Thoughts on the Criminal Justice System and Cops

copI was thinking how messed up the legal system is when it comes to criminals. As I’ve suggested before, a lawyer who fell into a coma lasting a century upon coming back to consciousness could pick up his brief case and walk into any court and practice without missing a beat. In no other profession could this happen. The legal system fears change as much as Dracula does garlic. This goes from the cop on the beat up through the judges and all in between.

Speaking of cops, I was wondering about where that term came from. The Oxford English dictionary takes the term back to 1859 when G.W. Matsell said, “Oh! Where will be . . . all the cops and beaks so knowin’ A hundred stretches hence?”  A beak by the way is a judge. Dickens wrote in 1838 in Oliver Twist “Why, a beak’s a madgst’rate; and when you walk by a beak’s order, it’s . . . always going up, and nivir coming down agen.”  In 1867 it was made a little clearer by F.H. Ludlow who in the Brace of Boys wrote “What’s a cop. That’s what the boys call a policeman.”

But it seems the term “copper” goes back even further to 1846 where in the Justice Hall at Old Bailey someone said: “I have heard the police called coppers before.” In 1864 the Manchester Courier said: “As they pass a policeman they will . . . exhibit a copper coin, which is equivalent to calling the officer copper.” Add to this is an 1882 statement in the Standard that: “A crowd followed, shouting out . .’Kick the coppers.’  From the latter two references it appears that it was not a term to endear one to a police officer.

Surprisingly to me was that the term copper would be one we should have used during the trial when we were involved in that monumental take no prisoner debate. It was a question that was raised but never answered. To paraphrase a statement made at Old Bailey in 1891, Martorano and Weeks should have said that Whitey “has turned copper on us.”  In 1924 S. Scott said in Human Side Crook Life, “Coppering, or turning informant, is the deadly sin among crooks.” Unfortunately the jury didn’t pass on whether Whitey had turned copper or whether everyone who thought he’d turned copper was wrong.  We learned the existence of a file saying one had turned copper, or in FBI parlance was an informant, is in truth meaningless.

As best I can tell it was copper that was shortened to cops and it lasts until today.  The Merriam-Webster dictionary agrees that “cop” is short for copper.  However it seems the term copper for informant is not frequently used in the U.S. while it is still used to denote a policeman.

I guess whether one should use the term cops is a matter of dispute. I find nothing derogatory about it so I use it. If I thought it reflected a negative attitude I wouldn’t, although I’m sure there are some cops who will suggest that it does. One word I actually despise is LEO which is an acronym for law enforcement officer so don’t expect to see that in any of my writings. Police officer I’ll occasionally say, or trooper when talking about the MA state police, but for convenience sake I’ll use cop, or detective where applicable, probably  one of my hangovers from youth although even then as a kid I was not brave enough to call a cop a cop when talking to one.

Then there’s the federal agents, or as some would have it special agents. I’ve never been able to figure out the difference between those that are special and those that are just plain old agents. I went to my fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia, to find out. Here’s what it said: “In general, non-1811 personnel who have arrest authority are considered “Agents” while Criminal Investigators who carry a badge, gun, credentials, and have arrest authority are considered “Special Agents”. All other 1800 personnel who conduct investigations (background or otherwise) are “Investigators”, “Background Investigators”, or “Compliance Officers”, no matter what their administrative title may be.“ (1811 refers to the federal general schedule).

That is just some more gobbledygook as far I am concerned. For convenience sake, I guess its easiest for me to call them all cops and not make a federal case out of it.



23 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Criminal Justice System and Cops


    December 12, 2013
    Where’s the Body Count from Shootings by the Police?

