JOHN KIRIAKOU: Aggressive Cops

Police are allowed to swear at you. It’s called “tactical language,” and it’s meant to establish immediate dominance.

Secret Service police on May, 30, 2020, during the Black Lives Matter protest following the police murder of George Floyd. (Geoff Livingston, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

By John Kiriakou
Special to Consortium News

Something on the way to work infuriated me recently to the point that I had to write about it.  I am interested to know if I’m being too sensitive or if others have had the same experience and are as angry as I am.  Warning:  I use strong language in this article.  Some readers might find it objectionable.

I ride a Vespa scooter to work every day from Arlington, Virginia, to my office at 17th and K Streets in Northwest Washington, D.C.  The total trip is about three-and-a-half miles.  Because of traffic light synchronization I always, always get the light red at the intersection of 17th and E Streets Northwest.  

This is immediately next to the Old Executive Office Building, which is attached to the White House and houses the offices of the vice president and the executive office of the president.  As you can imagine, there is always a significant police presence.

That police presence is usually not a problem.  But on Tuesday of last week, traffic was jammed up at 7:00 am in a way that just wasn’t normal.  Because I’m on a Vespa, I always (illegally) wind my way through the cars to get to the front of the line to make my left turn onto 17th Street. 

I did that on Tuesday and got a front row seat to the eventual departure of Vice President Kamala Harris from the White House grounds.  It wasn’t a big deal.  You see the vice president and Cabinet members around town all the time.  I see President Joe Biden’s motorcade at least once a week.  All it does is screw up traffic.  Anyway, uniformed Secret Service officers had stopped traffic going in all three directions at the intersection, waiting for Harris to pull out.  The light cycled three times.

U.S. Secret Service agent on top of the White House, July 3, 2021. (White House, Adam Schultz)

To my right, a driver who was waiting to continue north on 17th Street decided that he couldn’t wait any longer and began to make a U-turn to instead go south on 17th Street and, presumably, get around the jam up.

A uniformed Secret Service officer on a bicycle screamed, “You!  Turn the fuck around!  Get the fuck back in line!”  The driver briefly protested that he had to get to work and there was nothing wrong with a U-turn when traffic coming in the opposite direction was blocked. 

The response from the cop was “Shut the fuck up before I pull you out of that fucking car!”  The driver dutifully got back in line.

But I couldn’t help myself.  I parked my Vespa on the side of the road and walked the 50 feet or so to the cop.  I said, “What’s your problem?  Do you talk to your parents like that?  I doubt it.”  “Fuck off” was his response.  I got back on my Vespa and went to work, furious.

Another Incident 

The incident reminded me very much of something that happened to me half a block away, just behind the White House, two years ago.  Somebody had stolen the back license plate from my car.  I reported it to the police, who gave me a form to carry with me in the car until I could get new plates, “in case you get stopped, which you will.”  

The cop was right.  I was stopped by police in four different jurisdictions six times over the next few weeks.  Every time, the cop said that his “Stinger” system had detected a stolen plate and they needed to make sure that I was the owner of the car.  No problem.

I did have a problem the seventh time I was stopped, however.  A young, aggressive, arrogant uniformed Secret Service officer walked up to my window and asked, “Do you know why I pulled you over?”  I was a little short-tempered because the Secret Service had just pulled me over in the same spot the day before for the same reason.  

So I answered, “Well, if you don’t know why you pulled me over, then how am I supposed to know why you pulled me over?”  

He said, “Get out of the fucking car!”  

Again, I couldn’t help myself.  I said, “You better show some respect, kid.  I never let my ex-wives talk to me like that, and I’m sure-as-hell not going to let some punk like you.” 

He immediately called for backup and then stood there silently until his sergeant arrived on a bicycle.  I said that I wanted to make a complaint.  Nobody deserves to be spoken to with such disrespect.  Who did this kid think he was to talk to me — or anybody else — like that?

I didn’t swear at him, I said, but I certainly could start.  And to put a final point on things, I said, “It’s no wonder that so many Americans hate and fear the police.”

To his credit, the sergeant apologized to me.  He said that the officer was young and inexperienced, etc. etc., but I wasn’t having it.  I said that I appreciated the apology, but I couldn’t imagine that this cop was a rogue.  I looked at the younger cop and asked, “Have you been trained to swear at people?”  

