Uses of language

Once again, the cops are exposed. They beat a man to death at a traffic stop. Along the way, they also tortured the English language — but don’t get our priorities confused, they murdered a man and that’s what matters most. Part of the process of building an ‘elite’ police unit that can carry out street executions is to dehumanize potential victims and distance themselves from their actions.

The first time Memphis police described what happened between their officers and Tyre Nichols — the 29-year-old who died of his injuries after being beaten by police — they wrote that “a confrontation occurred” following a traffic stop. Nichols fled on foot, and then “another confrontation occurred.”

“Afterward, the suspect complained of having a shortness of breath,” reads the statement posted on the Memphis Police Department’s Twitter account the morning after Nichols was beaten on Jan. 7. “The suspect was transported to St. Francis Hospital in critical condition.”

Brutal video footage released Friday, an hour’s worth of clips from body-worn and mounted cameras showing police pepper-spraying, punching and kicking Nichols, underscores the disparity between what police first reported and what actually happened.

Across the country, police sometimes use passive language that can paint a very different picture from what cameras later show. Initial news releases are often based on police officers’ self-reporting, and were it not for the ubiquity of cameras in modern times, the discrepancies between those filings and the reality of a police interaction may never come to light.

See? The police apparently did nothing. A confrontation just happened. The victim complained. The victim was transported, presumably on the wings of angels. Batons apparently moved of their own accord to batter the man. The active voice is anathema when what you are actively doing is inhuman and criminal. Even in the body cam videos, the cops are trying to portray what they’re doing as wildly different from the truth.

While videos can show what police do not write in incident reports, experts also say officers could be starting to use body cameras to influence narratives. Some believed they saw that in the Nichols videos.

In the first altercation shown in the videos, multiple officers shout at Nichols to lie down, though he is already pinned to the ground from shoulders to feet. “I am,” he shouts back, desperate. During the second video, officers tell Nichols to give them his hands when an officer is already holding him by the wrist; then the body camera points away. Officers also say on film that Nichols reached for their guns and is high, neither of which the videos show, though their first traffic stop was not included in the videos because it wasn’t filmed.

All cops are bad. All cops are liars.

Here’s another infuriating example. The unit responsible for this crime is being “deactivated,” cop-speak for “we’re going to rename this group and disperse the guilty parties throughout the department,” and an officer, Major Karen Rudolph, Commander of Public Information, sat down to write a press release. She’s a professional liar, and really ought to reconsider her place in the universe.

Today, Memphis Police Officers assigned to the SCORPION Unit (Street Crimes Operations to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods…

Fuck me. They gave this unit an aggressively macho name, and then invented a contrived acronym to justify it? Jesus. I bet someone was proud to have come up with that one, and they deserve to be fired for it.

…in the aftermath of the tragic death of Tyre Nichols.

“Gosh, someone died? Tragic,” says the group of thugs who murdered him. Own it, you cowards. You are disbanding a unit because they intentionally and viciously killed a civilian. You don’t get to pretend to be sad at a death you caused.

…listening intently to the family…

When has a cop ever listened to the people they abuse? Did they try listening, attentively and politely, to Tyre Nichols?

…it is in the best interest of all to permanently deactivate the SCORPION unit.

Oops. We have to sweep this one under the rug, quick. I wonder if they had listened to the community when they decided to form a unit called SCORPION that would drive around the neighborhood in unmarked cars and pull over people they didn’t like?

The officers currently assigned to the unit agree unreservedly with this next step.

I’m sure they did. Hide the name, please, just don’t send us to prison for the violence we do.

While the heinous actions of a few casts a cloud of dishonor on the title SCORPION…

Christ. SCORPION was never a title with any honor in it. You can tell what strategy they’ve decided on, though: it was just a few bad apples who somehow ended up on the police force, serving dishonorably in an honorable unit that just happened to be named SCORPION (But look, the “P” is for “Peace”!).

For the next phrase, I’m afraid Major Karen Rudolph, Commander of Public Information, deserves to be fired, pilloried, and prohibited from ever being employed in any job involving public communication.

…it is imperative that we, the Memphis Police department take PrOacTiVE StePs iN tHe HEalIng PrOCEsS FoR AlL IMpAcTeD.

AAAAAaaargh. Where’s my red pen? Where’s my goddamn flamethrower?

You’re not going to believe this, but Major Karen tops that in the next sentence.

…to rebuild the trust that has been negatively affected by the death of Mr. Tyre Nichols.

That’s an appalling twist of the knife. The poor police department…the trust that the citizenry had in them has been damaged by the death of Tyre Nichols. It’s his fault. He shouldn’t have died and hurt our reputation.

Hey, Karen: I think that what negatively affected the trust was the savage brutality and violent tactics of the cops, not the fact that the victim died.

