Open Journal of Modern Linguistics
2012. Vol.2, No.1, 1-7
Published Online March 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Public Confidence in the Police: The Impact of Verbal Encounters
Kari Rønneberg
Bachelor Department, Norwegian Police University College, Oslo, Norway
Received December 13th, 2011; revised January 8th, 2012; accepted January 16th, 2012
The main part of ordinary police work consists of patrolling and answering calls, which means that most
police officers are in a daily and direct contact with members of the public. During such encounters, espe-
cially if they take place by means of a telephone, language not only provides an important means to solve
problems and exert social control, but it also helps to build relations, as well as to inspire confidence and
trust. In this way, the communication process between police and the public provides the basis for police
legitimacy and consequently, for successful police work. This article examines the impact of verbal
communication between police officers and members of the public during day-to-day encounters, and
shows how the linguistic and interactional choices of the police, e.g. when formulating a rejection or an-
swering a request, may affect their relationship with the public in general, in positive as well as negative
Keywords: Police Communication; Public Confidence; Service Encounters; Telephone Calls; Requests;
In this article, my objective is to document the importance of
the talk-in-interaction used by the police in their dealings with
the general public, and how their choice of linguistic strategies
may affect the communicative climate between the parties, for
better or worse.
A consistent body of recent research links people’s confi-
dence in their police to specific, individual encounters with
police officers, either by personal experiences or vicariously,
through the knowledge of others’ experiences (Skogan, 2009,
2006, 2005; Hinds, 2009; Rosenbaum et al., 2005; Weitzer &
Tuch, 2005). Some of these studies also clearly point to the
importance of verbal communication. According to Tyler &
Huo (2002), a main concern when people consider the police
and the courts are whether these authorities treat people fairly,
recognize citizens’ rights, treat people with dignity, and care
about people’s concerns (2002: p. 178). Weitzer & Tuch (2005)
link personal and vicarious experience with police misconduct
with survey questions that also focuses on language use, e.g.
“Have the police ever used insulting language toward you or
toward anyone else in your household?” (2005: p. 287). As for
people’s negative experiences, the most important determinants
of general dissatisfaction include “police being seemingly im-
polite, unhelpful, unfair, inattentive to what they had to say and
unwilling to explain what was going on” (Skogan, 2006: p.
113). These findings are reinforced in Skogan (2009), in which
bad experiences with the police are found to result from being
treated “unfairly, unhelpfully and impolitely” (2009: p. 314).
Research also links successful police work to people’s will-
ingness to obey police regulations and decisions and to comply
with the law in general (Tyler, 2006, 2004; Rosenbaum, Schuck,
Costello, Hawkins, & Ring, 2005; Tyler & Huo, 2002). This
means that the communicative meeting which takes place be-
tween police and ordinary citizens can be defined as an invest-
ment in good relations, in the way that it builds confidence and
willingness on the part of the public to cooperate with the en-
forcers of the law. On the other hand, if this is not the case and
the communication between police and the public is unsuc-
cessful, such encounters may lead to mutual distrust, which in
turn may bar any future attempt at building relations between
the two parties. Research also shows that it is the negative ex-
periences which affect people’s attitudes to the police the most,
and also that this is particularly notable when it is the members
of the public who take the initiative to the encounter (Skogan,
Language, thus, is a core element in all such meetings be-
tween the public and the police. In spite of this, however, the
talk-in-interaction between the police and the public in their
day-to-day encounters has seldom been the focus of extensive
linguistic research. What has been studied has mostly been
police language in structured and goal-oriented situations, such
as police interviews and calls to emergency centers, cf. Jönsson,
(1988); Jönsson & Linell, (1996); Whalen & Zimmerman, (1987);
Manning, (1988); Whalen & Zimmerman, (1990) and Zimmer-
man, (1992). However, both Jönsson’s (1988) and Riis-Johan-
sen’s (2005) studies of police interviews also show how the
police use informal everyday language as a tool in order to
create a friendly and relaxed atmosphere. The latter describes
this use of informal language as a deliberate strategy, to reduce
the impression of asymmetry, because “to do their job, the of-
ficers depend on a good relationship with the suspect” (2005: p.
