Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology

, Volume 34, Issue 1, pp 87–90 | Cite as

Police Profanity and Public Judgments of Guilt and Effectiveness in Officer-Involved Shootings

  • Matthew J. SharpsEmail author
  • Jaime F. Torkelson
  • David L. Hulett
  • Megan L. Kuhn
  • Clarissa N. Sevillano


Police shooting decisions have come under increasing scrutiny, and the degree to which potential jurors and witnesses understand those decisions is increasingly important. Officers under the stress of shooting situations may use profanity which may be recorded, but which does not relate to tactical outcomes. This research addressed how such profanity may influence public assessment of police performance. A paragraph was provided to respondents, describing a situation in which a male officer shot an armed adult male perpetrator. The officer was presented as either having used or not used profanity in the situation. Respondents were asked to address the officer’s performance under these two different sets of conditions. Profanity resulted in a significantly higher perceived level of officer guilt in these situations, and a diminished perception of his professionalism, but did not result in a lower level of perception as to whether the officer had successfully resolved the situation or had done the “right thing.” Results are discussed in terms of current cognitive theory and of practical application in the field and in court.


Officer-involved shooting Police conduct Contextual reasoning Public opinion Law enforcement 


Funding Information

Portions of this research were funded by a portion of a $5000 Summer Salary granted to the first author by the College of Science and Mathematics, California State University, Fresno.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

This project received full ethical approval from the Human Subjects Committee, Department of Psychology, College of Science and Mathematics, California State University, Fresno. The project was approved as a “minimal risk” procedure for human subjects.

Informed Consent

All human subjects of this research were provided with full informed consent according to the ethical standards of the American Psychological Association, standard for this field. All were adults, and all indicated that they had fully read the Informed Consent form and the research descriptions contained therein, and signed the form to give their consent to participation in the research.


  1. Ainsworth J (2006) Cursing and other vulgar language in police-citizen interactions: why it matters. Conf Pap—Law Soc 1:1Google Scholar
  2. Baseheart JR, Cox TC (1993) Effects of police profanity on a receiver’s perceptions of credibility. J Police Crim Psychol 9:9–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Clifford BR, Richards VJ (1977) Comparison of recall by policemen and civilians under conditions of long and short durations of exposure. Percept Mot Skills 45:503–512CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Correll J, Park B, Judd CM, Wittenbrink B (2002) The police officer’s diemma: using ethnicity to disambiguate potentially threatening individuals. J Pers Soc Psychol 83:1314–1329CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Correll J, Park B, Judd CM, Wittenbrink B, Sadler MS, Keesee T (2007) Across the thin blue line: police officers and racial bias in the decision to shoot. J Pers Soc Psychol 92:1006–1023CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Frank J, Smith BW, Novak KJ (2005) Exploring the basis of citizens’ attitudes toward the police. Police Quarterly 8:206–228CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Grossman D (1996) On killing. Little, Brown, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  8. Jay T (1999) Why we curse: a neuro-psycho-social theory of speech. John Benjamin, PhiladelphiaCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Johnson DI, Lewis N (2010) Perceptions of swearing in the work setting: an expectancy violation theory perspective. Commun Rep 23:106–118CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Moore, L. (2006, November). Conference on the use of force in law enforcement. Office of the United States Marshal, Fresno, CAGoogle Scholar
  11. Patton CL, Asken M, Fremouw WJ, Bemis R (2017) The influence of police profanity on public perception of excessive force. J Police Crim Psychol 32:340–357CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Schmidt MS, Apuzzo M (2015) FBI chief links scrutiny of police with rise in violent crime. New York Times, P–1Google Scholar
  13. Sharps MJ (2003) Aging, representation, and thought: Gestalt and feature-intensive processing. Transaction Publishers, PiscatawayGoogle Scholar
  14. Sharps MJ (2017) Processing under pressure: stress, memory, and decision in law enforcement (2nd ed.). Looseleaf Law, FlushingGoogle Scholar
  15. Sharps MJ, Martin SS (2002) “Mindless” decision making as a failure of contextual reasoning. J Psychol 136:272–282CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Sharps MJ, Nunes MA (2002) Gestalt and feature-intensive processing: toward a unified theory of human information processing. Curr Psychol 21:68–84CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Zhao JS, Ren R (2015) Exploring the dimensions of public attitudes toward the police. Police Quarterly 18:3–26CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Society for Police and Criminal Psychology 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Matthew J. Sharps
    • 1
    Email author
  • Jaime F. Torkelson
    • 1
  • David L. Hulett
    • 1
  • Megan L. Kuhn
    • 1
  • Clarissa N. Sevillano
    • 1
  1. 1.California State UniversityFresnoUSA

Personalised recommendations