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Linguistics and Law

LaReina Hingson breaks down language used in police encounters.

If you’ve ever watched an episode of a crime show like Law & Order, Castle, or Blue Bloods, you may think you know all there is to know about the language of law. But when the time comes to interact with a police officer, most people often don’t know what to say.

Visiting Faculty LaReina Hingson (Discourse Analysis) gave a four-part lecture series during Education Week 2022 titled The Intersections between Language and Law. Her third lecture, “Language Variation and Issues in Interactions with Officers of the Law,” examined the impact of language use during emergency calls, initial encounters, interviews, arrests, interrogations, and confessions.

So how does the language we use impact the outcome of these situations? Let’s look at the two most common encounters the average person will have with law enforcement: emergency calls and initial encounters.

Emergency Calls

When was the last time you called 911? What were you feeling when you called? Depending on the situation, you may have felt afraid, angry, sad, or shocked. These emotions can impact your speech. Hingson said, “The more emotional you are on a 911 call, the more delayed the response is going to be because [dispatch] can’t get the information they need [from the caller].” High emotions can distort speech, affect coherence, and create additional tasks that “delay acquisition of information or interfere with instructions.” Additionally, dispatchers “often describe the caller as argumentative, frightened, or upset,” which can cause conflict during the call.

“While it is an extraordinary experience for the caller (you don’t call them all the time), they get calls all the time. It’s routine for them,” Hingson said. A 911 call generally follows the outline of (1) opening, (2) request, (3) interrogative series, (4) dispatch response, and (5) closing. Interrupting this sequence can delay the dispatcher’s response because the caller does not present the necessary information clearly. For example, an emotional caller might skip the request stage of the call and immediately start relaying information that would come up later in the interrogative series. Likewise, a caller might interrupt dispatch throughout the interrogative series by repeating the request. Both responses convolute the interaction and can increase the time between when the emergency occurs and when responders arrive at the scene.

Initial Encounters

Another way you might come across law enforcement is during an initial encounter like a traffic stop. Think back to the last time you were pulled over—the flashing red and blue lights, casually trying to roll down your window while scrambling for your license and registration. You likely felt stress, fear, anger, or defensiveness (I had no idea I was going 55 in a school zone, Officer). These emotions are pretty common. And with all those emotions, chitchatting is probably the last thing on your mind—but it can actually help your case.

Police car

Hingson introduced an approach to language interaction called communication accommodation theory. “This theory assumes that communication is not only referential—meaning I don’t just use it to point out information—but I use it to interact with people socially and to connect with people relationally.” In other words, talking to the police officer who pulled you over like he or she is your friend can increase the officer’s sense that you are willing to accommodate. Vice versa, police officers who are accommodating can also help reduce hostility or conflict in an initial encounter.

To illustrate her point, Hingson showed a transcription of two traffic stops, one where the officer and driver followed the accommodation theory and another where they did not. In the accommodating interaction, both the officer and driver greeted each other with a variation of the phrase “How are you?” Then the officer explained the reason for the stop (an obstructed rear license plate) and said that by law, the driver had to have the license plate totally unobstructed. This explanation was accommodating because the officer made it clear that he was just the messenger and not there to enforce his own opinion.

In the unaccommodating traffic stop, the officer told the driver, who was blocking a traffic lane, to pull over to the side of the road. Although the officer may not have had much of a choice, he used a command to make this request, which started the exchange with unaccommodating language. The driver then added to the sense of hostility in the encounter by responding with “Huh?” Hingson said that these kinds of encounters create stress and can log more negative experiences with police in the public’s mind. She also noted that the language used in the interaction can matter more than who actually does the talking.

The impact of language goes beyond simply asking a question or supplying an answer. Language has a direct effect on emotion, perception, and outcome, and linguistic principles help us understand how to use language for good. So the next time you have to call 911 or get stopped for running that pink light, remember that the language you use can help or hinder the situation.