An interesting study in this respect is Couper-Kuhlen’s (2007)
analysis of displayed affect in interaction. Displayed disap-
pointment after a rejection, signalled e.g. by a subdued tone, is
usually followed by signs that the disappointment has been
registered and by explanations or attempts at comforting the
other. However, stronger expressions of affect, such as surprise
or irritation, usually also accompanied by a reformulated re-
quest, will only get a repeated rejection as a response. Repeated
rejections as the only answer can in turn lead to a less harmo-
nious climate, in particular if the rejection-giver feels that his or
her authority is being questioned by the other’s non-accept, and
especially when the rejection is followed by arguments, some-
times also in an aggressive tone. Such a tone may be construed
as a challenge, an inappropriate thing to do, and consequently,
the rejection-giver may choose to answer in the same note,
which can bring conflict about (see also Rönneberg & Sven-
nevig, 2010: p. 301).
Data and Sample
The data used in this article are all taken from an empirical
study of citizen-initiated telephone calls to the police. The cor-
pus consists of a total of 900 telephone conversations, or ex-
cerpts of conversations, recorded at the 24-hour duty desk of an
Oslo police station during two different periods of time during
2002 and 2003. While the total number of recordings is about
1500, approximately half of these are calls from the public to
the police. These have been categorized into three more or less
distinct groups. The largest category, between 700 and 750
calls, can typically be described as routine calls, in the sense
that they deal with often recurring themes, that they follow
more or less standard procedures, and that their outcome is
fairly predictable. The second group, less numerous, consists of
approximately 100 calls that touch upon institutional con-
straints, thus making positive answers difficult to give, a fact
which also ensures a certain degree of predictability. The third
group of calls, approximately 50, are those which are problem-
atic in some way or another, either because of a poorly organ-
ized message, because of mentally unbalanced or emotionally
disturbed callers, or because circumstances are complex or dif-
fuse, all of which contribute to an unpredictable outcome. From
the above categories, a representative sample of 190 excerpts
has been selected and then transcribed and analyzed according
to the principles of Conversation Analysis (CA). For further
reading, see Rönneberg (2009) & Rönneberg (2011).
The Service Encounter as a Communicative Ge-
Witness and suspect interviews as well as emergency calls
for assistance represent two main communicative activities in
the interaction between the police and the public. However,
both differ from the everyday encounter between police and the
public by their distinctly task-related and goal-oriented charac-
ter, within specific and restricted domains.
Police interviews or questioning of witnesses or suspects (in
the latter case, sometimes called interrogations) focus on com-
mitted offenses with the sole objective of gathering as much
and as correct information as possible about the events. Emer-
gency calls provide the call-taker with a dichotomous task
while pressed for time, having to decide whether the caller is
entitled to help or not. Compared with the above activities, the
day-to-day verbal encounter between police officers and ordi-
nary citizens, in the study represented by telephone calls to a
police duty desk, present the call-taker with far more diversified
tasks, with a goal-orientation which is not always very specific.
As a communicative event, this service encounter has in fact
a double objective. On the one hand, a broad specter of calls
have to be correctly responded to, from requests for information,
advice and assistance, to reports about anything ranging from
minor incidents to observations of accidents, suspicious events
and committed offenses. At the same time, the interaction
should also contribute to a trusting and harmonious relationship
between the public and the police, whether it takes place as a
face-to-face encounter or by means of a telephone. During such
encounters, language not only provides an important means to
solve problems and exert social control, but it can also build
relations and inspire confidence and trust. The latter is of the
utmost importance, since the police depend on the public for
information, co-operation and support. Also, a stated objective
of the Norwegian Police Directorate in their Strategic plan for
2006-2009 is that “The public’s encounter with the police
should be positive”. During such verbal meetings, then, the
spoken language will provide the link between the police offi-
cer and the citizen, and as such, either serve as a tool to build
relations and inspire confidence, or, on the other hand, create
distance and possible distrust. The latter is of particular impor-
tance, since research shows that the impact of having a bad
experience with the police is four to fourteen times as great as
that of having a positive experience (Skogan, 2006).
The analysis of my own data shows that a distinctive general
feature, common to the majority of the calls, and observable
from the very first sequence of the calls, is the mundane and
informal character of the police officers’ language, which also
leaves room for humour, empathy and occasional small-talk.
