This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of The Guardian, Volume 42 issue 9.
In one of Sgt. Joe Friday’s classic monologues he says, “It’s awkward having a policeman around the house. Friends drop in, a man with a badge answers the door, the temperature drops twenty degrees.” Friday is interrogating rookie Officer Jim Reed, in one of his crossover roles from Adam-12, an undercover officer mistakenly accused of stealing money. Friday leans in as he continues his stern lecture. “All at once you lost your first name. You’re a cop, a flatfoot, a bull, a dick, John Law. You’re the fuzz, the heat, you’re poison, you’re trouble, you’re bad news. They call you everything, but never a policeman.”
Police Officer colloquialisms come and go. Seattle even had it’s own term, one time. One time, because if you did a double take it might get the officer’s attention. One time was made famous by Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “One Time’s Got No Case” in 1992. These days you’ll almost never hear anyone warning their cohorts, “Look out it’s the fuzz” or “psst it’s the heat”. Though our terms of endearment have been minimized to the whoops and whistles of the Central District or Rainier Valley early warning systems, one term, cop has outlasted them all. Its origins may not be what you thought they were.
When Sir Robert Peel helped lay the foundation for modern policing in 1829 his police force was initially called Peelers and eventually Bobbies, a term still in use today, which is short for Robert. Bobbies were subjected to a strict standard of living. Bobbies, who had to be at least six feet tall, worked seven days a week with five unpaid holidays per year. In order to look more like citizens as opposed to the British red coats, Bobbies wore blue coats and carried a night stick, a set of handcuffs and a whistle to sound the alarm. Bobbies required special permission to marry or even share a meal with a civilian. Because of an overwhelming fear of the citizenry being spied on, Bobbies were required to wear their uniforms even while off duty.
Early American law enforcement efforts were created in the mid seventeenth century. The New York’s Sheriff’s Office was founded in 1626. The term sheriff comes from the Old English term “shire reeve” or literally land or county keepers of the peace on behalf of the crown. The first modern police department in America was the Boston Police Department, founded in 1838. The Seattle Police Department by comparison was formed in 1886, just 18 years after the city’s incorporation and 3 years before Washington gained statehood.
American policeman have long been referred to as cops. Some suggest cop is an acronym for constable or citizen on patrol. Acronyms however, did not gain popularity until the twentieth century. The term cop has always had a derogatory connotation to it. It is rumored that cop derives from the copper buttons worn by the early municipal police departments on the East Coast. There is a lack of evidence to support this theory as most law enforcement buttons have typically been silver in color. In all likely hood the term cop stems from its latin origin capere or “to seize”. Not to be confused with the modern term caper which derives from the Latin meaning of a capricious escapade or an illegal or questionable act. Records indicate the slang term cop meaning “to catch, or grab” came in use during the 18th century, as early as 1704. The term is still used today as in “cop a feel”, “cop an attitude”, or “cop out”. In the mid 1800’s street thieves were known as coppers, as they were the ones who took or grabbed things from people. When the thieves were apprehended or copped, the police, who copped the criminals, eventually came to be known as the coppers or cops themselves.
In the scene from Dragnet’s 1967 episode Internal Affairs: DR-20, Sgt. Friday is on the verge of breaking young Officer Reed’s spirit, through his bleak portrayal of the life of a cop in which he insists “you’re going to rub elbows with all the elite– pimps, addicts, thieves, bums, winos, girls who can’t keep an address and men who don’t care. Liars, cheats, con men– the class of Skid Row.” Just before Reed is cleared of any wrong doing, Friday reassures him, “there’s also this: there are over five thousand men in this city, who know that being a policeman is an endless, glamour less, thankless job that’s gotta be done. I know it too and I’m damn glad to be one of them.”