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Backronyms and Toxic Cultures in Law Enforcement

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ygnacio “Nash” Flores, Tracy Rickman, and Don Mason
May 12, 2023

Acronyms form a significant part of our vocabulary. A backronym is an acronym formed from an already existing word by expanding its letters into the words of a phrase. An example of a backronym is The USA PATRIOT Act. While the manufactured name of this statute focuses on patriotism in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks carried out by Al Qaeda operatives, the fabricated acronym or backronym was designed to convey a dual meaning. Compare the word patriot to the elongated backronym of Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001. Backronyms differ from regular acronyms such as CIA or FBI–Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation. CIA and FBI are not words in themselves.

While drawing attention to a single word that is appealing to specific audiences, a backronym can be misleading as the contrived word holds other meanings. Law enforcement is one of many career fields that like to use backronyms. A well-known program in law enforcement is DARE, or Drug Abuse Resistance Education. This program has been very successful in preventing drug abuse among the youth worldwide. The strength of the backronym is that it challenges children to challenge the pressure in their environments to use illegal drugs—thus the “dare”. 

Conversely, the duality of backronyms can support toxic cultures in law enforcement organizations. The dangers of empowering toxic cultures through a backronym was seen in the death of Tyre Nichols when he was beaten by police officers from the SCORPION unit in Memphis, Tennessee on January 7, 2023. While the backronym stands for Street Crimes, Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods, the persona created by this misled acronym is one that supports a sense of superiority in the neighborhoods the officers patrol. It can be argued that peaceful neighborhoods had less emphasis in the creation of the backronym than the fear expected from the association with an aggressive-looking arachnid. While scorpions are often misunderstood and form little threats to humans, in society, especially the movie industry, scorpions are portrayed as a serious threat. Scorpions are armed with two grasping pincers in their front and a venomous stinger at the end of their tail—the image conjured is far from peaceful. In response to public outcry, the SCORPION Unit was disbanded by the Memphis Police on January 28, 2023. 

In a PBS article on special police units, a 2020 study of police in Tempe, Arizona, revealed special units are prone to using force more than officers not in a special unit. A common backronym is the special weapons and tactics units or SWAT. Other backronyms used by law enforcement organizations include New Jersey State Police’s Technical Emergency And Mission Specialists (TEAMS) Unit, Massachusetts State Police’s Special Tactical Operations Team (STOP), Drug Enforcement Administration’s Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Teams (FAST), United States Border Patrol San Diego Sector’s Regional Emergency and Crisis Team (REACT), Hyattsville Police Department’s, Hard Entry and Tactics (HEAT) Team, San Jose Police Department’s Mobile Emergency Response Group and Equipment Unit (MERGE), and Tulsa Police Department’s Covert Operations Based Rescue and Assault (COBRA). This list is not all inclusive, nor is it a claim these special teams and units are conducting illegal operations. The purpose is to show how the backronym takes on a definition that is easily distanced from the words comprising the fabricated acronyms. Law enforcement leaders have a responsibility to ensure the consequences of their actions do not lead to the poor performance of their officers or to threaten the communities they are charged with protecting. Backronyms like SCORPION and COBRA are examples of units that portray what are considered aggressive animals that do not backdown when threatened and attack when confronted in a hostile environment. Focusing on backronyms like DARE support the community in a partnership that is not as threatening as what was seen in Memphis, Tennessee with the beating of Tyre Nichols.

As law enforcement looks to transforming to a community-supporting career field, avoiding aggressive backronyms is a way to show that leaders are not willing to practice aggressive policing at the cost of disenfranchising the public. In 2000, the Los Angeles Police Department disbanded the “CRASH” (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) gang intelligence unit and replaced it with a non-backronym title of Gang and Narcotics Division. In 1988 the police drama movie Colors portrayed how this unit functioned.

Though it is easy to dismiss the effects of a backronym on police practices, ignoring the dangers of intentionally created acronyms to convey a sense of aggressiveness, along with how the backronym is then perceived by the community, need to be considered. The question to ask is, was the acronym created without any thought of what word it formed or, was the word used as a guide to fit the definition to the backronym? If we started with the word ASSAULT and then fit words to make an acronym, the intent of the unit must be questioned. In this notional example, does ASSAULT stand for Aggressive Surveillance Services Actively Using Leading Technologies or Academics Supporting Safety and Universal Litigation for Transients?  

Authors: Dr. Dr. Ygnacio “Nash” Flores and Don Mason are faculty at Rio Hondo College. Tracy Rickman is faculty at Tarleton State University.

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