    Did FBI agents murder Luna?

    see link for full story
    A decade later, prosecutor Luna’s death still a mystery
    Thursday, December 12, 2013
    Remembering Jonathan Luna: FBI Cover-up of a Murdered Federal Prosecutor Ties in with the DC Madam Murder
    Sunday, February 27, 2011 15:05

    Did FBI agents murder prosecutor Luna?

    see links for full story
    A decade later, prosecutor Luna’s death still a mystery
    Thursday, December 12, 2013
    Remembering Jonathan Luna: FBI Cover-up of a Murdered Federal Prosecutor Ties in with the DC Madam Murder
    Sunday, February 27, 2011 15:05

  2. There has always been a lively debate about where the word “cop” came from . The usual explanation is that it comes from “the shield worn by police officers , made of copper” (Costello, A.E. Our Police Protectors- NY-1898). Another opinion taken from the Dictionary of Slang -1898 is that comes from “to cop or catch a beating – to get copt is to be taken by the police. a probable contraction of the latin- Caprere”

  3. Mass Congressman Keating say for y’all to sleep well

    see link for full story
    Keating presses FBI for more answers on Marathon Bombings

    Dec 10, 2013

    The FBI’s muted response to pointed question over early warnings about one of the accused Boston Marathon bombers is drawing criticism from a Bay State Congressman that the federal government isn’t sharing enough sensitive information with other law enforcement officials, a failure he says detracts from the country’s ability to prevent future terror

  4. perhaps this will save everyone looking up answers to the etymology of cop. The following seems adequate:


    Why are the police called cops, pigs, or the fuzz?
    May 31, 2005
    Dear Straight Dope:

    Could you tell me more about the words fuzz, pigs, and cops and how they pertain to police?

    — Mike Paproski

    Etymology is rarely an exact science. Words or phrases spring up, become popular, and eventually may find their way into print. The process takes time, and it’s usually difficult or impossible to track backwards to discover where a particular word or phrase arose.

    Let’s start with cop. Cop the noun is almost certainly a shortening of copper, which in turn derives from cop the verb. The London police were called bobbies, after Sir Robert Peel who advocated the creation of the Metropolitan Police Force in 1828. Copper as slang for policeman is first found in print in 1846, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The most likely explanation is that it comes from the verb “to cop” meaning to seize, capture, or snatch, dating from just over a century earlier (1704).

    The derivation of the verb is unclear. Most authorities trace it to the French caper and before that to the Latin capere, to seize, take. Other English words derived from capere include capture. Thus, a copper is one who seizes. An alternative theory is that to cop comes from the Dutch kapen, meaning to take or to steal.

    The word “cop” has other meanings as well, all connected to “catch” or “snatch”:

    •To “cop out” meaning to withdraw or escape, or to evade responsibility
    •To “cop it” meaning to be punished or get caught
    •To “cop a plea” is to try to catch a lesser punishment by admitting to a lesser crime
    •”A fair cop” means to be caught in the act.

    As with many words, there are several stories floating around positing various origins, almost certainly false. The notion that cop is an acronym for “Constable On Patrol” is nonsense. Similarly, the word did not arise because police uniforms in New York (or London or wherever) had copper buttons, copper badges, or anything of the sort.

    The term cop has had derogatory implications. J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime head of the FBI, disliked being called “top cop.”

    The origin of “fuzz” is uncertain. The expression arose in America in the late 1920s and early 1930s, probably in the criminal underworld. It never quite replaced cop.

    Evan Morris, The Word Detective, says:

    Where in the world are you hearing people refer to the police as “fuzz”? . . . I have never heard a real person use it, unless you want to count Jack Webb on the old “Dragnet.” When I was growing up in the 1960s, we called police officers many things, but mostly we just called them “cops” and we never, ever, called them “the fuzz.” As a matter of fact, anybody calling the cops “the fuzz” would have been instantly suspected of being a cop. It would have been a faux pas right up there with ironing your blue jeans.

    There are several theories about the origin of “fuzz”:

    •American Tramp and Underworld Slang, published in 1931, suggests that “fuzz” was derived from “fuss,” meaning that the cops were “fussy” over trifles.
    •A mispronunciation or mishearing of the warning “Feds!” (Federal agents). This seems unlikely.
    •Etymologist Eric Partridge wonders if “fuzz” might have come from the beards of early police officers. This also seems improbable.
    The term is not related to Fuzzy Wuzzy who wuz a bear. (You didn’t ask, but the term “bear” for police refers to the Smokey the Bear hat commonly worn by state troopers.)