While such characteristics are not usually expected in institu-
tional conversations in a formal setting, here the effect is to
contribute to a relaxed and informal atmosphere which reduces
the formality of the situation, and opens for “exchange rela-
tions” rather than “power relations” (Linell, 1990). The infor-
mality also reduces the asymmetry between what is everyday
routine for the professional, and a unique and special occasion
for the caller (Drew & Heritage, 1992).
A characteristic feature is the consistent use of politeness
strategies, such as the general use in routine situations of posi-
tive politeness, which is the politeness strategy used when dis-
appointment is to be expected, typically when answering of-
ten-recurring requests about lost property, which more often
than not are given negative replies. Equally consistent is the use
of negative politeness when people are requested to perform
acts that infringe upon their personal liberty, and when a careful
approach is needed to mitigate the threat to their freedom of
action (Brown & Levinson, 1987). An example is how the po-
lice inform about the need to make a personal appearance at a
police station in order to make a formal report about an offense,
in spite of the time it usually takes to wait in line at the desk. In
this way, the language in itself becomes a means to maintain
harmony in the interaction, and to prevent disagreement from
turning into discontent or aggression.
As in the following excerpt, an answer to a caller who has
called about lost property:
(1) (0217037)
7 P: nei be'klager,
7 P: no sorry,
8 (0.3) den [(er ikke)
8 (0.3) it [(is not)
9 K: [( )
9 K: [( )
10 P: 'ikke 'fått inn,
10 P: not got it,
11 'men eh,
11 but eh
12 'prøv litt 'seinere,
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
12 do try a bit later,
13 for 'det::: 'pleier å::::::::
13 cause it::: usually::::::::
14 K: [( )
14 K: [( )
15 P: ['komme litt,
15 P: [’comes a bit,
16 'komme inn:: noen dager 'etterpå,
16 comes in:: a few days later,
17 for å si det sånn,
17 to put it that way,
As we observe, the negative message is packaged into a se-
ries of dispreference markers, which are politeness mechanisms
that signal a call-taker eager to minimize the recipient’s ex-
pected disappointment. The first “no” is accompanied by an
expression of regret, which is followed by a restart and a hesi-
tating “eh” before the negative answer is given in line 10. Then
follows some encouraging advice (“do try a bit later”), accom-
panied by an explanation (“it usually comes in a bit later”),
modified by drawn-out sounds, until a final modifying “to put it
that way”, so as to warn against too much optimism.
The next excerpt is taken from a conversation in which a dis-
traught mother, who has just been told that her nineteen-year-
old son who has been missing all night, is with the police. Be-
cause of professional secrecy, however, the police officer are
unable to tell her why, since in Norwegian law a person above
18 is “of full age and legal capacity”. Thus, no account can be
given to the worried mother who wants to know what has hap-
(2) (0109128)
27 C: 'Å ja men 'da har han 'gjort noe al'vorlig da?
28 (.) 'siden han blir 'sittende til i 'morgen?
27 C: Oh yes but then he has done something serious
28 (.) since you arekeeping him till tomorrow?
29 P: (2.0) *j:'a:[:
30 K [åhhhh.
29 P: (2.0) *ye:s:[:
30 C: [oh hhh.
31 P:
Det::: m
32 (2.5)
33 Det er vel en 'sum dette 'her.
31 P: I:::t m
32 (2.5)
33 I:: suppose this is a sum of things.
34 K: (0.4) 'ja: (.) akku'rat.
35 (1.1)
34 C: (0.4) ’ye:s (.) just so.
35 (1.1)
36 P: Av for'skjellige ting,
37 (0.7)
36 P: Of various things,
37 (0.7)
A combination of hedges, hesitation and drawn-out sounds
are all signs of the officer’s attempts at taking the sting out of
the bad news that is conveyed by his non-responses. However,
the silence in line 29, before the officer’s hesitating “yes”, as
well as the long pauses in lines 32 and 35, tell as clearly as
words that something is wrong. Towards the end of the conver-
sation, we also find empathy displayed in the format of the
(3) (0109128)
71 P: >Det 'er det< 'det er 'der dess'verre det 'beste jeg får
'gjort for deg,
71 P: > It is it < it is there regrettably the best I can
do for you,
72 alt [så.