To my surprise, he said, “Yes.  We’re trained to be aggressive.  That includes swearing.”  I said, “Shame on you,” I took my driver’s license and stolen plate form back, and I went on my way.

A U.S. Border Patrol agent looking down Pennsylvania Avenue towards the U.S. Capitol during Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C., Jan. 17, 2021. (CBP, Flickr, Public domain)

Many of you who know me know that I’m addicted to the 1970s television series Adam-12.  I love it.  I DVR it every day.  I’ve seen every single episode at least 50 times — no exaggeration.  There’s one episode where the protagonist, Pete Malloy, is called into the lieutenant’s office for a dressing down because he was rude to a citizen while writing a ticket the day before.  The lieutenant reminded him, “Our slogan is “To Serve and To Protect,” and he added that “you have to be the bigger man.”  When did that change?

Tactical Language

First, are cops allowed to swear at you?  You bet they are.  It’s called “tactical language,” and it’s meant to establish immediate dominance in a situation.  You are legally allowed to swear at the cop, too, but it’s a short walk from exercising your constitutional rights to a “disturbing the peace” charge. 

The group Psychologists in Public Service recently published a study that examined the issue of “tactical language.”  The study sought to extend the findings of previous research by evaluating the extent to which police use of profanity influenced not only ratings of police performance, but also the likelihood that participants would find force to be excessive. 

The researchers recruited 320 undergraduate psychology students and 320 adults in the community and asked them to view a video of a mock traffic stop and to answer questions about the appropriateness of the police officer’s use of force during the video. The arrest video was filmed by troopers and staff at the Pennsylvania State Police Academy and in it, troopers either used profanity or did not while attempting to subdue the subject. 

It was predicted that when the troopers used profanity, they would not only be viewed more negatively, but that participants would view the level of force used as excessive (after controlling for race, gender and previous negative experiences with police).

Results indicated that participants who rated force as excessive had significantly less trust in police performance and in police use of force. That is, they doubted whether police agencies would fairly investigate citizen use of force complaints, felt police did not always choose the appropriate amount of force during an arrest, and did not believe police treated members of the public with respect or effectively reduced crime in their neighborhoods. 

When troopers used profanity, not only were their interactions with subjects rated as significantly more negative, they were also considered to contain significantly more excessive force than the arrest scenarios in which profanity was not used. 

When asked about what led to their decision to rate force as excessive, participants mentioned things like “the officer cursing and yelling,” “language that was completely inappropriate,” “having a problem with the profanity,” and “police using curse words when they shouldn’t have.” When the troopers used profanity, they were described as “lacking self-control,” “loud and obnoxious,” “verbally abusive” and “frustrated too easily.”

That all seems pretty clear cut to me.  As Tony Soprano once said to Richie Aprile, “Those who want respect give respect.”  And until the police change their collective attitude, I’m going to stand up to them.

John Kiriakou is a former C.I.A. counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act—a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration’s torture program.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

29 comments for “JOHN KIRIAKOU: Aggressive Cops

  1. Huck
    November 29, 2023 at 21:28

    How old was I when I knew cops were allowed to swear at you?

    I’m sure I knew it by the time I was 12. And not just swear. Getting hit by the police was also something they were allowed to do. Take you out into the woods and beat you senseless if they felt like it.

    I grew up poor. A hillbilly. The county with the Walking Tall movies was only a couple of counties over. The cops were not kind saints who were there to help. I knew that a long, long, time ago. The first rule of any encounter with a cop is to try to survive it.

    Do they hire kind people to be cops? Do they hire seminary students to be cops? Nope. The best way to become a cop is to have a proven track record of killing people in the US military. Every department has a webpage recruiting new officers and they all say that ‘veterans’ get preferential hiring. They want killers. They want bullies.

    This isn’t new. This is by design. The rich are protecting themselves with intimidation and violence. Welcome to Appalachia. Welcome to the 3rd world. Welcome to America. I just have to remember that now that most of America is 3rd World, this is new to some of ya’ll.

