December 10, 2007

Perps, Cuffs, and Doughnuts Too


Every profession has one, and that is its own language. Those in the medical, legal and education professions all speak with the jargon of their career field. My former line of work is no different. Cops have a lingo all their own, comprised of legalese, shorthand, and slang. You've heard police say the word "perp" on detective shows for years. Many of you know what a perp is. You do, don’t you? A perp is a perpetrator. That’s slang for suspect. It's easier to say than perpetrator. Another exmple is in New York City, if a cop needs to call on the radio for an ambulance, he asks the dispatcher for a bus. That’s because it’s shorter than calling for an ambulance when time is critical.

Also, there are all of those radio codes cops rattle off, as well as sections of the law and the Patrol Guide which are quoted during the course of a busy tour of duty. Now that I am a writer, I wish to tell many of the stories I have from my experiences “on the job” but I don’t want to bludgeon the reader over the head with cop-speak. It’s confusing and requires a glossary at the end of the story. One other reason I want to take it easy with the police terminology is that it’s boring. Nothing makes a reader want to skim past pages of dialogue and description faster than dousing them with industry-specific or profession-oriented speech. Only the true police buff will sift through a word list and define various phrases and terms used in a police story. My goal is to write for a wide audience and not insult the reader’s intelligence by making the text too simple, and to maintain an aura of realism.

So, when striking a balance with readers and authenticity, I tend to allow the narrator describe details in lay terms rather than have the characters do it talking like "hair bags" (hardened, veteran police officers). It is less confusing to say “The officers climbed into their cruiser to begin their tour of duty", rather than have cop #1 say to cop#2 “You sign out an RMP and I’ll be the recorder.” I can tell already that you’re falling asleep.

In real life scenarios, police in New York City are trained that if they don’t know a radio code, you simply say what you need. If you’re trying to break up a small riot and cannot decide if you want to call a 10-13 or ask for a 10-85 forthwith, just tell Central where you are and that you need backup. Everyone in the whole division will know right away that you’re getting your head handed to you and they’ll fly there “lights and sirens” or even with “hats and bats.” This makes my job as a writer easier when creating scenes where my police characters use the radio because I can realistically have them talk like civilians to the central dispatcher and toss in generic “10” codes which anyone knows, such as “10-4.”

Where my job gets dicey is when my characters are on patrol or hanging around with other cops. So far I’ve gotten around this by limiting my patrol time with my characters and having the narrating “voice” translate the details of a jargon laden conversation. In addition, I’m given to mixing civilians into social settings with the off duty police officers in various scenes to suppress the natural urge of the cops to settle into unfiltered cop-talk. My first foray into blogging about my police experiences seemed to go well judging by the comments I received from the post. I tried to balance what happened with my civilian voice and explain any of the law enforcement tactics and verbiage. The story has been posted for several days now and reactions have been positive. My three novel length police stories, though read by only a small number of select readers, have also been given upbeat reviews. Yet, I feel like it is a lot of work to get the mix of pure police-speak and civilian perspective right.

A true writer, in my opinion, never has an easy job. If it is effortless for me to publish even a blog post, then maybe I'm not doing enough to please my readers. I accept the assignment of relating my police experiences in either fictionalized, novel length works, or blog postings in this space. In fact, while putting together this piece, I was reminded of an incident while working in Manhattan North in the sixth radio division when a/t/p/o, c/v stated that she was struck by unk perp about the head and neck w/blunt inst. Perp fled unk dir. Canvass neg, 32 PCT SQD not. EMS 10/84 C/V RMA. Now that was scary.

19 comments:

Teige Benson said...

You're right - there is a thin line between being authentic to the piece and losing the reader in all the unknown jargon.

If you're writing fiction, I think its best to intersperse the technical jargon into the story in a way that most readers will understand what is happening (even if they don't understand the exact terms). If we insist on being too technical, all the time and at every turn, perhaps we should write non-fiction.

The Uneasy Supplicant said...

Love your closing line LOL. Of course you're totally right. However, you might be able to incorporate some of the jargon, somehow. I think it would be interesting as well. Don't know. What do you think? I found this post interesting. I had no idea that the police force had such a wide array of acronyms and codes built into their lingo. Thanks Mike.

Andrew said...

I could go back and forth on this. Of course the writer must find the happy medium. Take 'ER' as a case example. Often, I'll get lost in the lingo that gets thrown around. That lingo, though, really only comes during moments of high intensity and chaos. As a viewer, the lingo adds to that intensity and chaos by making us get 'lost;' we become dependent on the doctors to pull us through the scene much like the fictional victum's family. After, as a viewer, it's pretty clear that a lot was said, yet we really don't need to know what everything meant. It wasn't the words that mattered, but everything in, on, and around them. So, take a cop scene. During a high intensity situation, jargon can be thrown like confetti, but after it's all said and done, what matters for the reader is what happened, not what was said. And that jargon, all it really did was add authenticity, even if we, as a reader, had no idea what it meant. But, of course, a happy medium is important. Fuck, I mean, shit, you fuckin' start tossin' too much of that shit around and fuckin'A you might turn some god damn mother fuckers off, right? ...haha...that other post of your's ;)

josey said...

hey, mike :) i agree with those who said interpersing some of the cop jargon is a good idea. it engages me, the reader, and makes me feel like i'm a part of something exciting and real.

the character's actions and reactions will definitely help crystallize what the jargon meant if the reader is that perceptive. if not, that's okay, i still think it gives the story a realistic tone :)

boy, you're right, a writer's job isnt easy or simple!!

Jack Payne said...

In the con artist "profession," too, colorful jargon proliferates. There's the warm-up, the set-up, the close, as practiced by these scoundrels. The qualifier or dialer compiles the initial lists of marks for attack by the fronter, reloader, or closer. No salers and takeover men step in when the going gets tough.