The passivity and displacement of blame can be traced all the way to the administration of the police. The bad apples are rotting everywhere.


  1. wzrd1 says

    Now, now. Do give them due credit for their accomplishments.
    They took a few bad apples and distributed them throughout the remaining barrels.
    See? Everything’s cleaned up.

    Excuse me, gotta go make some crapple pie…

  2. fishy says

    I watch my local newscast everyday before going to work. They pay tribute to racism and authority daily.
    I’m uncertain about how widespread this phenomenon is.

  3. StevoR says

    Seen on fb tonight :

    #TyreNichols should still be alive.
    #BreonnaTaylor should be alive.
    #GeorgeFloyd should be alive.
    #DuanteWright should be alive.
    #FantaBility should be alive.
    #TamirRice should be alive.
    #LaquanMcDonald should be alive.
    #SandraBland should be alive.
    #AtatianaJefferson should still be alive.
    #StephonClark should be alive.
    #FreddieGray should be alive.
    #BothamJean should be alive.
    #PhilandoCastille should be alive.
    #MichaelBrown should be alive.
    #EricGarner should be alive.
    #AltonSterling should be alive.

    Could add so many other names to that list too.

    Decade? More? I recall seeing Rodney King based by American cops on the news back when I was a kid.. 1980’s.

    See also :

    Then there’s what Nina Simone sang so long ago too

    Too slow?

    Back then.

    Where are we now? Can we go fast now?

  4. Stuart Smith says

    Police shouldn’t be allowed to give any verbal testimony in court, their story should just be whatever their cameras show, and if their cameras are turned off or blocked or otherwise not able to film something, then it didn’t happen unless someone else witnessed it. Police have the equipment to produce video evidence of any claim they want to make – their failure to do so is in my opinion sufficient evidence that they are lying.

  5. EvoMonkey says

    I was wondering what the acronym SCORPION meant. That is really some contrived Orwellian cop newspeak. Who ever thought to create a special unit of young police officers in unmarked cars and hoodies with no visible badges roaming the streets as an elite brotherhood of warriors with no supervisory oversight operating outside of normal police procedures? Isn’t it obvious by now that groups or special units like this always degenerate into a band of officially sanctioned terrorists and vigilantes enforcing their own twisted code of “law and order”.

  6. says

    One wonders why there are no similarly-elite police units, with similarly-aggressive-and-media-friendly names, going after slumlords, ripoff used-car dealers, crooked investment bankers, corporate polluters… where’s the outrage about white-collar crime? Oh, wait a moment: It’s white-collar crime.† Never mind.

    † The unlawful commodity-manipulation activities at Enron — just that subset — from July 2000 to June 2001 exceeded the nationwide total loss from armed robberies. Admittedly, the statistics on both are more than a bit questionable, but that’s just one white-collar “robbery”; surely there was more than one.

  7. raven says

    Isn’t it obvious by now that groups or special units like this always degenerate into a band of officially sanctioned terrorists and vigilantes enforcing their own twisted code of “law and order”.

    It is lack of accountability.
    It is lack of oversight.

    It happens all the time.
    Where I used to live, they had a Special Narcotics Unit Strike Force. They were independent and had no oversight, drawing membership from several police forces i.e. county and city.

    Eventually they got busted for planting narcotics.
    They went into the wrong house with a warrant with the wrong address and planted narcotics on what turned out to be a prominent older xian minister.

    .1. The courts had to review all their former cases and ended up throwing them all out and releasing the arrestees from prison.
    .2. The Special forces over the years had seized lots of guns, drugs, and money.

    .3. All the guns were missing.
    .4 Most of the money was missing.
    .5. Most of the drugs they seized were missing.

    It was obvious at that point that the cops had sold the drugs and guns back into the community and taken all the money.

    They disbanded that strike force forever.
    It does have a happy ending. The head of it was tried and sent to prison for felonies, for multiple years.

  8. raven says

    In the first altercation shown in the videos, multiple officers shout at Nichols to lie down, though he is already pinned to the ground from shoulders to feet. “I am,” he shouts back, desperate. During the second video, officers tell Nichols to give them his hands when an officer is already holding him by the wrist;

    I’ve seen this many times in many arrests that ended with someone killed by the cops while restrained.

    They keep yelling commands to the guy that he can’t possibly carry out.
    Lie down!!!
    (He is already lying on the ground.)

    Or they yell multiple conflicting commands that can’t all be carried out.
    Cop 1 Put your hands up.
    Cop 2 Put your hands on your head.
    Cop 3 Sit down.
    Cop 4 Lie down.
    Cop 5 Stand up.

    By this time the victim is completely terrorized and sure they are going to die.
    Sometimes they attempt to run away.
    Spoiler alert, A lot of the time they do in fact, end up beaten to death.