  2. ray Peterson
    November 29, 2023 at 09:17

    Not to be upset John, your writings on domestic American
    repression are desperately needed for these times, when
    our police state shows its fangs.

  3. Alley Citizen
    November 28, 2023 at 20:35

    In the oughts, we lived in a quiet residential neighborhood off North Capitol Street in the District. My partner came home furious one week day. He said around the corner, a bunch of cops from a special MPD unit jumped out on an ordinary looking, 50 something black woman in an older Honda just after she obeyed a frequently ignored stop sign. The three huge unfamiliar letters on the back of their black head-to-toe outfits were the only identifying marks. In their helmets and behind their visors and body shields (what we’d now probably call full tactical gear), these identical looking, unidentifiable SOLDIERS dragged the woman out of her car. The light changed and he was on the job, so he had to move. He said they were screaming and barking at her in the usual threatening way. By the time he came back around, the scene was empty.

    I have lots of cop stories from my several decades in DC. Something changed in the early 2000s. Cops started treating everybody the way they’d gotten used to treating the neighborhoods during the drug wars, not the way they’d treat their neighbors and family members. Everything was about “bad guys” or “bad people” or “bad actors”‘or “bad apples” and these phrases only seem to be used by people who want to be seen as “good” whatever.

  4. Selina Sweet
    November 28, 2023 at 20:11

    What? Too sensitive? Good glory! Absolutely not! Maybe you’re (we’re) not sensitive enough! Tactical language is military language and military language is all about killing someone. Military language is the language of sociopaths and psychopaths and authoritarians, the patriarchy, and all other thugs (think: Netanyahu and his sick Band of Bros). And the USA has definitely devolved as a function of the citizenry accepting docilely the militarization of the police, the arrogant role of the USA being “the” world’s Big Bad Imperialist Tough Guy and the mega arrogance of the bright toothed fancy suited Ivy Leagued and hubris afflicted we-know-best-elites (think the Clintons),CEOs, and the Billionaire Brotherhood lathering all over insisting on their singular possession of the planet’s biggest dick. Zero of whom have the slightest understanding of, familiarity with much less a desire to be genuinely just plain decent. (penny-pinching workers and tricksters in not paying their taxes, etc.) Thank you for writing this experience. It’s a graphic example of the institutionalization and normalization of brutish ugliness parading as bullish authority by those devoid of any consciousness of authentic personal power. Purely offensive, insulting, and the antithesis of “civic and civil”. Downright adolescent (if that) and certainly moronic. Absolutely unacceptable. And you need to do a research study to figure out how emotionally stupid such tactical language is for dealing with the public? Good Lordy!!!

    • LarcoMarco
      November 29, 2023 at 22:17

      “We yell at you because you’re men.” — Drill Sergeant prior to the start of Boot Camp . Priceless advice, as I never took it personally.

      • Teleman
        November 30, 2023 at 12:09

        Yep. These were probable tactical officers charged with protecting the Veep. Anything out of the ordinary could be a diversion. The tactical cops deal with danger on a daily basis and must be prepared to defend themselves or those whom they protect.
        Never argue with a cop on the street. Save it for the courtroom is the best advice. I grew up in the 60’s and students and hippies were all lumped together as ‘the other’.
        As more and more people are crammed together, patience becomes strained. That is the root of the problem.

  5. Skip Edwards
    November 28, 2023 at 18:24

    “………… Is this just a U.S. thing or do all countries train their law enforcement to act like high-school bullies?”

    I don’t believe anyone who is not a “bully” can be trained to be one. I believe that people with “bully” personalities are the huge majority of the ones to apply for and get hired to be cops.

  6. TP Graf
    November 28, 2023 at 18:13

    I’d like to think that if an spoke to me in such a way I would just start reciting, “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you.”

    • November 30, 2023 at 00:29

      That is nice to do if one is spiritually advanced, or if one has a very high degree of self-respect, self-esteem, and self-confidence. However that is not true of everyone, and very probably not even true of most people. And not all people are Christians or followers of Jesus Christ (and I do not at all think that that is necessarily a bad thing).

