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.
profession language jargon legalese ambulance radio codes cops New York City characters