72 you [see.
An overall effect of this consistent use of politeness mecha-
nisms, combined with the everyday, informal character of the
language, is to convey a tone of consideration and respect,
while also alleviating the relative formality of the situation.
This in turn contributes to an impression of symmetry and “as-
if-equality” (Luckmann, 1990) between the professional and the
layperson, which encourages closeness and personal contact
between the two, thus facilitating the communication process.
In another excerpt, the caller complains about not having got
a reply to a letter in which he has reported a burglary in his
office, which he needs for reasons of insurance. He wants to
know why he still has got no formal reply from the police, and
whether his report has been registered. The duty officer has
tried to locate his letter, without success. She then suggests that
best thing for him to do is to show up in person at a police sta-
tion to report the matter once again. Her argument is that this
will save time, he will get his document while he is there, the
same day.
(4) (0110011)
36 P: nei vi syns at eh det at du 'nesten må 'møte opp
per'sonlig her,
No what we suggest eh is that you should ’rather
come down here in person,
37 (0.2) men eh som s *det er 'veldig stor eh:[::
(0.2) but eh as s *there are quite a lot eh:[::
38 K: 'ja:
39 >det er helt< 'meningsløst,
>it is totally< absurd,
40 i 'min i og med at det 'e:r :::eh hh .hhh
In my since it is :::eh hh .hh
41 P: men (alt )
But (all [ )
42 K: ja jeg 'hakke !tid til det for å si det 'kort og
'godt og::: og:: !dere,
[yes the short of it is I havent got
the !time for this and::: and :: !you,
43 (som) >det hadde vært 'innbrudd 'her < jeg 'ringt til
(as) >there had been a burglary here < I called
44 dere hadde ikke 'tid til å komme !hit,
You did not have time to come ! here,
45 .hhhh ( )
After several attempts by the police officer to placate the an-
gry caller, by informing him about police procedures and also
by suggesting possible alternatives, the caller finally realizes
that unless he turns up in person at the police station, he may
have to wait a couple of weeks more for the papers he needs for
the insurance. His temper rises once again:
93 K: så det blir liksom mye,
So I mean this is really too much,
5 P: ja,
96 K: formaliteter som ( )
formalities which [( )
Here, the police officer changes her tone and also her strat-
egy, concentrating on promoting the services the police station
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 3
is able to render:
97 P: så så for du vet at eh vi har jo 'døgnåpent
her ikke sant,
[because because as you know eh we stay
open ’24 hours a day
98 og og hvis man kommer eh litt andre heheh åpnings
tider enn sånn eh
And and if one arrives eh at well other heh heh open
ing hours than you know eh
99 (0.2) 'midt på 'formiddagen
(0.2) at peak time at noon
100 K: ja,
101 P: så så skal det være en 'relativt 'smal 'sak å få regis't
rert en sånn sak,
Then then it ought to be relatively simple to get
such a case dealt with,
102 K: *Ja,
103 P: (0.6) Så::::::::::::::: (1.3) da er det gjort i løpet av:::::::
'ti minutter ikke sant,
(0.6) So:::::::::::: (1.3) then itll only be a matter
of ::::: ’ten minutes wont [ it,
104 K: [( )
105 P: så har du 'saksnummeret og 'alt bare å,
Then youll have the case number and everything
it is just to,
106 P: bekreftelsen med deg 'ut hvis du 'ønsker det,
attestation also with you ’then and ’there if
you want to,
107 K: Ja da,
Yes okay,
While presenting the situation in as many positive ways as
possible, the officer also underlines her understanding of the
situation by linguistic devices such as drawn-out sounds, hesi-
tation, laughter and encouraging small talk, and also adding “if
you want to” in the end, to underline that the choice is his. This
changes the tone of the call, and the caller accepts with a “yes
okay”. However, the conversation is far from over, because the
caller now recalls another encounter with the police, namely
when he had to report a stolen car, and what he now clearly
remembers is having to wait for a long time at the desk:
173 K: * ja eh da jeg da jeg 'var her med denne 'bilen eh
så 'satt jeg der i 'timesvis,
*yes eh when I was there on account of this car eh
I had to sit there for hours,
174 P: ja,
175 nei det blir håpløst.
