Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Acronyms and Obfuscation

We all do it to a certain extent. We use TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms) in place of the real words. Sometimes it is just a convenient short-hand, sometimes it is laziness, and sometimes it is deliberate obfuscation. Obfuscation can range from the relative benign use of acronyms to try and make ourselves appear more professional, respectable, exclusive or positively different, to the more malign use to hide or sanitise. This is particularly the case when the acronym is less common and relates to something “unpleasant”.

Sometimes you just get accustomed to their use. This past year I have had to get used to doctors using the acronyms PSA and DRE – and I assure you that DRE is not some high-tech medical treatment!

Other times I hope we don’t get used to their use – in fact I would like to see their use banned.

FGM – I have already commented on; it’s not a food additive – that’s monosodium glutamate (MSG), it’s not some form of corporate General Meeting, it’s nothing to do with Focus Groups or Field Goals (except in very narrowly defined contexts). It’s nasty – very nasty.

CEFM – Is not always Continuous External Fetal Monitoring or Center for Excellence in Financial Management despite what a quick internet search might indicate. It’s also nasty – very nasty.

This morning on the Today Program (BBC Radio 4 31 December 2014) I heard an acronym new to me – CSE. It was not an education discussion; it was used by a senior police officer in a piece about the police failing to act on complaints about the claimed sexual abuse of children.

The item was reviewing a piece from earlier in the year where a parent had complained numerous times about their child being groomed and regularly called out to provide sexual services – and appealing to the police for help and yet seemingly being ignored. I could almost imagine the call handler entering “CSE” on a terminal – and immediately sanitising the emergency call to something apparently far less serious. For all I know the system may even offer the call handler a series of pre-sanitised “offence” options:

CEFM alongside DIC
CSE DWD
FGM FTA
USI TWOC
etc. etc.

and it may go on and later present pre-sanitised “victim” options

CIN alongside IP
LAC KSI
etc. etc.

and even pre-sanitised “offender” options

PPO alongside DD
RSO PYO
etc. etc.

When working in a high pressure environment – with a lot of nastiness – it must be easy to become hardened to your work and to think of all offences and all victims as just acronyms – a sort of perverse equality that reduces discrimination in just the place where a bit of discrimination and prioritisation is required. Perhaps police officers need to do this just in order to survive and not burn out.

But if you reduce these offences to a series of sanitised acronyms, you may protect your police staff, but, do you protect the public, do you serve the public?

If ECM* is to mean anything can it hide behind an acronym?

If we strip away the acronyms and use the words that describe the offences and the offenders we brutally see the offences for what they are – which surely makes it easier to maintain focus and set priorities:

CEFM: Child Exploitation and Forced Marriage alongside DIC: Drunk In Charge (of a Vehicle)
CSE: Child Sexual Exploitation DWD: Driving Whilst Disqualified
FGM: Female Genital Mutilation FTA: Failure To Attend (Court)
USI: Unlawful Sexual Intercourse TWOC: (Vehicle) Taking Without Consent
etc. etc.

and unsanitised “victim” options

CIN: Child In Need alongside IP: Injured Party (Victim)
LAC: Looked After Child¹ KSI: Killed, Seriously Injured
etc. etc.

(¹ A “Looked after child” is one in the care of a local authority (like Rotherham?) rather than one in the care of his or her parents. Euphemisms!)

and unsanitised “offender” options

PPO: Prolific and Priority Offender alongside DD: Drunk Driver
RSO: Registered Sex Offender PYO: Persistent Young Offender
etc. etc.

I can understand the usefulness of acronyms when a police office needs to discretely communicate with another officer – particularly communication over the radio where for instance the (remote) control room wishes to tell an officer on (a potentially volatile) scene that he or she is dealing with a “RSO”. However with the over-abundance of police reality TV programmes we are all tending to learn some of the acronyms, so discretion is probably better served by use of earpieces!

We are not well served, however, when a senior police officer whilst being interviewed about their apparent lack of regard for reports of child sexual exploitation reduce this abomination to talk of “reports of CSE”.

* ECM? “Every Child Matters”.

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