Getting Clear on What We’re Talking About: Police, Police Department, Police Officer, Policing

I wrote this in late July 2016, and unfortunately it feels as relevant as ever today.

Lately I’ve been listening to a number of really well done interviews with important voices discussing American perceptions and realities on issues related to police in the United States. Listening to and reflecting on these interviews has brought into focus for me another problem of how we talk about and think about this issue that I believe is important to clarify. Loud voices shouting at each other on this topic are using words in a careless way — let me offer a possible lexicon for consideration.

Police — this term is used to refer to both a profession, police officer, and the ranks of all those in the profession — the shifts, squads, departments and other units in which police officers serve. It is a very broad term, and covers everyone from sheriffs in tiny towns to SWAT team members in NYC, rank and file officers, detectives, and police commissioners. The profession is so diverse that any simple statements about “the police” are probably innacurate.

Police Officer — refers to both the profession and to individuals who hold the title. Sometimes we talk about what “police officers” do, sometimes we talk about the actions of an individual officer. This term is likely best used when referring to individuals — for example, the officers responding to this incident behaved in this way.

Police Department — police function within governmental departments, and so it’s possible to say something useful about the track record or training or culture or leaders of a particular department. That doesn’t mean each officer is equally implicated or praised, but rather gives us a way of thinking about police structure, culture and behavior at a unit level that is meaningful.

Policing — this is a method or approach to doing the job — e.g. community policing, stop and frisk. All professions have methods we can look at and study — for example, some parts of the financial services industry utilized a practice called subprime lending that contributed to the 2008 financial crisis. Talking about methods of policing is a way for us to step back from the all or nothing language and thinking we’re experiencing — i.e. either “all cops are heroes” or “all cops are villains.”

My friends at the FrameWorks Institute have found, over and over, that Americans’ cultural models or thinking patterns tend to reflect a strong individualist bias — that is, Americans tend to think of issues as being caused by the actions of individuals and as solveable only by the actions of individuals. Experts across many fields tell us that issues facing the nation — like poverty, sexual violence, climate change — actually have more systemic and structural causes and require like solutions. What that means is that we need to help ourselves and each other think about issues related to “police” not only as stories of individual villains or heroes but as stories of how systems and structures — like departments, procedures, laws, methods — work, what we know about them (e.g. data, examples) and how they can change.

As you listen to coverage of this issue and discussions among people you know (on social media or in conversation), see if you can notice how these terms are being used. It seems to me that getting clearer about what exactly we’re talking about is one small step toward a more useful and actionable dialogue on this incredibly important issue.