No that is hope[less
176 K: da eh blir det sånn,
[then eh it becomes sort of
177 P: (0.7) Så det::
So that[::
178 K: da blir det sånn 'litt for 'mye 'tid,
[then it becomes sort of a bit
too much time,
179 P: jada,
Yes of course
180 det skal du ha full forståelse for,
There is every reason to agree with you there,
181 men eh:::::: litt 'utenom eh 'vanlige sånn rushtider
But eh:::::: a bit outside of eh the usual kind
of rush hours then :::,
182 så pleier det å gå 'relativt 'kjapt,
It usually goes relatively fast,
183 K: .hhh Yes nei men da 'ser jeg om jeg 'hører no 'fra
dere hvis 'ikke
.hhh Yes no but in that case Ill see if I hear from
you if not
184 så får jeg ta jeg meg en tur bort,
Ill drop by some time tomorrow,
185 sånn en eller annen eh::: 'tid i morgen.
Sort of some time or other eh::: ’time tomorrow.
As we see, the police officer has chosen the tactique of
agreeing totally with his complaints, instead of trying to defend
the routine of the police station. This results in a happy cus-
tomer who has no problems with accepting his fate, which is to
“drop by” at the police station “some time tomorrow”. All his
counter-arguments have vanished, in his meeting with this very
understanding police officer.
When the Rule of Politeness Does Not Apply
As stated above, in the overall majority of the conversations,
politeness strategies are the rule. This is particularly notable
when often-occurring service requests or repeated reports about
the same kind of day-to-day nuisances have to be answered
in the negative. Even when answering the very common in-
quires about lost property, the officers almost without exception
“package” their negative replies in politeness mechanisms, such
as pre-sequences and reservations, hedges, accounts, regrets
and expressed empathy, all of which contribute to alleviate the
caller’s foreseeable disappointment, as shown in example 1
Since displayed courtesy and respect by the police officers
seem to be regular procedure in calls belonging to the “routine”
category, one would assume to find the same consistent use of
politeness mechanisms within the two other and less numerous
categories, especially in calls that touch upon institutional con-
straints. In such cases, a negative answer will often be impossi-
ble to avoid, and so a dispreferred format, characterized by all
sorts of face-saving devices, is what you would expect, whether
the rejection might be due to reasons of confidentiality, the
station’s internal priorities, a lack of resources or simply, be-
cause the caller’s errand is not judged to be police relevant. An
interesting finding is that while negative or unwanted answers
are almost always given in a thoroughly polite form in the case
of the routine requests, it is precisely within the category of
calls which concern institutional constraints that we find the
exceptions to the rule. As in the following example, in which
the caller wants the help of the police to have his lost mobile
phone blocked, a request that probably does not qualify as a
police matter and is consequently rejected. However, the caller
has explained his reasons for calling, which is that he is unable
to reach the company in charge, since nobody answers his call.
(5) (0302009)
20 K: (0.3) og: 'det er bare 'det .hhh heh hh.
20 C: (0.3) an:d it is just that .hhh heh hh.
21 så: jeg 'vet ikke om du kan hjelpe meg med 'det eller
21 so: I dont know if you can help me with this or
22 for å få det 'sperra,
23 (1.4)
22 to have it blocked.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
23 (1.4)
The format of the request may possibly indicate that the call-
er himself is aware that he is asking for something that is po-
tentially irrelevant, by the fact that he adds “or not” (line 21).
However, the somewhat unusual wording may perhaps be due
to the fact that the caller has a non-Norwegian background,
which is suggested by his accent, as well as by the way the
words are accentuated.
The long silence which follows suggests that something is
the matter. The response, when it comes, is given directly and
without any account:
24 P: 'nei jeg 'får ikke 'hjelpa deg med 'det,
24 P: no I cannot help you with that,
25 K: (0.2) du 'får ikke 'det?
25 C:_ that you cannot do?
26 P: (0.3) n.hhei,
26 P: (0.3) n.hho,
The caller’s reacts to the answer by repeating it (line 25),
thus displaying surprise, which may be caused both by the re-
jection and its direct format. However, it may also be initiating
repair. Which is not given, the rejection is simply confirmed by
“no”. This is followed by yet a repetition, this time suggesting
27 K: (0.2) 'ing (.) du 'får ikke gjort 'noen 'ting?
27 C: (0.2) ’no (.) you cannot do anything?
28 (0.9)
29 P: nei 'jeg fåkke 'gjort no (.) t,
29 P: no I cant do any (.) th
30 eh :: du får 'ta kon'takt med opera'tøren din?