    Evan Morris suggests the word “arose as a term of contempt for police based on the use of ‘fuzz’ or ‘fuzzy’ in other items of derogatory criminal slang of the period. To be ‘fuzzy’ was to be unmanly, incompetent and soft. How better to insult the police, after all, than to mock them as ineffectual?” That explanation seems as good as any, and better than most.

    If you thought the term pig arose in the 1960s, you’re in for a surprise. The OED cites an 1811 reference to a “pig” as a Bow Street Runner–the early police force, named after the location of their headquarters, before Sir Robert Peel and the Metropolitan Police Force (see above.) Before that, the term “pig” had been used as early as the mid-1500s to refer to a person who is heartily disliked.

    The usage was probably confined to the criminal classes until the 1960s, when it was taken up by protestors. False explanations for the term involve the gas masks worn by the riot police in that era, or the pigs in charge of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

    While police officers usually don’t mind being called “cops,” they aren’t usually fond of the term “pig.” A policeman’s lot is not an ‘appy one.

    By the way, the French call their police gendarmes, which came from gens d’arme (people with weaponry) which ranked just below knight in medieval armies–the English equivalent would be “esquire,” perhaps. No, somehow I don’t think calling the police “squires” will catch on here.

    — Dex

    1. Henry:

      Thanks for your research. As you can see it is pretty much a guessing game. I doubt the Latin capere somehow turned into cops which seems to have been and expression used on the streets of London by the little urchins.

      As for fuzz, you can see no one seems to know anything about that, but the article is right it is rarely ever used although I do recall people using it. Somehow I associate it with a 50s television show or leisure suits.

      Pig is just a derogatory term that you’d use against anyone you didn’t like. Somehow it stuck and hangs around as the word to use when you get frustrated but I sense its usage has gone down quite a bit. However the real question you should be concerned with is where did the word pig originate.

  5. I believe the etymology of “cop” is from the Scotland Yard practice of entering the initials, “c.o.p.” into its police log books as an abbreviation for “constable on patrol”.

    1. Constable on Patrol used to be my definition
      but I found the noun non-descriptive. Sort of
      like calling the Ebola Virus ” the flu”.
      If we go back in the time stream some of us who remember Scollay Square
      the Old Howard and Joe and Nemos may remember the term Centurion
      that was used by Romans until it got bad publicity when one of the
      rank and file poked a spear into the side of a perp nailed to a cross.
      I have evolved from the word cop to the term bodyguard to the term mercenary to replace police/cop. I have transitioned to this word because I am interested in the evolution of the human species and how institutions shape that evolution. I am especially interested in how humans deal with violence and aggression and the effect of hiring cops/mercenaries has on that evolution.

      I am also interested in seeing how humans cope with problems created when their cops/mercenaries turn on them.Maybe Matt could clear up a mystery that still has me looking for answers. Some of us might agree that one of the universal symbols for Constables on Patrol is 911.
      If Federal cops were involved in creating 911 why would they pick that date?

      1. MS:

        Constable on Patrol is an old discredited idea about cops. It doesn’t take into account the idea of coppers.Of course, when the idea for 911 came up in the Sixties the cops knew that Osama bin Laden was planning his attack on 911. Even though Osama was only ten years old his ideas had reached the federals so that they picked that number to warn people about the upcoming event. The problem that they had with Osama was he wouldn’t tell them the last two digits so they didn’t know if it was going to be 9/11/72 or 9/11/01. So it wasn’t the “Federal cops” who picked the date but Osama bin Laden who shortly after he was born on 3/10/57 (note that date – 3/10 is very similar to the numerals 9/11) made contact with J. Edgar Hoover who was born on 1/1/1895 (note the 1 and 1: did you notice that Hoover’s 1 & 1 were similar to the 1 & 1 in 9/11) and you pretty much know the rest of the story.