    So, what is up with that?
    I doubt there is any plan. They are amped up on adrenaline and just yelling to yell.

  9. Doc Bill says

    But, wait, there’s more! The murderers had to hoist Nichols to his feet so they could beat him some more; Nichols could not stand on his own.

    Here’s the “best” part. The murderers then stood around fist-bumping each other for the great time they had at the party, laughed about it, and contrived stories about what happened – that Nichols had superhuman strength, that he had drugs, that he must have ditched his drugs when he ran, and, my personal favorite, he resisted arrest. All of this with their body cameras on. At one point one of the murders observes, “Hey, man, your body cam is still on.” They didn’t care.

    They went into the situation with murderous intent, dog knows why, with guns drawn and blood boiling. There was no, “May I see your driver’s license, sir?” No, it was “GET OUT OF THE CAR NOW, B***H!!” And they proceeded to rough him up right away.

    Finally, let’s bury the “bad apple” theme once and for all. This police department has a culture of violence that they have nurtured for decades. The rot goes from the roots to the highest twig. The entire structure needs to be torn down and rebuilt anew. Ex-military need not apply.

  10. Artor says

    No, the bad apple terminology still fits. You know what happens with bad apples? Unless you root them out immediately, they spoil the whole barrel, and that’s exactly what we see. All but the smallest and most isolated police departments are irredeemably corrupted. ACAB.

  11. says

    I can’t help but be reminded of the Robber’s Cave experiment  here.
    Two groups of 11-12 year old boys were taken to what they believed to be normal summer camps; neither group was told about the other, they were left to find each other accidentally, which they did. Within days the two groups had differentiated themselves, each giving itself a tough-sounding nickname (Eagles & Rattlers), designed their own flags, formed their own hierarchies, and established their own rules of conduct. Competitions, including baseball and tug-of-war were organized, but quickly spiraled out of control, as the groups burned each other’s flags and raided each other’s cabins.
    The hypothesis being tested here was that “when two groups have conflicting aims… their members will become hostile to each other even though the groups are composed of normal well-adjusted individuals.”
    What I see here with the cops is members of a group being handed a ready-made group identity, complete with the tough-sounding nickname, probably some special insignia to wear, all of which encouraged them to see themselves as different and separate from the community at large. This is a recipe for conflict and likely disaster, even before you give them legal authority over others. It also happens even if the group is composed of “well-adjusted individuals,” which might not be the case.
    Then you take that group and throw them into stressful situations, and you have what psychologist Robert Jay Lifton called “an atrocity-producing situation,” where the isolation and sometimes danger causes the window of what’s considered normal, acceptable behavior to shift beyond what’s considered acceptable outside the group.
    Anyway, I guess my point is that these fancy task forces with the cute acromyms, while they impress some members of the public, are seriously counter-productive in the long term and, at their worst, a predictable (given human nature) set-up for this kind of violence.

  12. guerillasurgeon says

    What gets me is – it’s always “A few bad apples.” And yet … And yet only in extreme circumstances do the alleged good apples turn them in. Extreme circumstances being that they are obviously caught in the act and the evidence is incontrovertible. So I can’t help thinking that the apples are all bad.

  13. says

    Why are cops even allowed to turn off their bodycams? Shouldn’t that itself be considered an admission of guilt? Why else would a police officer choose to not gather evidence? At best, it’s sloppy police work. At worst, it’s concealing a crime. Either way, why would we keep them on the force?

  14. Allison says

    We need to keep in mind that police departments are created and supervised by civilian governments, and those governments have had a long history of racist policies. I’m most familiar with the NYPD, and a long line of mayors have instituted known racist policies and appointed police commissioners who were known to be racist. If the mayor really wanted to end racism and brutality in the force, they could do it, or at least vastly reduce it. (But that would threaten the status quo.)

    We have to keep in mind, racism is an integral part of how USAan society is built. If we don’t notice it, it’s because we’ve been socialized not to see it and because the people who do the dirty work know not to be too obvious about it. IMHO, when cops are brutal and racist, it’s because one of their not-spelled-out jobs is to keep Black people down and oppressed. I notice that when these things happen, all sorts of solutions are proposed, but all of them turn out to be unworkable or require unacceptable changes. A while back, the NY State government (A. Cuomo?) sent out a directive that all police departments were to come up with policies to insure accountability. In some places (like my village), there was a public hearing and that was the end of it. In others, committees were set up to come up with changes, but somehow each proposal got tweaked so it didn’t actually change anything (e.g., for the civilian review board to handle a complaint, the police had to forward it to them and do all the investigation of it.)

    Ultimately, these things go nowhere because the majority — or at least the people that count (i.e., not the Black people) are mostly happy with things as they are, and when they see any proposal for real change, they fear that they will lose what they have. It’s presumed that this is a zero-sum game, and if Black people get better off, then white people will necessarily get worse off.

