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How do you address a policeman while he is on duty (e.g., when you are asked to stop at a checkpoint)? The word "policeman" itself seems quite unusual to me, and some sources suggest "officer". Is that correct?

Is there any difference in use if the policeman is a woman: should you use a different word?

Also, is "cop" a wrong word to use in this context (i.e., potentially offensive or derogatory)?

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The official term is police officer, so officer seems to be the best term, neutral and respectful. It also seems valid regardless of their rank, gender, etc.

Excuse me officer, may I ask why my car was stopped?
Excuse me officer, I just wanted to tell you that you have a headlight out.

Answers to this question at ELU also suggest sir and ma'am (not madam, thanks @tchrist) as good alternative.
Also, UK English has another word, constable, which is a bit too official, but quite acceptable.

And don't try slang words! In some countries, it may lead you straight to jail.

P.S. In some countries, a police officer holds a highly respected position, and rank does matter. So if you are traveling and you can read insignia of ranks and you know what you are doing, you may call them by rank to show your highest respect:

Excuse me lieutenant, ...

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    Don’t say madam, say maam. Honest. You don’t want to risk her thinking you are calling her the matron of a flock of strumpets. – tchrist Feb 17 '13 at 5:22
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    Also, even if you do understand the insignia of ranks, be careful. It's more insulting to guess and get it wrong than it is to just refer to the police officer by a more general term. If the police officer holds rank, it's likely that they would introduce themselves by it at the start of the conversation anyway ("Excuse me. My name is Detective Inspector Wiggins. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?") – Matt Feb 17 '13 at 5:35
  • @Matt, correct. OTOH, if you really, really know what you are doing, calling an officer by a higher rank (than they are) may appear helpful. In any case, out of scope of this site. :) – bytebuster Feb 17 '13 at 5:45
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    Constable designates a low-ranking policeman: the equivalent of a private in the Army. – StoneyB on hiatus Feb 17 '13 at 19:58
  • StoneyB, that's a good point. The word constable is for a particular rank in British police services. It is therefore inappropriate to use for police officers in general or, police officers whose rank is unknown. – Tristan Dec 27 '13 at 16:30
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Definitely go with officer, for example in the sentence:

Excuse me officer, could you please point me in the direction of the nearest police station?

You can also use the term "police" when referring to non-specific officers in the general sense, for example:

Stop! Help! Police! That man stole my wallet!

There are a great many different slang words for the police, but you should avoid most of them as most of them are offensive and may get you into trouble.

Note that police officers are people too, so if you forget you can simply ask your question as you would to any other member of the public:

Excuse me, I was wondering if you could help me unlock my bicycle; the lock is stuck.

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    This is the best answer. Your last example makes an important point. There is no particular way of addressing a police officer, in the English language. That's why they can be addressed as any other member of the public, with general wording like excuse me, as long as it is polite. – Tristan Dec 27 '13 at 16:40
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The term "police officer" is the best term to use as it is gender-neutral and is not considered derogatory. In some countries it's also perfectly alright to use the officer's rank (such as Sergeant or Constable), "police officer" is neutral.

Whilst the terms "police man" and "police woman" are technically correct, it is safer to just use the neutral term.

You may also hear other (slang) terms being used to reference members of the police force, but most of these can be considered derogatory and should generally be avoided. For example:

  • Cop - Whilst this term is commonly used (and is even the title of an American TV show), it should generally be avoided to ensure that you don't cause offense.

  • Pig - Completely derogatory and should not be used.

  • Fuzz - As above.

  • Bobby - Used in British English, and the British Police don't seem to mind - but you should avoid the term if you're not a native speaker and not comfortable in its appropriate usage.

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    But be sure not to accidentally call them "ossifer" – Jim Feb 17 '13 at 5:15
  • In the UK, whilst the police are often called "Bobbies" - for example "Bobbies on the Beat" meaning policemen on the streets, I'd generally call any particular member of the police "officer" rather than "Bobby". – Matt Feb 17 '13 at 5:33
  • If you accidentally say "ssifer", that's nothing that a little breathalyzer test won't clear up. – Kaz Feb 17 '13 at 9:02
  • You missed 'Filth'. Although this is generally derogatory, our local Police Commissioner fancies himself a muso and has created a band called 'The Filth'. Jokes about being locked up for murdering the music abound. – mcalex Feb 17 '13 at 13:40
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    "Police officer" is the occupational term. It is not, and should not be used as, a term of address. For that, stick to just "officer". (It's the same problem with "cop", "fuzz", and "bobby": they're fine as informal occupational terms, as long as you're not within earshot of someone who holds said occupation; but they do not work, grammatically, as a term of address.) – Martha Feb 18 '13 at 23:27
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"Cop" is not derogatory, but it is also not a title. So "Officer, there are a lot of cops here," NOT "Cop, there are a lot of officers here."

If people introduce themselves with a title, like detective, lieutenant, or sergeant, use that. If they do not provide a title or you didn't catch it, "officer" is always a good fallback. It is probably preferable to sir or ma'am and can be used for both genders.

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