Police Bullshit

Taking Brutal Police Talk Less Seriously

  • David Sausdal University of Copenhagen

Abstract

The police say brutal things. Research has documented how officers, when amongst themselves, talk about people in derogatory ways or openly fantasize about the use of excessive violence. In the literature, such backstage talk is in general analyzed in two ways: It is understood as proof of how the police really think – as evidencing police (im)morality or misconduct. Alternatively, scholars argue that police officers’ transgressive talk is a warped yet nevertheless meaningful and meaning-generating way for them to deal with their, at times, harsh profession. Certainly, both these means of analysis resonate with the empirical material of this article – an empirical material stemming from an ethnographic study of two Danish detective units. Yet, as this article argues, simply applying this analytical twofold would risk misrepresenting or, perhaps rather, overinterpreting the indeed brutal things the Danish detectives said. While some of the detectives’ language could/should be understood as representing police immorality or reflecting their troublesome profession, this article proposes a counterintuitive reading, namely that their vicious words were, paradoxically, often analytically ordinary. They were examples of “bullshitting” (Frankfurt 2009) – a genre of offensive talk yet, nevertheless, a genre with no specific internal nor intended meaning to it. Therefore, although (police and others’) bullshit is extremely evocative, and thus includes the risk of drawing the ethnographer in, one should be cautious about taking it too seriously. At least when it came to these Danish detectives, their vicious words habitually had little purchase on their general perceptions or practices. Their words were certainly distasteful but, really, just bullshit.

Published
2020-03-23