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How should one address a police officer in English speaking countries? More specifically, in a non-emergency situation—asking directions for example—what is the expected form of address used to call a police officer's attention?

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  • 1
    My own experience has left me confused: In both the US and the UK I recently had occasion to ask for directions from police officers, both of whom happened to be sergeants. In the UK, "sergeant" was clearly accepted (the officer was polite, and very helpful) while in the US I fear this was not the correct appellation (the officer was surly and confrontational).
    – orome
    Feb 24, 2012 at 17:16
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    coincidence I suspect. The American officer was just a surly character. Or in a bad mood. Or at the end of his shift...
    – slim
    Feb 24, 2012 at 17:26
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    Did you call accidentally someone sergeant who had a different rank than that? That might have put them off if they were actually of a higher rank, but that’s no excuse for being surly. Maybe the American officer was just in a bad mood. BTW, it’s something of a military thing to call someone by their rank, which has spilt over into the constabulary. Outside situations like the military and such, we nearly never use titles anymore in regular English, at least, not compared with the Germans.
    – tchrist
    Feb 24, 2012 at 17:44
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    American police officers can sometimes be like French waiters. Hard to find when you need them, and rude when you have found them. But "sir" always works with the men. Feb 24, 2012 at 18:54
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    I've personally had pretty bad results with ociffer, but YMMV.
    – user13575
    Feb 27, 2012 at 18:07

6 Answers 6

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They are all officers of the law, so "officer" applies no matter what their rank ("Pardon me, officer...").

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  • Yes, I've tried "officer" as well, but have had similar results, so I'm wondering whether I'm not doing something wrong in the US.
    – orome
    Feb 24, 2012 at 17:47
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    Either he was having a bad day, or perhaps he's simply a jerk. Unprofessional behavior in any case.
    – Gnawme
    Feb 24, 2012 at 17:59
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    I suppose if he was just promoted to captain after a long hard struggle, he might be frustrated that you called him "sergeant". But really, unless you're calling him "pig" or something, I don't see why he should be offended. I once visited a college campus where the security guards had recently been officially designated police officers by the state, and not really thinking about it I referred to their building as the "security office". One of them forcefully informed me that it was a "police station". I guess they took being real-live police officers instead of rent-a-cops very seriously.
    – Jay
    Feb 24, 2012 at 18:40
  • @raxacoricofallapatorius You might not be doing anything wrong, and even if you were, you might not be aware of what it could be. But I doubt it's because you used "officer" to address a police officer. Aug 19, 2012 at 0:54
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    I've had "state troopers" be very offended by calling them "officer" instead of "trooper".
    – corsiKa
    Oct 30, 2012 at 18:09
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I've lived in Britain all my life, and I don't think I would use any particular word to address a policeman. It's seldom necessary to use an appellation in a typical British conversation. Indeed, it would seem odd.

In the US, people seem to like calling each other "Sir" and "Ma'am" as a mark of respect, and I see no reason why that wouldn't be appropriate with a police officer.

If you must use an occupation-specific appellation, then you can use the person's rank. But that requires you to recognise their badges, or you risk getting the rank wrong. AS @Gnawme observes, "officer" is always OK.

Any policeman worth their salt, of course, will treat you politely whatever you call them (unless you abuse them).

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    @raxacoricofallapatorius: nothing is simple. I'd say there would be a tendency (in AmE) to use 'sir' or 'ma'am' in response to an officer (and almost always in Southern AmE: "Yes, sir, officer").
    – Mitch
    Feb 24, 2012 at 17:48
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    @Mitch: That must be regional: I don't think the phrase "yes, sir, officer" has been uttered here in New England since the Civil War.
    – orome
    Feb 24, 2012 at 17:51
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    @raxacoricofallapatorius One is taught always to address an officer of the law as sir or maam as appropriate for their sex. It would be considered rude not to do so — and being rude to a police officer is always a really bad idea.
    – tchrist
    Feb 24, 2012 at 17:52
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    I agree that "madam" is pretty much out of date. But "sir" and "ma'am" are very common words for addressing people whose names you do not know, regardless of their occupation or status. In the place I've lived, anyway, which means the Mid-Atlantic and Mid-West. The stereotypical salesman's query is, "Can I help you, sir?" People often say things like, "Excuse me, ma'am, you dropped your cell phone." Etc.
    – Jay
    Feb 24, 2012 at 18:34
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    @tchrist surely that depends on the deity!
    – slim
    Feb 29, 2012 at 11:03
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When in doubt, ask. This sort of thing does vary from one region to another. When you find yourself in a new place and you're not sure what the local custom is, there's nothing wrong with asking politely: Excuse me... I'm new to this area. How should I address a police officer such as yourself?

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I don't see the harm in calling them 'constable'.

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  • You must come from a different country than I do or else enjoy strange looks. ;-) Feb 24, 2012 at 20:18
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    The latter. In the US, its use might ensure their attention. :) Feb 24, 2012 at 20:23
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    If you're going to do that in the US, at least fake an English accent. Aug 19, 2012 at 0:56
  • constable was the way to go once upon a time
    – PatrickT
    Apr 6, 2020 at 11:06
1

In Japan, we adress police officer just casually as “Omawari-san" meaning "Mr. (Ms) police (officer),” though I’m afraid I’d be laughed at when I did so in UK and US.

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    No, you wouldn't be laughed at. I think that that is a reasonable thing to do. I have done similarly. Police, like most people, will respond more favorably if using Mr. or Ms. if there is uncertainty. If you don't know the individual's name (one needs to stand very close to read name tags), this can happen. I do that with all public servants i.e. government employees. Mr. Mailman, for example, when trying to get the attention of someone. It is cautious, but you will not offend. Mr. Police officer or man or woman acknowledges their official status as officers of the law. Oct 28, 2012 at 14:04
  • "Mr. policeman" sounds overly condescending to my ears. I'd certainly love to see someone addressing a policeman like that.
    – user38459
    Feb 28, 2013 at 12:36
-1

I would suggest a neutral "mister/miss/comrade policeman/policewoman".

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    Comrade Policeman? You some kinda Commie, bud? Mar 21, 2012 at 15:24
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    Comrade Policewoman??
    – Daniel
    Mar 21, 2012 at 17:42
  • @Daniel δ why not? nydailynews.com/archives/news/…
    – Anixx
    Mar 18, 2013 at 12:08
  • That's not used as a form of address, that's a description of the other policewoman's relation to her. Just as "fellow worker" is fine (my fellow workers are great!), but it would not be normal to say "Fellow worker, could you come over here?" Plus, comrade is the wrong relation. To illustrate, the article you just referenced uses it as a term describing the relation of one police officer to another officer of essentially similar position, and in that case it cannot properly be used between a civilian and a police officer.
    – Daniel
    Mar 18, 2013 at 18:13
  • @Daniel δ no. If it was saying "...and her comrade, policewomen Gertrude Schimmel..." then it would clearly mean a fellow worker. But it says "...and comrade policewoman Gertrude Schimmel..." similar to "...and miss policewoman Gertrude Schimmel...", "...and mister chairman John Smith..."
    – Anixx
    Mar 18, 2013 at 19:21

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