30 eh:: youd better contact your operator?
A possible explanation for the lack of politeness mechanisms
in this case may simply be that the officer sees no need for
service-mindedness as long as the caller’s request is not a mat-
ter for the police. However, when looking more closely at other
calls belonging to the same category of institutional constraints,
we find that quite a few responses are given in a direct and
rather blunt way, where you would expect the same politeness
strategies that seem to be the rule in the more standard conver-
Of course, one reason why requests that concern confidential
matters sometimes are given in a direct format is that it may be
hard to provide an answer, and at the same time, not saying too
much. What we do find, however, is that in some of these calls,
the problem of not being able to answer is partly solved by the
officer’s account of why this is so. As in the following exam-
(6) (0215032)
14 P: (’altså) ’du får (.) [’ta=
K: [(eh)
14 P: (‘well) ’youll (.) have to [’take=
C: [(eh)
15 P: =dette ’her med ’sønnen din,
15 P: = this up with your son,
16 P: altså han er ’over ’atten år så jeg kankje gi ’deg
16 P: well he is above eighteen years old so I cant give
you any information,
17 P: jeg har ’taushetsplikt,
17 P: I am bound to secrecy,
18 P: (og eh) (0.8) ’du får ’snakke med han!
18 P: (and eh) (0.8) youll have to talk to him!
19 K: (0.4) ’Ja ’vel.
19 C: (0.4) ‘O key.
20 P: (.) ‘mhm,
20 P: (.) ’mhm,
Still, it is not unusual to find rejections of requests concern-
ing confidential information being delivered directly, and also
without an account, which might have mitigated the abruptness
of the response:
(7) (0302025)
39 K: [men men har du 'ikke 'lov til å si u (XX) til
'meg om
39 C: [but arent you allowed to tell un (XX) to me
40 'hva han er 'anmeldt (0.4) for 'før?
40 ‘what he has been reported (0.4) for before?
1 er [han
41 is [he
42 P: ['nei.
43 jeg !kan ikke 'det,
42 P: [’no.
I can !not.
A woman who has inquired about her husband’s where-
abouts, has been told that “the police have talked with him to-
day”. She then goes on to ask for details:
(8) (0630046)
49 C: (0.4) ja,
50 hva ['er hva 'gjelder det?
49 C: (0.4) yes,
50 what [‘is what is it all about?
51 P: [han 'er hos poli'tiet 'ennå!
51 P: [he still is with the police!
52 C: (0.3) 'hvorfor?
52 K: (0.3) ‘why?
53 (0.7)
54 P: 'det 'kan jegke 'si!
54 P: I cannot tell!
55 (1.1)
In another example, a woman calls about a stolen handbag
belonging to a friend, which contained a lot of valuables, in-
cluding wallet, mobile phone and various bank cards – “all her
valuables” is how she describes it. Why she calls is not to re-
port the loss, which has already been done, but to convey an
important message, namely that when they call the number of
the stolen phone, somebody answers it. What she then expects
the police to do is to immediately trace the phone, and in this
way catch the wrong-doers.
The police officer’s response is clearly negative from the
very beginning of the call. When he declares that it is impossi-
ble to trace a mobile in the way she expects the police to be
able to do, she hardly believes him. Her disappointment takes
the shape of a challenge:
(9) (0302015)
127 K: og ’mer ’klarer ikke ’dere å ’finni ut?
127 C: and that is all you are able to do?
128 (0.6)
This is a clear confrontation, in a direct and personal form,
addressing the other directly, and with a stress on syllables such
as “able to”. She possible attacks to save her own face; instead
of accepting to have asked a silly question, she implies that it is
the police who are not doing their job.
