Fire chief seeks to douse foul language Annapolis official demands civility

December 15, 1997|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Watch your language, gosh darn it.

Call Edward P. Sherlock Jr. old-fashioned, but the 56-year-old Annapolis fire chief says he's had enough. It was bad when one of his fire captains was suspended recently for using offensive language during an emergency call. It was worse when one of his battalion chiefs testified in a subsequent hearing that cursing is status quo in the firehouse.

Not in my department, an apoplectic Sherlock vowed. No more cursing, he decreed. More than a month later, despite chuckles from the ranks, the fire chief stands by his declaration for civility in the workplace.

"Those days of the beer-toting fire chief image are over," Sherlock says. "When I first joined the department, I heard my fair share of 'dammits' and that favorite four-letter word -- oh no, I mean the one that starts with 's' -- but we certainly didn't walk around swearing at each other.

"I sure don't call my secretary a um you know, that word that rhymes with itch," Sherlock says, squeamishly. "It's just not appropriate."

Hear hear, his supporters cried. But just try enforcing that policy.

"Personally, I don't see that as an outrageous request," says James I. Cabezas, chief investigator for the state prosecutor's office who spent 16 years with the Baltimore Police Department. "You don't want your police officers and firefighters addressing people as m - - - - - - - - - - - -.

"But from a practical point of view, it's not very realistic," says Cabezas, who spent years as an undercover detective. "When emotions are running high, human nature rears itself."

Foul language, after all, is a form of punctuation in some circles. It has become common in movies and is trickling onto television, as well.

So, how likely is it to swear off swearing in the gritty, dangerous and stressful world of crime fighting and lifesaving? Not very, says Caren DeBernardo, a clinical psychologist who conducts therapy sessions for officers.

Picture it.

"Holy cow," a firefighter yells as a huge flame erupts from a burning house and a wall comes tumbling down. "Drop your darn gun," a police officer growls in a confrontation with a suspect.

Sometimes, polite just doesn't cut it.

"These policemen and firemen are under an awful lot of stress that everyday people can't begin to understand," DeBernardo says. "They have to see people who are burned or lost a loved one. They're the people on the scene immediately after someone has been shot. They're on the front lines.

"To make a blanket rule and say, 'no swearing allowed,' is a bit unrealistic," DeBernardo says. "Cursing is a common stress reliever."

Few reprimands

But seldom does a police or fire department have to reprimand its personnel for cursing, despite guidelines that prohibit "conduct unbecoming" its officers. "The use of profanity and / or indecent, abusive, obscene, immoral, or any other improper remarks in or about the fire station or on the fire ground, is prohibited," in Annapolis. Not all departments are as specific.

In any case, very few complaints are filed on the subject. For example, Baltimore County police had a grand total of seven formal complaints for profane language by officers last year. Howard County police had 13 complaints regarding officer conduct last year, but it isn't known how many of those had to do with profanity. In Baltimore County, the Fire Department doesn't keep uniform statistics on such complaints, but no examples come to mind, says spokesman Capt. Mark F. Hubbard.

Don't be fooled. The low number of complaints doesn't mean officers aren't swearing.

"You've got to express yourself, right?" Hubbard says. "We do expect our people to be polite and courteous at all times. Our guidelines are pretty bold, but in dealing with each possible violation for cursing, we need flexibility to go about enforcing it. // Is the profanity generic or is it targeting someone?"

Take the case of the firefighter suspended in Annapolis. Capt. Gene Kirchner, a 30-year veteran, was first accused of using racially offensive language and delaying emergency help to a black man. Kirchner is white. A fire investigation cleared him of the charges, but the Civil Service Board later found him guilty of using offensive language and suspended him for four weeks, two without pay. Kirchner admitted he'd said of the victim: "that poor old [expletive]" -- a word that begins with the letter m and ends with the letter r that will never find its way into this paper.

During the hearing, colleagues and Kirchner's attorney regaled the audience with testimony about how the word was often used in conversation, in jest and sometimes affectionately as a term of endearment in the firehouse.

"Needless to say, my jaw dropped," Sherlock says with a sigh.

The problem is hardly unique to Annapolis. Baltimore police union President Gary McLhinney is awaiting a hearing on charges he called a City Council member a "goddamn bitch" this year. He denies the accusation.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.