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From the movie Saving Private Ryan:

We're here looking for a Private James Ryan. He's part of your outfit. Any chance at all you policed him up?

What does that mean?

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In WWII Army jargon to 'police' an area meant to go over it carefully, picking up the rubbish: common make-work for men in barracks.

Capt. Miller uses the expression ironically here to ask whether Ryan managed to join his unit after their drop - an operation which typically spread men over many acres and even square miles.

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The original poster's example is making an analogy to "policing your brass". The speaker is asking if the listener has found or collected Private Ryan.

Firing guns (especially semi-automatic or automatic weapons) results in the ejection of brass cartridges. Before firing, the brass contained the bullet and the propellant. Upon firing, the brass becomes far too hot to touch, and is flung out the side of the gun. After you are done shooting, you are expected to "police your brass". In other words, clean up the (now cool) brass cartridges.

Ironically, "brass" is also a way of referring to high military officers. Private is almost as low a position as possible for a combat troop (such as Private Ryan).

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  • Interesting... this looks like a narrowed application of the meaning my father brought home from WWII, to clear (an area) of rubbish. – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 22 '14 at 1:26
  • I expect that both meanings are still in use. I have read several novels (written over the course of the past 40 years, by authors familiar with the U.S. military as of when they wrote each novel) that used the "policing your brass" meaning. These novelists sometimes used "police the area" to describe cleaning up a resting area before resuming a march. – Jasper Oct 22 '14 at 2:09
  • @StoneyB: I don't know about any of these earlier usages, but it doesn't seem unreasonable to "verbify" the noun police. By which I mean we discard any prior assumptions about that "other" verb to police = to control, regulate, or keep in order, and assume a new coinage based on what the [military] police are mainly engaged in, in OP's context - rounding up drunken misbehaving soldiers. Hence police up, as with hoover up. – FumbleFingers Oct 22 '14 at 2:15
  • ... I also have to say "Police your brass" sounds to me like an accidental/deliberate variation on "Polish your brass". – FumbleFingers Oct 22 '14 at 2:18

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