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I'm fifteen years late, but I've been watching The Wire, recently. In it, I noticed a particularly jarring use of the word "police" as a mass noun with finite subject. I'm a British English speaker and, to me, these are ungrammatical:

  • He's good police.
  • You shot police.

The second sentence is grammatical for me if it's an elision of "You shot at the police." However, "police" here refers to a single police officer and that doesn't work for me. The same goes for the first; its intended meaning is "He's a good police officer." (It's perhaps also worth noting that "good" here means more in a moral sense than in terms of ability.)

My assumption was that it's a conflict of quantification: the subject is finite, while the object isn't. However, I do allow things like:

  • He's good people.
  • This apple is nutritious food.

Admittedly, the first -- which is semantically close to the "police" examples -- is idiomatic, so may not conform to normal rules, and is not something one hears too many British English speakers say. However, the second one is arbitrary and seems fine to me. As such, I'm not entirely sure why I don't allow "He's good police", etc.

Regardless of that, is this usage of "police" an Americanism, a Baltimore-ism (The Wire is set in Baltimore, MD) or a police-ism (i.e., how police officers refer to themselves, localised appropriately)?

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    Your police example is non-standard. Imho it's quite possible the usage never actually occurs "in the wild" at all. Maybe it's just a dramatic device used by the scriptwriters to imply a "socially inclusive, folksy" character to those who have a clear sense of what "good policing" is, and who consider the subject to be a fine example of such. Syntactically it looks like a kind of synecdoche, where this one policeman represents the entirety of the [good part of the] police force. – FumbleFingers Jul 5 '17 at 14:01
  • @FumbleFingers "where this one policeman represents the entirety of the [good part of the] police force" Isn't it the other way around? The singular policeman is represented by referring to the [good part of the] police force (and implicitly meaning that he is one of them). Your version would imply that this one policeman is the only good policeman. – Flater Jul 5 '17 at 14:16
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    I hear it as "He's (in the category of) good police," matching 'good people' perfectly. Slang is sloppy, conversations are casual, and scripts are as concise or chatty as make the best entertainment. – Yosef Baskin Jul 5 '17 at 14:17
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    @Flater: Not at all. I agree with OP that the usage is based on the idiomatic (but relatively rare) BrE form He's good family - meaning He's a family-oriented person (does things that preserve traditional family values). This isn't the same thing as He's from a good family (his illustrious family background is known over several generations, is well-respected, and probably wealthy). Though I suspect because that latter meaning is more commonly expressed in AmE overall, the shorter version would often be used/understood as having the same meaning. – FumbleFingers Jul 5 '17 at 14:34
  • @FumbleFingers: But those examples are different. Many families exist, and you don't belong to all of them, but there is only one police (semantically speaking). Every policeman is inherently part of "the police". It is, after all, the police; you can't say the same for family. The same applies to people here. There is only one people (= everyone, the people), rather than different peoples (smaller groups of people, e.g poor people and rich people. Definitely not everyone lumped together). – Flater Jul 5 '17 at 14:43
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He's good police.

This is a variation on the more common:

He's good people.

There is already an English.SE answer that addresses "good people". An excerpt from the answer:

This is an example of synecdoche. Here's some other of the same type from Wikipedia:

A general class name used to denote a specific member of that or an associated class

  • "the good book," or "The Book" for the Bible ("Bible" itself comes from the Greek for "book")
  • "truck" for any four-wheel drive vehicle (as well as long-haul trailers, etc.)
  • "He's good people." (Here, the word "people" is used to denote a specific instance of people, i.e., a person. So the sentence would be interpreted as "He's a good person.")
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Great question! I also haven’t been able to find any use “in the wild” from a quick Google search. There are examples in literature, but it doesn't seem to show up in books that were published before The Wire premiered (according to Wikipedia, in 2002).

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist—subcultures can easily develop weird word usages (potentially as a way to mark insider status). However, The Wire is fiction so I would be inclined to discount it as potential evidence for the existence of this construction in real life. (Here is a GameFAQs discussion that seems inconclusive to me.)