If I were to use too much of this lingo while writing about con artists it would sound like I was talking Farsi with a Swedish accent. I try to minimize it.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Teige,
I like your thought that if a writer wants to be too technical, the he/she should write non-fiction. I try my best to tell the story and balance the police terms with a narrator who'll define what is happening. However, in much the same way I enjoy stumbling across a word or term in a book every once in a while and then look it up, I'd be hard pressed to have to consult a glossary at every turn of the page. The key then, is to balance, and that is where the skill of a writer comes into play. All of this is easier said than done. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi JD,
I'm glad you liked the closing line. I wanted to show that a standard police report reads like acronym soup, and thus illustrate my point about the police lingo is not just peppered with cop terms, it can be an entire language. You don't know how easy it is for me to slip back into cop world when I am hanging around my friends who are still on the job. Our wives groan and roll their eyes and tell us to knock it off. You know the old saying "Once a cop, always a cop." That's in spite of my efforts to "De-Police" myself. As far as writing about it is concerned, see the response I left for Teige, above. We both share the same philosphy on the subject. Thanks JD. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Andrew,
I agree and disagree with you. I watch ER and see how effective they are at dissolving into pure medical terminology while the viewer follows along waiting for the dust to clear at the end of the scene. But, it is the characters in the end, the doctors, who sum up the tense emergency room scenes and the viewer knows that and waits patiently for a conclusion. It is the same as in real life when one of our loved ones is involved in an accident and we watch as EMTs and physicians save their lives and we hold on until one of the doctors pulls us aside for “the talk” where we get the diagnosis and the prognosis. Nobody would continue to watch the show if the writers, and ultimately the doctor characters on the program, left the viewer hanging and never told us what a squamous cell carcinoma was. That is the same fine line I walk with my police stories without having to give lessons in the laws of arrest, the elements of a stop, question, and frisk, and when and the use of force. All I can say is "damn it's tough to write, ain’t it?"
As always, thanks for the insight and for a great comment, Andrew.

Mr. Grudge said...

Oh, and another thing, Andrew, you shouldn't quote my other fucking post about cursing in writing, goddamn it. Ha ha. That one was about using filthy fucking language and your comment here is full of all kinds of shit that you can't fucking say on this fucking blog...lol. Only cops and sailors talk that kind of shit. Whew, it was good to get all of that out. I usually don't fucking curse on my goddamned shitty blog. Hah ha. -Mike

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Josey, I agree that the character’s reactions crystallize what happens in a scene, but when really meaty terms are tossed around, an eventual definition is in order. The balancing act occurs when striving for realism. I can't stand watching cop shows or reading police stories which weren't authored by actual cops. I can pick out the inaccuracies a mile away and it ruins the suspension of disbelief for me. I got about half way through a police novel once when he had all of his police characters getting out of their squad cars to use payphones to call in for help, etc. This was the late 1980,s and not the turn of the century. I was a cop in the late 1980's and I kept asking myself if this author ever heard of a &^%$#@! radio? That killed it for me. There was no authenticity in a story where two cops were getting shot at and couldn't call for help because there was no payphone around when real police us handheld radios to communicate. That's one type of thing which can ruin it for a reader when you try to water things down. Yes, it is a fine line between being authentic and not wanting to beat your readers over the head with technicalities. Thanks Josey. -Mike

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Jack, "talking Farsi with a Swedish accent", now that's somthing I'd like to hear. I agree with you, I too try to minimize the really meaty terminology and have the narrator or protaganist explain what is going on. Thanks Jack.

Windyridge said...

How’d you do that rolling feed link? That’s very cool.

JenWriter said...

Interesting post! I've always worried about this type of thing. I don't want to sound like I don't know what I'm talking about.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Windyridge,
Welcome to Mr. Grudge. I got the banner from http://www.feedburner.com/fb/a/homeWhen you log in, you can get the banner there, if you have an RSS feed with them. I appreciate you coming by my blog and i hope you enjoy the writing. Thank you very much for your comment. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Jenwriter, It's nice to meet you. I'm glad you liked my article. I guess the key to writing with authority on a topic is to have experience, and to do research. The key is to blend you knowledge to the point that even the reader without experience or knowledge can understand too. Thanks for putting me in your Blogroll, I added your blog to Friends of Mr. Grudge on the left hand side of the page. It's a pleasure to have you aboard with the rest of the "Grudgies." -Mike.

Dr. T said...

An example that "write what you know" means you need to get your butt out there and learn new things. That's how you become a good writer. To paraphrase a conversation between Barth and Don Barthelme, first you have to have read all the world's novels, fiction, poetry, and plays and all of the world's philosophy -- and then you are ready to write.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Dr. T,
What a great comment "get your butt out there and learn new things." I agree. A few years back I met an author, Jay Nussbaum, author of "The Blue Road to Atlantis" and he researched his novel for over a year taking crash courses in oceanography and traveling to parts of the world which he wished to detail in his novel. The results became a wonderful novel, and when it comes to talking about marine life, I'll bet he can swim with the best of them. It's nice to meet you, and thanks for stopping by. -Mike.

Kimchihead said...

Hey Mike, I think that after a little practice, you'll be able to write about the job in a way that incorporates the jargon, while not alienating the average citizen. Joseph Wambaugh does a great job of this. And have you read Ed Conlon's work? I'd highly recommend his book, Blue Blood. Great read.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Kimchihead,
I've read Joseph Wambaugh, but not Ed Conlon. I'll go to the library and check it out. I guess it's good to read someone else's work of the same genre who's successful, eh? Thanks for the tip. -Mike.