      I think the first duty of any average person being abused or treated with disrespect is to oneself, to do what is necessary to do to protect oneself, and also as much as possible to be able to keep one’s own dignity and self-respect. This might include not being drawn into or indulging in behavior like that of the abuser. One does not owe any duty to an abuser other than the minimum degree of respect that one owes to any human being.

      I used to be a Christian; I am not any more. I felt that Christianity had imposed on me certain “should’s”, “supposed to’s”, and “ought to’s” like what you say above. I also understood that being a Christian was supposed to be about having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ”, which is supposed to make the all important and transforming difference in a person’s life (and in this life as well as a possible next life). I am no longer a Christian because I felt that my supposed “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” had been of no help to me in enabling me to deal with a very difficult person in my life. I detail this in my write-up linked to by my screen handle.

      And I am happy about no longer being a Christian; I am as certain as I am of anything that it was the right and healthy thing for me to decide that I am no longer a Christian.

      And I do not appreciate somebody telling me that I ought to do what Jesus says I am supposed to do.

  7. Robyn
    November 28, 2023 at 17:52

    John, you’re not too sensitive but you are remarkably courageous. It takes a lot to confront authority and given what ‘authority’ has done to you, it would be understandable if you decided to keep your head down for the rest of your life. Bravo – but do take care.

  8. Anon
    November 28, 2023 at 17:39

    Will never forget when hitchhiking through Chicago (shortly following Dem convention & Chi PD over response) got “flipped the bird” by pair black n white driving uniformed officers.
    BTW admire John immensely for “putting his money where his mouth is”!

  9. doris
    November 28, 2023 at 17:16

    Cops never seem to remember that they’re OUR public servants, NOT the other way around. “Protect and Serve” is still a motto printed on many police cars, even though it’s as moot as it gets. Maybe not though, as they do “protect and serve” their corporate masters. That way, they didn’t have to invest in printing new slogans on the cars, (or tanks, drones, and other military hand-me-downs they get from the federal government’s war department.

    • Rebecca Turner
      November 29, 2023 at 06:01

      What gave you the idea that policing in a capitalist society has anything to do with protecting and serving anyone other than the wealthy ruling class? The entire purpose of the institution here in the UK as in most societies is to force the working class to keep working for its class enemy the employers. That was made explicit when the Metropolitan police force was created in 1829 by a former governor of Britain’s colony in Ireland, Robert Peel. There was widespread public anger and recalcitrance at the relatively new idea of working for someone else for a wage, particularly given the appalling conditions of work at that time. So the police forces were created to make us labour – or else.

  10. Vicky Cookies
    November 28, 2023 at 17:03

    Yes, John, you’re being too sensitive. Most of us wouldn’t dream of adding to the tension in an interaction with police, because we most are not entitled ex-Three-Lettermen. If you’re upset about being cursed at, think how many of us feel having to swallow physical abuse and threats to our lives with no recourse for complaint. Jeez, to think of some of the ways police have treated me, friends, and relatives, and we don’t even mention it, much less wrote pearl-clutching missives in respectable web publications. A cop stop is something to hold your breath and get out of alive.

  11. Lois Gagnon
    November 28, 2023 at 16:59

    If any local police did that to me, I would immediately ask them who pays their salary? That would be me the local taxpayer. I would assure them I would be lodging a formal complaint with their superiors about harassment of my rights as a tax paying citizen. We cannot allow ourselves to be bullied by authority or things will continue to escalate to where we are treated as subjects. We are already pretty much there.

    • Rebecca Turner
      November 29, 2023 at 06:03

      Oh seriously – you’d lodge a formal complaint? Try it and see what happens next time a cop pulls you over. Wow, the naivete of some commenters here. Cops are servants of the ruling class and that’s why the institution was created.

  12. mary-lou
    November 28, 2023 at 16:22

    the more profanities, the less respect and fewer peaceful solutions. don’t we just loooove our “clever psychologists” (not!!).

  13. evelync
    November 28, 2023 at 16:18

    This country is going to hell in a hand basket.
    The government has no respect for us and those who work for the Mob Boss are taught to have no respect for the people too.