  15. says

    @Allison (16):

    I wish the right-thinking bigwigs could do that. They can’t: Legal mechanisms adopted as protection against repetition of the practices of their wrong-thinking predecessors† now handcuff reform efforts. Worse, that frustrating restraint points out something much more disturbing: In fifteen years or so, we’re going to have another dimension to conquer that we’re not thinking about now.

    I went through this during my misspent youth as a line officer. (Go ahead: Imagine the distrust of atheists of Jewish descent during the Reagan years — however male, however pale-skinned. It was worse than you’re imagining.) We were still “integrating” women into the military at all, even in “non-combat” roles; I saw some bigots senior to me crush them, and I was in the “accepting, forward-thinking” service. Perestroika and the fall of the Soviet Union made things worse, and exposed other dimensions.

    † Just try joining the NYPD in 1957 as a woman, or an Italian, or a Vietnamese immigrant. Worse yet, try getting promoted to a supervisory position.

  16. Andrew Dalke says

    feralboy12@13, look more in depth at the criticism section of the link about the Robber Cave experiment. Perry describes how the project was deeply flawed methodologically. The adults encouraged the retaliation and vandalism, the report left out details that didn’t support the conclusion they were looking for, and the “Lost Children” decades later still didn’t know they were part of an experiment. See and for commentary.

  17. birgerjohansson says

    We have found loxosceles laeta in a factory in Sandvik, Sweden.
    Ship your bad cops to us and we will let them track down these genuinely not-safe spiders.

  18. billseymour says

    Owosso Harpist @21:  I don’t think that that shows that police aren’t racist, but rather shows that racism in police departments is a systemic problem.  As one commenter put it a while back (I can’t remember where I read it, but it’s not my turn of phrase), “It’s not a few bad apples, it’s bad applesauce.”

  19. tuatara says

    While it is true that one ‘bad’ apple will quickly spoil all the good apples, left to its own devices, every ‘good’ apple will turn bad (if you don’t make a nice pie with it).

  20. rabbitbrush says

    The race of cops is cops. Not Black or White or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or Purple or Ecru or Chartreuse or Puce.

  21. John Morales says


    With the difference is that the officers who did this were black, not white.

    Owosso Harpist @21: I don’t think that that shows that police aren’t racist, but rather shows that racism in police departments is a systemic problem.

    The fact that it was five Black officers who perpetrated the assault seems to complicate the racism narrative.

    Perhaps you mean that the systemic racism meant that a Black victim would be easier to manage from the perspective of police impunity from assault. But that’s not limited to the police.

  22. John Morales says

    rabbitbrush, nope.
    Being a cop is a job, not an intrinsic physiological attribute.

    (I think I know what you intended to express, but what you actually wrote is just wrong; imagine if you’d written that for plumbers, say)

  23. Pierce R. Butler says

    Allison @ # 16: … racism is an integral part of how USAan society is built.

    How dare you say such a thing?!? Report immediately to your nearest Florida public school for proper re-education!

  24. M'thew says

    EvoMonkey @ #6:
    SCORPION, “Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods”. Says so in PZ’s post.
    Restore peace by beating innocent neighbourhood citizens to death…
    Doesn’t anybody think about these acronyms before they go public with that? I suppose they wanted to look tough as they were going to tackle violent crime in these neighbourhoods, but it’s easy to see how this will turn against them when the unit itself starts to misbehave as if they are the criminals they’re supposed to fight.

  25. numerobis says

    The fact that these five black officers were immediately fired and charged is vaguely positive. Though I wonder what would have happened if it were five white officers.

  26. call me mark says

    US police killed 1192 people in 2022. (source)

    The total number of homicides in England and Wales for the twelve months to March 2021 (the most recent set of figures I can find) was 594. (source)

  27. numerobis says

    call me mark: that means you’re about 3x likelier to get murdered by a civilian or police in the UK than by the police in the US.

    Which is changing two variables at a time and thus hard to compare.

  28. call me mark says


    Which is changing two variables at a time and thus hard to compare

    Yes. Conceded. I just thought the raw numbers make for an interesting factoid.

  29. drut says

    I am reminded of Lord of the Flies when reading about cop culture. Cops seem to have the mind of a nine year old playground bully with the same amount of impulse control and lack of foresight regarding the damage they do to society at large with every innocent or unarmed individual they kill. Notice how brave, boisterous and physically violent cops are when their prey can’t fight back? I think back to the BLM marches and that white, middle aged navy veteran wearing his baggy shorts tried to ask a cop a question. The result was a pathetic cop flailing away with this baton before spraying the man in the face with OC then running off to terrorize another citizen. It’s time, way beyond time, to hold cops personally accountable for their criminal behavior.