The officer picks up the glove. Here it is his position of
power which is threatened. What he does is to respond from his
status position as an expert:
129 P: nei ikkje !sånne saker hadde det 'vært en 'drapssak
129 P: no not !that kind of cases if had it been a murder
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 5
130 så så kanskje vi måtte ha sott oss [ned og
130 so so maybe we would have to sit [down and
131 K: *’ja jeg:
131 C: [*yes I:
132 (0.6)
133 .h ja *jeg 'skjønner at det
133 C: yes *I [’see that
134 P: [det )
134 C: [it
135 K: 'kanskje ikke er 'så (.) 'stor eh ’sak,
135 C: may not be such eh (.) ‘big eh [‘case,
136 P: ( ) har sikkert
stjålet !tusen tele'foner i natt for
136 P: [( ) has probably
stolen a !thousand phones tonight so
137 >at altså det < er < det:: e:r be'grenset > hva 'vi kan
gjøre med< 'det,
137 >that there are < so < there are limits > to what
we can do aboutthat
139 (1.3)
140 K: mja: [:::
140 C: myes [:::
141 P: [så 'den kan du bare 'føre på 'konto’
141 P: [so that one you can just reckon as gone,
142 for 'tapt,
142 P: for lost,
143 (0.3) det kan jeg 'bare si,
143 P: (0.3) that is all I can say,
144 (1.2)
The officer’s answers in line 129 is clearly a discredit of the
importance of the case, and consequently of her poor judgement
as well. In this way, he also threatens her positive face. What he
implies is that her errand—and by this, herself—are of no im-
portance, seen from a police perspective. Not only does the case
belong to the category of “!that kind of cases”, but it also marks
the contrast with the other and far more serious kind of cases,
namely murders.
However, we also notice a change in the voice of the caller.
She has lost her self-confidence and become hesitating (line
135). Her response is given in a creaky voice and as a hesitating
admittance: her important information is not so important after
all. When the call comes to an end some twenty lines later, it is
probable that what the caller will remember is an impression
of a police force that lacks both the will and the ability to help a
person who has lost “all her valuables”. Such a loss of confi-
dence will take time to rebuild, if it is not too late already, and,
what may be worse, the sad story about a non-cooperative po-
lice is sure to be spread to all her acquaintances and thus
heighten the negative effect.
The verbal encounter between the police and the public as
presented in these examples show how the linguistic strategies
of the police can directly affect their relationship with the pub-
lic. In examples (2) and (3), we see that the use of politeness
mechanisms (drawn-out sounds, hedges) and the use of a rela-
tive informal language help alleviating a situation which to
the member of the public may be felt as rather threatening (her
son is with the police for some unknown misdoings). The over-
all effect caused by the officer’s choice of linguistic strategies
is a tone of closeness and personal contact between the two.
In example (6), we see how the officer solves the similar
problem of not being able to answer a request concerning con-
fidentiality by providing a rather long explanation of why he is
unable to answer. That this partly solves the caller’s problem is
shown in his acceptance of the account by a finalizing “okay”,
indicating that the officer’s strategy may have affected their
relationship in a positive way. In examples (7) and (8) which
also concern questions of confidentiality, direct rejections are
given without any attempt at providing explanations, a fact that
we may assume is not perceived by the callers as contributing
to a positive relationship.
Another example (4) shows how the officer’s choice of
strategy, here agreeing totally with the customer’s complaints
instead of trying the defend the police routines, changes the
whole tone of the interaction. From dealing with a rather
grumpy caller with numerous complaints, the police officer’s
tactique ensures that in the end the other rather happily accepts
what he initially did not want to, namely to turn up in person at
the police station to file a complaint for the second time.
In example (5) we notice a different kind of impact resulting
from the officer’s rather blunt rejection of the caller’s request
for help. The caller’s perception of the situation is shown first
by his expressed surprise, followed by an expression of disbe-
lief at the direct rejection. His reactions clearly suggest a rela-
tionship that is affected in a negative way.
In the last example (9) a confrontation follows from the offi-
cer’s negative handling of the caller’s request, namely that the
police should be able to trace a stolen mobile phone and thus
clear up a robbery in which several valuables have been stolen
from the caller’s friend. The officer’s negative response pro-
vokes the other into answering back on the same tone, which
starts a full-fledged argument between the two. Here, the offi-
cer ends up as the winner, discrediting the importance of her
case and thus threatening her judgment and consequently her
positive face. The result is a loss of self-confidence on the part
of the caller, and also, we may assume, a loss of her former
confidence in the police.