    Now here’s a person respected for his intelligence and good will and humility and respect for others all around the world.:

    If we were fortunate enough to find leaders of this high quality our country might find a way to get back onto a sustainable path.

    sorry you have to come into contact with the trained bullies….
    please take a few minutes to check out Medea Benjamin on Twitter being confronted by ugly loudmouths and bullies. She, somehow, is capable of staying calm. I don’t know how she does it. But I’m impressed. Her blood pressure probably benefits.

  14. Janet
    November 28, 2023 at 16:10

    Given what police departments have gone through in the last 3 years, I’m not surprised cops feel they have to assert dominance in every situation, even a traffic stop. Politicians, especially Democrats, have cut police departments, forcing the remaining cops to work overtime and respond to increasingly dangerous situations with fewer numbers. These same politicians have fostered disrespect for the police, tarring them with collective accusations, and all to further their political campaigns. It would be ideal if the police could treat all people with respect, but when even a domestic disturbance call can get them killed, one can understand their hyper-vigilant responses to even small incidents. Bottom line, you can’t take away their jobs, pile more work on to underpaid cops, preach disrespect for the collective “police force,” demean them for your own political gain — and still expect them to be warm and cuddly when you appear to be breaking the law.

    • Rebecca Turner
      November 29, 2023 at 06:05

      Given what the working class has gone through in the last three years… or the last couple of centuries… I’m not surprised we feel naturally aggrieved at the appalling, violent, racist thuggery of the police forces. Stop making excuses for them.

  15. Robert Cable
    November 28, 2023 at 15:55

    Bravo, Mr, Kiriakou! If only all–or even just more–of our government employees were like you! Best wishes and great respect,

  16. Susan Siens
    November 28, 2023 at 15:34

    I hate to say this, but the dude who stopped you probably does speak to his parents that way. There are many parents who swear at their children and I’ll bet a goodly percentage of those children join the military, then on to cop city. These same children often become abusers of their parents and I never wonder why: they learned their behavior at home.

  17. November 28, 2023 at 15:33

    Have times changed or just our perceptions. I fear it’s the former, and not in a good way.

  18. Wade H.
    November 28, 2023 at 14:37

    Asserting dominance through aggressive behavior virtually guarantees escalation. Now that’s professionalism.

  19. Thurl
    November 28, 2023 at 12:42

    Good for you! Just hope does not end in injury, arrest, or the like. Using profanity can likely lead to escalation of any situation. Maybe that is the idea. Have had encounters as teenager where police cursed myself and friends out when not even engaged in any harmful behavior. In college were waiting outside concert hall when two police approached us with a K-9 instructing us to leave the area. May be best to just avoid them if possible. Difficult to do since so many police these days, far more than needed imho.

    • Selina Sweet
      November 28, 2023 at 20:19

      No! Not avoid the issue! Protest immediately!~ Make a racket. This is unacceptable behavior by our “public servants.” We have standards and they are not holding to them and must suffer the consequences. What does such thuggish behavior model for our children? How is the intentional use of profanity at the 100th decibel by a uniform fitted out with all sorts of weapons toward the citizenry not be (not such a) tiny step in the direction of genuine fascist strong arming us citizens. This is not something to be quiet about. We are the employers of such goon-ish behavior.

  20. mr bog
    November 28, 2023 at 11:28

    No you’re not being too sensitive. No policy can be just without nuance. Should the police be allowed to curse at somebody out of control and wielding a knife? Sure. But to curse at just anybody for any traffic offense is way over the line and should be severely discouraged. I’m willing to be if we could perform a controlled experiment that cursing and aggression in a minor issue like making a U-turn more often than not leads to a worse outcome for all involved.

    Is this just a U.S. thing or do all countries train their law enforcement to act like high-school bullies?

    • Wade H.
      November 28, 2023 at 14:47

      Actually trying to intimidate or aggressively dominate ‘somebody out of control and wielding a knife’ is likely to escalate an already dangerous situation, likely leading to the death of someone, probably not the cop. You know an old empire is in it death throws when it starts blatantly turning its cruelty and brutality on it own citizens.

    • doris
      November 28, 2023 at 17:11

      Well, mr. bog, you nailed it. “High-school bullies” is the very behavior they’re exhibiting. Sadly though, as adults, they have the power to detain, curse at, arrest, maim, and even murder with impunity. One major difference between the two is that most high-school bullies are held accountable for their actions.

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