“X is/'s good police” sounds odd to me as well, and my current opinion is that I wouldn’t use it unless I was specifically trying to reference The Wire (which I haven’t seen, so I would pretty much never use it). I wouldn't say I find it "ungrammatical" so much as "unnatural": to me, it feels like a contrived way of speaking meant to produce some kind of special/rhetorical effect, similar to stuff like "After I collided with an animal, I had a lot of work cleaning deer off my car" or "because politics".

“Good police” is definitely used deliberately, multiple times, in The Wire, but I haven’t found any explanation from the show’s creators talking about the reason for this word choice (and if one existed, it would probably be of dubious value as evidence anyway: compare the dodgy origins of the phrase “clockwork orange”). (Here's a book I found with a chapter discussing the meaning of this term in the context of this show: "The best of Boys and Lads," by Kenn Fisher, in The Wire and Philosophy: This America, Man, edited by David Bzdak, Joanna Crosby, Seth Vannatta.)

It also shows up in a number of articles I found that specifically reference The Wire.

According to a Slate article, The Wire supposedly tried to represent some details of Baltimore speech “faithfully”, but it’s obviously not a documentary, and it’s unclear to me if this particular phraseology is the result of research or invention:

There is also the challenge of following the localized black dialect that the program tries to represent as faithfully as it does its other details. In the Baltimore ghetto, yo is both a salutation and the third-person singular pronoun; "feel me," means "listen to what I'm telling you"; and the ubiquitous use of bitch has mostly replaced the N-word. The cops have their own language as well, in which a capable officer is "good police," bystanders caught in the crossfire are "taxpayers," and young boys up to no good are called "hoppers." The dialogue becomes easy enough to follow after a couple of episodes, but first-time viewers should switch on the closed-captioning feature for the first hour or two so as not to miss anything.

(“The Wire on Fire”, by Jacob Weisberg)

I only found a few uses of “is good police” that didn’t explicitly mention The Wire.

One is an unsourced claim in a Mother Jones article:

Cops like to talk about “good police.” They say, “That guy is good police”—a top compliment, by which they mean cool under the pressure of the street and cunning at getting people to give up the details of a crime.

(“Police Shootings Won’t Stop Unless We Also Stop Shaking Down Black People”, Jack Hitt, September/October 2015)

However, no source is provided for “Cops like to talk...”, and since this article was written after The Wire aired, it might very well just be based on the portrayal in this show.

The other example I found is in the description of a novel on Amazon that seems to have been published in 2009 (so again, post-The Wire):

Gus Ramone is "good police," a former Internal Affairs investigator now working homicide for the city's Violent Crime branch

(The Night Gardener, by George P. Pelecanos)

The contracted form "He's good police" shows up on Google Books in a few novels published after 2012. For example, Google Books also shows the following interesting, but not really conclusive dialogue in the novel Another Thing to Fall (Laura Lippman, 2008):

Tess shook her head. "I won't second-guess Tull, or get in his way. He's good police." "People really say that?" "Say what?" "'Good police.' I've heard it on television, but I thought it was pure affectation." "It's what cops in Baltimore call themselves. Police, a police, a murder police. Where do you think the television shows got it?

(It's unclear if "It's what cops in Baltimore call themselves" has any more basis in reality than The Wire, since this is a novel.)

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Is this usage of "police" an Americanism, a Baltimore-ism, or a police-ism?

It is I thought it was Black English, but it appears I was wrong. (See comments, below.) also known by several other names--the well-written Wikipedia article, African American Vernacular English details the various names, as well as providing historical, linguistic, and socio-cultural information about this fascinating, expressive, and quite legitimate language.

Also see: The Case for Black English by Vinson Cunningham in the May 15, 2017 issue of The New Yorker.

  • AFAIK, this is not an instance of AAVE. In the show, it's an expression used by many, multiple times, and spans ethnicity and socioeconomic background. (Not to imply anything derogatory about AAVE speakers; but, for example, some users of this expression in the show are middle aged white guys with Irish ancestry.) – Xophmeister Jul 6 '17 at 6:52

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