers and police recruits. He would tell his charges: “Don’t poke the bear!”

“Poking the bear” is saying a thing or things that will make an officer feel good and sometimes entertain their fellow officers at the expense of a suspect. There is often a price to pay for those words of one-upmanship – they can make a good situation bad, or a bad situation worse. They also can make the officer look profane, petty, or even like an instigator rather than the peacekeeper.

Don’t Poke the Bear

All modern police officers and jailers are trained in professional communication skills. They are taught communication tactics and techniques designed to de-escalate volatile situations, diffuse potentially explosive situations and achieve voluntary compliance. Police and corrections officers apply these skills daily all over this country with great success. The best efforts of these officers can all be for naught when another officer interjects himself or herself into the situation just to “poke the bear.”

Make no mistake about it: despite your best communication efforts, there will be those difficult suspects who you will be unable to gain compliance from by mere words only. There is no way of avoiding all confrontations in a long career.

A career is filled with enough of these unavoidable confrontations without having to work with someone who feels the need to cultivate more by “poking the bear.”

In Use of Force Cases

The two times “poking the bear” has the greatest negative impact is when force has been used already, or just before the use of force. These negative and unnecessary statements made by an officer can taint a justifiable use of force.

There is a fine line between a use of force and a criminal battery. A few words uttered by one officer could cause a jury to reinterpret the intent of all officers involved. Those words can alter drastically where that line is drawn by a citizen jury – whose decision is made months removed from the heat of the battle.

The Law Enforcement Professional

As a part of the job description, police and corrections officers go to bad places and deal with bad people.

Even so, it does not matter, where you are, or who you are dealing with, people expect that for professional law enforcement and correctional officers, treating people with respect is the minimum standard. This is good because treating people with respect often pays dividends.

There is little good that comes out of disrespecting people by “poking the bear.” Sadly, when the bear bites it is not always the officer that did the poking that gets bit. This is why professional officers dislike working with the few officers that exist in the profession who entertain themselves by being antagonistic.

If you are one of those officers that “poke the bear” please knock it off.

How to Avoid “Poking the Bear”

It is sometimes tempting to want to talk back to people. When the urge presents itself, it is a discipline to rise above the verbal fray. To achieve verbal superiority would naturally feel good. However, the late great George Thompson shared a verbalization rule to operate by when he cautioned, “If it feels good, don’t say it.”

In law enforcement, certain circumstances sometimes present themselves whereby an officer can shoot someone and that is defensible.

On the other hand, the circumstances will never exist where it is defensible for an officer to call a suspect, “dirtball, spit-head, mother-trucker, or gas-hole.”

Picture a justifiable shooting predicated by an officer saying one of those words before squeezing the trigger. Would those words being said by any officer before a police shooting possibly alter considerably the perception of the “totality of circumstances,” in a deadly force case?

8 Key Tips

  • Avoid the use of profanity.
  • Avoid a sarcastic tone.
  • Do not punish with your words.
  • Do not belittle with your words.
  • Do not use what is commonly considered “fighting words.”
  • Remember nothing a suspect says or does is personal. They are talking to and fighting with your badge. Don’t take it personally. The man who angers you conquers you.
  • Apply this rule of parenting to all contacts: “Remember, you are the adult here.”
  • Tell officers you work with who do “poke the bear” that they are going to get someone hurt or fired someday so “please cease and desist.”

The Old FTO

That old Field Training Officer also used to tell his recruits, “Courtesy is a good cop’s secret weapon. Even if you have to use force, be courteous right up to impact and beyond. Win the fight, handcuff them, search them and then after calming them – and quite possibly yourself – down, help them up, brush them off and restore their dignity.”

He would always close by saying, “Remember we are the good guys and good gals. Avoid the fight when possible, but when fight we must, always win physically, legally and emotionally by fighting the good fight.”

This article, originally published 12/03/2014, has been updated.

Lt. Dan Marcou is an internationally-recognized police trainer who was a highly-decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement experience. Marcou’s awards include Police Officer of the Year, SWAT Officer of the Year, Humanitarian of the Year and Domestic Violence Officer of the Year. Upon retiring, Lt. Marcou began writing. Additional awards Lt. Marcou received were 15 departmental citations (his department’s highest award), two Chief’s Superior Achievement Awards and the Distinguished Service Medal for his response to an active shooter. He is a co-author of “Street Survival II, Tactics for Deadly Encounters,” which is now available. His novels, “The Calling, the Making of a Veteran Cop,” “SWAT, Blue Knights in Black Armor,” “Nobody’s Heroes” and Destiny of Heroes,” as well as his latest non-fiction offering, “Law Dogs, Great Cops in American History,” are all available at Amazon. Dan is a member of the Police1 Editorial Advisory Board.