The examples thus show how the linguistic and interactional
choices of the police may clearly affect the relationship be-
tween police and the public, in positive as well as negative
As we notice in some of the examples above, belonging to
the category of institutional constraints, the officers’ rejections
of the callers’s requests are sometimes given in a direct and
unmitigated form, which, as already stated, contrasts with the
otherwise consistent use of dispreference mechanisms which
characterizes negative answers given in the much larger “rou-
tine” category of calls. When comparing the various categories
and the ratio of negative answers in each, it appeared that with-
in the large so-called “routine” category I hardly found any
example of lack of politeness mechanisms or affective response
at all. In the less numerous category of institutional constraints,
however, a fairly large number of calls showed examples of
lacking mitigating devices were lacking. When comparing 32
excerpts from this category, in 24 of them the rejection was
given directly, without any politeness device to soften the an-
swer. In a full eight of them, thus one third of the sample, there
was no account that might have explained why the rejection
was given. In only four of them I found a “sorry” or “I regret”.
A possible explanation why certain calls are dealt with in a
way that may cause frustration and heighten the conflict level,
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 7
may be found in the officers’ perception of their own role as
police. While many seem to see themselves as advisors and
problem-solvers, others seem primarily to be in the role as en-
forcers of law and order. Where some are attentive to citizens’
personal problems as well, others restrict their dealings with the
public to the factual and professional.
At the same time, the police may also perceive the role of the
public in various ways. As the examples show, most calls are
dealt with in a polite and respectful way, especially in routine
requests, such as calls about lost property or misparked cars. On
the other hand, when the callers’ questions touch upon institu-
tional constraints, or when help is requested with matters which
are not seen as “police business”, the norms of politeness do not
always apply. There are also examples of rejections which seem
to indicate that some citizens—or groups of citizens—are met
with less respect and consideration than others. Obviously,
there seem to be certain norms at work, or some implicit stan-
dards that influence the way the members of the public are dealt
with, and also whether they seem entitled to assistance or not.
Another source of conflict may be unclear perceptions of
what police work is really all about. As some examples seem to
indicate, what is or is not a “matter for the police” may depend
more on the police’s own perspective on what “real” police
work consists of, and less on how the citizens define their own
needs. However, according to a recent Norwegian Parliamen-
tary “White Paper” defining the role and tasks of the police, it
is clearly stated that “the safety of the individual citizen and
society at large” should be a primary objective for the police in
their work, and also that the public should be given a “swift
response when help is needed”. Added to this, it is made clear
that the concept of “safety” should be understood from a citizen
perspective and people’s own perceptions of “their need for
Some Concluding Remarks
A general observation is that in police interaction with the
public, lexical choice and linguistic design may be just as im-
portant as what is actually said. A thoroughly polite and re-
spectful way of dealing with the callers, even in routine matters,
contributes to establishing and maintaining a harmonious rela-
tionship with the public at large. This is of particular impor-
tance in the case of refusals, where the use of politeness strate-
gies can have a decisive effect on how the answer is understood,
and whether the rejection is accepted or becomes a source of
frustration, arguments and ensuing conflict.
Also, when problems occur, they seem to arise not so much
from what is actually said during the interaction, as from what
is not said, e.g. by not answering questions, by not taking the
expected turn at a transition-relevant place, by not repairing
obvious signs of trouble in the conversation or by not providing
In a wider context, the abrupt tone of some of the refusals
may also reflect a tendency to sort citizens’ requests into cate-
gories according to the importance of the reported trouble,
which again may lead to less attention being accorded to minor
offenses such as burglaries, thefts, threats and harassment than
to the more serious, however far less common, crimes such as
killings, armed robberies and trouble with criminal gangs.
However, it is the common offenses, often referred to as “eve-
ryday” crime, that most people are bothered with, and for which
hey ask for police assistance. If such requests are turned down, t
sometimes also in a direct, unmitigated way, the consequence
may be a loss of confidence in the police, and also in their
willingness and capability to provide the kind of help with what
the public consider to be their real problems.
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