On the radio recently, a police spokesman, appealing for information about the killing of John ‘Goldfinger’ Palmer, called him ‘John’. Presumably this was to sugar the pill and make us feel we wanted to help the police find the killer of this major, major criminal.
All a far cry from 1932, when a detective at the Old Bailey was reprimanded for saying of a defendant: ‘He is a willful, persistent, plausible and cunning criminal of the worst possible type’.
That year, the Solicitors’ Journal, complaining about ‘police speak’, noted that: a scratch was ‘an abrasion’; a bruise, ‘a contusion’; ‘assistance was procured’; and a policeman never missed an opportunity of ‘using a word with a Latin root’.
No chance of that today. The spokesman’s words were in complete contrast with those of Inspector Hanbridge, describing the 2001 killing in Brisbane of an armed robber known as the Bad-Wig Bandit. ‘This male person has been in possession of two firearms and after this confrontation this male person was shot by the police officer and the male person is now deceased.’
Goodness knows, lawyer-speak is hidebound enough: ‘I put it to you’, ‘May it please…’ ‘ With respect…’ ‘On instructions….’ and the ultimate insult, ‘I hear what you say’. But police-speak is even worse. Just 100 years ago, a Justice of the Peace complained that a policeman never found people quarrelling, there was always an ‘altercation’. He never ‘asked’ but ‘requested’.
A constable who caught a couple having sexual intercourse saw them ‘having intellectual course’. A parson, even wearing his dog collar, was only ‘a gentleman of clerical appearance’.
Have things changed? Not really. A police officer friend told me that as a young constable he reported to his sergeant that a man was dead, only to be told: ‘A person is never dead until certified by a doctor. He is “apparently lifeless”.’
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor