Words Matter: The Impact of Specific Language on Traffic Stop Interactions

The most common form of citizen complaint filed against the police involves officer demeanor during a traffic stop encounter.[1] While law enforcement officers disproportionately encounter the criminal element of society, vehicle stops for traffic violations are one of their duties that puts officers in contact with a typical cross-section of the community.[2] Traffic stops can involve criminals, but also involve a lot of average citizens too. Most Americans have been stopped for a traffic violation at some point in their lives. It is crucial, therefore, that we do what we can to keep the support of the average citizens and avoid unnecessarily offending average citizens with inappropriate behavior during traffic stops.

One recent study examined the specific words officers used on traffic stops and explored how these words influenced citizen attitudes about the legitimacy of the stop, and their overall support for the police. In this study, 486 average citizens were recruited to watch a video of a traffic stop encounter, and then answer questions about their opinions of the stop. The participants were asked if they thought the officer had been polite, fair, and acted appropriately. They were also asked questions about their own willingness to cooperate with the police, obey the law, and trust the police.[3]

Each participant was shown a video recording of a staged traffic stop encounter. The recording was from the perspective of a body-worn camera, so the viewer could only hear the officer’s words and not see the officer’s race, age or nonverbal behavior. The officer was played by a real law enforcement officer, and the driver was an actor who was compliant but only stated “yes” and “no” during the encounter. However, there were three different versions of the traffic stop and each participant was assigned to view only one of the three versions. This was done so that the researchers could determine if different communication styles produced different reactions among the viewers.[4] 

Version One – The Minimum 

A total of 162 participants viewed a version of the stop in which the officer only stated the minimum words necessary to complete the stop. When the officer approached the driver, he did not greet the driver. Instead, as an opening, the officer stated, “You were going 48 miles per hour and the speed limit here is 30 miles per hour. Give me your license and registration.” The officer’s tone was calm, even, and not harsh. The officer returned to his patrol car, then returned with a citation. The officer handed the driver an ink pen and showed the driver the citation while stating, “You are getting a ticket. Sign here.” After the driver signed the citation, the officer stated, “You are free to go.” At no time did the officer raise his voice, use profanity, or insult the driver. Nevertheless, the officer also failed to greet the driver, say “please” or “thank you,” explain his reasoning for issuing the citation or ask the driver if there was any reason why the driver was speeding.[5]

When answering the survey questions after this video, the participants indicated that they generally trusted the police, respected the law, and were willing to cooperate with the police. In terms of rating this specific interaction, the participants generally thought that the officer was fair, respectful, and unbiased, but only a few thought the officer had been polite.

Version Two – Polite

Another 162 participants observed the second video encounter instead. This interaction differed in that the officer displayed behaviors that linguists have revealed are key to communicating politeness in American culture. The first of these keys was a greeting. In the second recording, the officer opened the interaction by saying “Good evening, sir. You were going 48 miles per hour and the speed limit here is 30 miles per hour.” A second key to politeness in American culture is use of terms of respect. Throughout the second interaction, the officer consistently addressed the driver as either “Mr. Johnson” or “Sir.” A third key to politeness is making requests rather than demands. In the second version of the stop the officer stated, “Could you please give me your license and registration?” The officer also stated, “Could you please sign here?” A fourth key to politeness is displaying regret for causing another person discomfort. Examples of this include saying we are sorry when bumping into others, or a nurse apologizing for giving an injection (“I’m sorry, but this is going to feel like a pinch”). During the traffic stop, this was manifested through the officer saying, “Unfortunately, I have to give you a ticket for that high of a speed.” Finally, the last key to politeness was the use of “please” and “thank you” where appropriate. The officer included the word please in every request and concluded the stop by saying, “Thanks for your cooperation, Mr. Johnson.”[6]

Compared to the group who viewed the first version of the traffic stop, those who viewed the second version of the stop indicated much higher levels of trust in the police, respect for the law, and willingness to cooperate with the police. The participants who viewed the second version of the stop rated the officer much higher in terms of fairness, respectfulness, and being polite. In summary, all of the participants who viewed the second version of the stop displayed more positive views of this officer, and the police in general, than did the participants who viewed the first version of the stop.  

Version Three – Polite & Friendly

The final 162 participants viewed a third version of the stop. In the third condition, the officer applied all of the politeness characteristics of the second version of the video, but also added social similarity between the officer and the driver by trying to build rapport and explaining his actions. To open the traffic stop, the officer greeted the driver informally by saying, “Hey there. Good evening, sir. You were going 48 miles per hour and the speed limit here is 30 miles per hour. Could you please give me your license and registration?” The officer continued his informal language by saying, “Hang tight, sir, and I’ll be back in a moment” before returning to his patrol vehicle. Upon returning to the driver with the citation, the officer gave an explanation to show that he and the driver shared the same concerns for safety. “Unfortunately, I have to give you a ticket for that high of a speed. Here’s the deal, Mr. Johnson. Every year people die on this particular road from speeding and we’re just trying to keep that from happening. Could you please sign here?” The officer finally closes by saying “Thanks for your cooperation, Mr. Johnson. Okay, sir, drive carefully.”[7]

Compared to the responses from the first two groups of participants, those who viewed the third version of the stop provided the most positive responses to the survey questions that followed. Among the three groups of participants, those who had viewed the third version of the stop recorded the highest scores of support, trust, and willingness to cooperate with the police. They also produced the highest rating scores for the officer in terms of fairness, respectfulness, lack of bias, and politeness. Clearly, the words the officer used in each version of the stop made a difference to the people who witnessed the police-citizen interaction.

Take-Away Lessons

This experiment revealed some key findings that officers can easily apply when interacting with the public to increase citizen support for the police and reduce the likelihood of citizen complaints.

Greet People – It is a norm in every culture that we greet people we meet before we interact with them.

Say Please and Thank You – When people fail to say “please” and “thank you” we consider them uncouth or rude, so avoid acting that way yourself.

Use Terms of Respect – We teach our kids to treat people (especially adults) with respect by requiring them to say “sir,” “ma’am,” or use titles such as Mr. or Ms. When did that stop applying to us?

Make Requests before Making Demands – Nobody, especially Americans, likes being ordered to do something. Sometimes in law enforcement we have to make demands, especially in emergency situations. In all other circumstances, why not ask first?

Give ReasonsPeople want to know why things are happening to them. If you do not explain why, you are leaving the real reasons for your actions up to their imaginations or biases. You are making a just and legitimate enforcement action decision, so be willing to explain that. 

Empathize – Even though it is your job to enforcement the law, and it is the citizen’s own fault for being in this situation, you can always realize that it is no fun to be in their shoes. While is does not change the enforcement action you take, having empathy can help you soften the blow by using words to show you realize this is an uncomfortable and embarrassing situation for the citizen. 

Always remember that your words matter. 


[1] Harris, C. J. (2010). Problem officers: an analysis of problem behavior patterns from a large cohort. Journal Criminal Justice, 38(2), 216-225; Hassell, K., & Archbold, C. (2010). Widening the scope on complaints of police misconduct. Policing: An International Journal of Police

Strategies and Management, 33(3), 473-489; Johnson, R. R. (1998). Citizen complaints: What the police should know. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 67(12), 1-5; Terrill, W., & Ingram, J. R. (2016). Citizen complaints against the police: An eight-city examination. Police Quarterly, 19(2), 150-179.

[2] Engel, R. S., & Calnon, J. M. (2004). Examining the influence of drivers’ characteristics during traffic stops with police: Results from a national survey. Justice Quarterly, 21(1), 49-90; Johnson, R. R. (2004). Citizen expectations of police traffic stop behavior. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 27(4), 487-497.

[3] Lowrey-Kinberg, B. (2019). Experimental results on the effect of politeness strategies on perceptions of police. Language & Communication, 69(1), 42-53.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

Recruiting the Next Generation of Cops

Many seasoned law enforcement officers seem to increasingly see the next generation of applicants as a “new breed” compared to applicants of the past. Often times, these differences are inevitably described in a negative light. But if there are significant generational differences, the fact remains that young men and women in their 20s and 30s comprise the pool of candidates from which the future of law enforcement will be drawn. So these differences need to be understood and agencies must make reasonable adjustments. 

But, before formulating approaches to attract the next generation of applicants to policing, we must answer a fundamental question: is there any hard evidence of generational differences? As many law enforcement agencies today are struggling to recruit enough quality applicants to fill law enforcement officer vacancies, the profession needs evidence-based information about the current generation that might be useful in recruiting efforts. This seems particularly true when considering changes that could be based solely on anecdotal evidence of “kids today”. 

Dolan Consulting Group (DCG) recently conducted a large survey of existing law enforcement officers from across the nation in order to determine what factors influenced them to pursue a law enforcement career. We surveyed existing law enforcement officers, knowing that all of these participants had already successfully become law enforcement officers, proving they had the necessary backgrounds and skills to successfully gain employment in the field. We were interested in determining what factors influenced these officers to choose their current profession, and examine if any differences existed between those hired within the last five years and those hired more than five years ago. 

The Sample

All sworn law enforcement officers who attended the various training courses offered by DCG between August, 2018 and March 2019, were given the opportunity to participate in our DCG Police Recruiting and Hiring Survey. A total of 1,673 sworn personnel took the survey, of whom 286 (17.1%) were female and 1,387 (82.9%) were male. The racial composition of the respondents were 83.4% White (non-Hispanic), 6.8% African-American, 5.4% Hispanic, 1.4% Multiracial, 1.0% Native American, 0.4% Asian, and 1.6% all other groups. In terms of highest education level, 30.8% had less than an associate’s degree, 18.2% had an associate’s degree, and 51% had a bachelor’s degree or higher. A total of 52.8% of the respondents held the rank of officer, deputy, or trooper, while another 10.0% held the rank of detective. About 23.0% held first-line supervisory ranks (corporal or sergeant), 4.5% held middle-management ranks (mostly lieutenants), and the remaining 9.7% held command staff ranks (captain or higher). Approximately 65% of the respondents were assigned to the patrol division of their agency, 14% to investigations, and 14% to command administration. The remaining 7% indicated other assignments such as training, community policing unit, or media relations. These respondents came from 49 different states and agencies ranging in size from less than a dozen officers to agencies with thousands of officers.   

Reasons for Selecting the Career

The survey respondents were presented with a list of 17 factors that might have influenced them to pursue a career in law enforcement. The respondents were asked to reflect on their own lives and indicate if each of these factors played a role in shaping their decision to become a law enforcement officer. For each of these 17 factors, the respondents were to indicate their level of agreement (from strongly disagree to strongly agree) on the extent each factor influenced their career choice decision. As was revealed in our earlier article published on July 9, 2019, Why do People Become Cops?, only seven of these factors played a notable role with 25% or more of the sample saying these factors were an influence. The remaining ten factors were each identified by less than a quarter of the respondents. The seven factors that mattered most are displayed in Table 1 below.

Table 1. Reasons for Selecting a Law Enforcement Career (Entire Sample)


Next we compared the responses to these seven reasons by the respondents’ length of tenure. Because less than 1% of the respondents in our survey began their careers within the last year, we had to include the next tenure category (served between 1 and 5 years of service). This gave us a sample of 233 respondents who had five or fewer years of service, and a comparison group of 1,440 respondents who had more than five years of service. We compared the two groups by the percentage of respondents that said these top seven factors influenced their decision to pursue a law enforcement career. The results of this comparison are found below in Table 2. 

As Table 2 reveals, those hired within the last five years were more likely than officers hired longer ago to say that wanting a career with interesting/exciting work attracted them to the career. To put this into perspective, about 90 out of every 100 officers hired within the last year, and 76 out of every 100 officers hired before that, said that this influenced their career decision. This result suggested that the desire for interesting and exciting work is of more importance to the current generation than for applicants of years past.  

Table 2. Reasons for Selecting a Law Enforcement Career by Years of Service


An even greater margin of difference was revealed with regard to a desire to help people and serve society. Whereas roughly 85 out of every 100 officers with less than five years of service was attracted by this aspect of the job, only 65 out of every 100 officers from earlier generations felt this was a career influence. 

A third important difference dealt with seeing injustice in the world and wanting to correct it. While 57% of officers with less than five years of experience agreed this attracted them to a police career, only 39% of those hired longer ago agreed that this was an influence. To a lesser extent, those hired within the last five years were more likely to have been motivated to join the profession by popular media portrayals of the career.

The responses of the two groups of officers were generally similar with regard to the role seeing the police at work in their communities, knowing an officer personally, or having someone close to them recommend the career. These three factors seemed to influence the career choice decisions of both the current generation, and older generations, to similar extents. 


It is obviously difficult to lump all people of a particular age group into a uniform group without recognizing that individual motivations vary for reasons that have nothing to do with generation or era of hiring. It is also possible that as individuals progress through a law enforcement career, they become more jaded and cynical about the altruistic reasons they once had for pursuing a law enforcement career. As a result, it may be that most of the respondents with more than five years of experience were just as attracted by altruistic aspects of the job when they began their career, but those recollections have dimmed with time. Regardless of whether the new generation is truly different, or all generations are similar and law enforcement experience changes people’s recollections, the actionable take-aways from these findings would be the same. 

The findings suggest that today’s applicants were most influenced to pursue a law enforcement career out of a desire for interesting work, exciting work, a desire to help people, a desire to serve society, and a desire to correct societal injustices. Recent recruits were not primarily driven to a career in law enforcement by an interest in steady work, financial opportunities or retirement plans. These practical concerns may well impact which agency they choose, but the findings indicate that the next generation is similar to the last in that they were not drawn to the profession for money or benefits—there are easier, less stressful and less dangerous career options. Rather, they were drawn to law enforcement for altruistic reasons—exciting work where they have a chance to serve society and play a role in creating a more just society. 

Agency recruiting efforts and individual officers’ recruiting efforts, which are best carried out by individual officers encouraging those in their life to consider the career, should emphasize these aspects of the job when talking up the profession to young people. What is probably toxic to recruiting the next generation is the public venting that often takes place in media interviews and kitchen table conversations—the job isn’t what it used to be, society doesn’t support us like they used to, policing is an impossible job under today’s microscope. New officers are joining the ranks to help people and make a difference, so receiving the message that policing is now a futile enterprise is one of the most effective ways to convince young people not to apply.  

Agency advertising and one-on-one recruiting efforts should focus on the noble aspects of the profession that have been drawing recent recruits. And agencies should designate recruiters and spokespeople who joined the profession for the same reasons and can communicate that message to potential applicants. Also, agency advertising should strike a balance between the adrenaline pumping aspects of the job that emphasize that policing is exciting and interesting work (SWAT operations, foot pursuits, vehicle pursuits) and the more community-oriented aspects of the job that emphasize that policing is about serving society and helping people (“out of car experiences” with members of the public and assisting victims).

Young officers indicate that they were drawn to law enforcement for the opportunity to take on exciting work in which they can serve society and make a difference. This is good news for the profession, because it indicates that the next generation of officers are joining the ranks for noble reasons. And it is good news for the recruits, because they will have a unique opportunity to make a difference as cops. Agencies need to make certain that young people looking for a chance to make a difference consider a career in law enforcement as a way of helping people and serving society.

About the Author

Matt Dolan is a licensed attorney who specializes in training and advising public safety agencies in matters of legal liability. His training focuses on helping agency leaders create sound policies and procedures as a proactive means of minimizing their exposure to costly liability. A member of a law enforcement family dating back three generations, he serves as both Director and Public Safety Instructor with Dolan Consulting Group.

His training courses include Recruiting and Hiring for Law EnforcementConfronting the Toxic OfficerPerformance Evaluations for Public SafetyMaking Discipline Stick®, and Supervisor Liability for Public Safety.