        1. Thanks for the insight . As always you are the man. Knowing how you
          are connected you might put a call into Congressman Lynch of Massachusetts fame. Yesterday Lynch identified an FBI informant who was friends with the terrorists who created part of 911.

          FBI informant linked to the creation of 911
          see link for full story

          9/11 Link To Saudi Arabia Is Topic Of 28 Redacted Pages In Government Report; Congressmen Push For Release
          By Jamie Reno
          on December 09 2013 2:09 PM

          1. ms:

            Thanks for the information – I have to admit there is something very wrong when we want to hide the identity of foreign culprits. I never quite figured out how the only plane that flew out of the US during the days after 9/11 when our air space was closed was one transporting Saudi nationals back home. The president Bush gave the OK for them to leave.

        1. Honest:

          Memories – the best kind – two hot dogs all around with mustard, relish and onion toppings and a cold root beer for less than four bits was a bane to my existence. I couldn’t resist at the end of the day stopping there and having the best feast possible. Trouble was going home my wife had dinner ready so I had to eat that too. It was a constant battle over my weight but I just couldn’t give up those hot dogs. Thinking of them makes me yearn for those days. Here’s a story on them:

  6. Dear Matt,

    In considering the criminal justice system, how does the chain of command function in the Office of the Norfolk County District Attorney? Specifically, with DA at the top, and “Deputy District Attorney” second, as you’ve previously explained, where does “First Assistant District Attorney” fall? I asked this on the Kivlan thread but believe that comment to be lost.


    1. Jay:

      Chain of Command: Delahunt; Deputy DA in charge of administration and OC investigations; 1st assistant in charge of homicides and state police investigations. Kivlan and I held equivalent positions but with different responsibilities. Both of us also did felony trials but Kivlan handled the most difficult ones that needed special and dedicated attention.

  7. That last line was a bit of a chuckle. Well said. I agree that while I don’t think that the term ‘cop’ is derogatory, I am uncomfortable calling a cop, a ‘cop’, to his face as well… That doesn’t seem to make sense, does it? But, there you have it.

  8. Capere is latin for arrest or grab. That was one of the old explanations I heard. And I believe that cops badges were once made of copper. That might have something to do with it.

    1. Honest:

      Going back to my 7th grade Latin is a bit difficult. I don’t think the street kids of London in the 19th Century took their terms from a Latin dictionary. True in NY City the cops badges were made of copper and there are some stories that say that is how they got their name and there are others talking about the initial Constable on Patrol being the basis for the name. I’m not sure I have the best answer but it was my best guess.

  9. In the very old days there was a pool hall on Washington Street at Essex we called “The Mines.” It was downstairs several flights. When you went in the door on Washington Street, you descended to a level where there was usually a local denizen standing guard.

    The hall was huge and had all sorts of characters from the criminal elements hanging out.

    When the police entered – plainclothes detectives – the guard would yell: “O’Brien!” as a warning. All gambling would stop, money would diappear from the tables, cards would be put away and people would try to disappear into the smoke.

    The last time I heard anyone refer to cops as “O’Brien” was about ten years ago in Cambridge.

    Things do change. “Copper, “ however, remains.

    1. Henry:

      Nice comment. Never heard the term “O’Brien” being used to refer to cops. When I think of cops and Irish names, we had a big red headed cop whose name actually could have been O’Brien or some other Irish name but he was clearly Irish who would on occasion walk the beat where I grew up. We’d all hang out on the corner and sometimes block the sidewalk with our foolish games; when he came along he’d take out his Billy Club and give us a tap or two to send us scattering. I recall one of my friends saying “you know what’s wrong with him, he doesn’t like Irish kids.”

      I used to frequent a place similar to the Mines but it was upstairs in Fields Corner – some gambling went on but it was mostly a pool hall. It was right down the street from Station 11 but the cops never bothered to come in.

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