Chapter 8: The Culture of Law Enforcement

8.1 Police Subculture

At the root of all that is good and bad in law enforcement, there is a strong subculture that permeates most agencies. While a common theme in academic discourse is that police culture is negative, entrenched in cynicism, masochism, loyalty above all else, and an “us versus them” mentality, it has positive aspects that are often overlooked. Members of the law enforcement subculture share values that enable officers to survive what at times is a difficult and emotionally taxing job. Values such as supportiveness, teamwork, perseverance, empathy, and caring enable officers to cope with post-traumatic stress; they are part of team of colleagues who care for their coworkers. The support received from other officers is the result of shared values within the culture. Officers who are faced with dangerous situations are able to rely on their comrades because of other values they believe these members also possess. Values such as bravery, camaraderie, and sacrifice will embolden members to place themselves in harm’s way.

The following table outlines both positive and negative attributes within the police culture.

Table 8.1 Police Culture: Positive and Negative Attributes
Positive attributes Negative attributes
Safety Cynicism
Camaraderie Close-mindedness
Empathy Biases
Support Prejudice
Caring Non-scientific tactics
Teamwork Overly conservative
Loyalty Loyalty
Sacrifice Alienated

In spite of the positive aspects of police subculture, what society may define as ethical or good conduct may not be viewed within the subculture as relevant to the task, which is, among other things, to continue the mission of “safe-guarding social order” (Reiner, 2010, p.120). The tactics that are relevant to the police subculture may include using trickery and lies to elicit confessions and receiving minor gratuities to foster community relations (Reiner, 2010). Examining ethics and its relation to the police subculture is important to help delineate not only the grey area of ethics but also the grey area within which the police operate.

Once selected and hired by municipal police agencies, police recruits are exposed to police subculture during their training partially due to the instruction they receive from police officers who are recently retired or seconded to the police academy. However, the choice to become a police officer is not made in a vacuum. When recruits start their training, they often think like police officers on a visceral level, because generally certain individuals are drawn to the occupation (Conti, 2010). In an ethnographic study observing police recruits at an American police academy, Conti (2010) observed that the evolution of recruits into members who reflect the police mindset likely started at an early age when they formed the belief that they would become police officers. As potential officers enter the selection process, they become involved in an extensive application process, which is their first introduction into the police subculture. Rokeach, Miller, and Snyder (1971) concluded that a police personality distinct from others does exist, and proposed the idea that individuals come into an occupation with predetermined attributes that are identified with their new occupation. However, Rokeach et al. (1971) also found that this distinct police personality is attributed to predispositions of personality that are present before the recruits’ induction into the police subculture. These distinct predispositions are conducive to a career in policing and allow the individuals to comfortably choose and fit into the subculture (Conti, 2010; Rokeach et al., 1971). While the police subculture is distinct, at times it does attempt to catch up to the norms of the mainstream culture and can shift from negative attributes to positive attributes (Skolnick, 2008).

A historical look at the police subculture offers a view into the changing nature of how police officers see the world. In analyzing the police subculture in the 1940s, Myrdal (1964) observed in an ethnographic study of police officers in America that officers behaved in an overtly bigoted fashion toward African Americans. Myrdal (1964) observed that these were the norms of the day and that the police subculture reflected the attitude of mainstream society toward African Americans. While not supported empirically, it would be a logical conclusion that police recruits or rookie police officers would have shared the same cultural bigotry as mainstream society and their fellow police officers. More recently, when we see and question incidents involving police use of force on racial minorities, it is important to look broadly at society as well. The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, is an example where prominent civic leaders pointed out that the incident was merely a manifestation of a broader issue of racism that is widespread throughout the United States.

As society has evolved so too have law enforcement agencies. Ethical conduct and diversity play a large role in recruiting and are considered important attributes of potential officers. Crank and Caldero (2010) have concluded that due to society’s emphasis on ethics and the stringent hiring process, recruits are typically very ethical. The subculture, they argue, is not only present but also highly influential; the recruits’ ethical orientations are formed earlier, well before their application process commences (Crank and Caldero, 2010). Conversely, Conti (2010) and Banish and Ruiz (2003) argue that the police subculture is present when the officers start at the police academy and that its influence on recruits’ ethics is negative and destructive.

Conti views a recruit’s induction into the police academy as a transformation of the recruit into the “organisational ideal” (Conti, 2010). It is in this way, Conti (2010) argues, that the police subculture, ever-present at the police academy, assists in the conversion of the recruit from civilian to police officer. These cultural nuances are passed on through a variety of means such as:

  • Parades and drills (Campbell, 2007)
  • Marching (Davis, 1996)
  • Storytelling (Banish and Ruiz, 2003; Ford, 2003; Newburn and Reiner, 2007).

Storytelling by instructors in the police academy can be a valuable and effective teaching tool, as demonstrated by Conti’s (2010) study of an American police academy. Stories told by trainers must reflect ethical conduct and be relatable to the lesson plan goals and outcomes. Conversely, stories by instructors may inflate the recruits’ perception of danger (Banish and Ruiz, 2003) or cynicism (Ford, 2003), but instructors’ stories can also serve to relay positive outcomes, such as surviving life and death situations confronted by police (Conti, 2010). Ultimately, storytelling perpetuates the police subculture by passing on both truisms as well as not-so-true legends (Newburn and Reiner, 2007). Banish and Ruiz (2003) further contend that storytelling affects the police culture negatively by instilling negative traits of cynicism, suspicion, conservatism, and authoritarianism.

These negative traits are often associated with a police subculture that affects senior police officers, and it is specifically these traits that define an individual as a police officer. Skolnick (2008) considers the police vocation as being similar to that of a priest or the clergy: the culture wholly defines what it means to be a police officer by the traits that police officers share. These traits, according to Skolnick, include “skepticism, cynicism, mistrust of outsiders—all are traits observers of police apply to them and that they apply to themselves” (2008, p.36). Twersky-Glasner (2005) concurs, noting that the police are members of a unique occupation in which they are the insiders and the rest of society are the outsiders. The insiders are those who are trustworthy while outsiders are viewed with suspicion (Skolnick, 2008). This is reflected not only in the culture in which recruits find themselves, but also in the training they receive and the way in which they as civilians are accepted into the academy to begin training.

In a qualitative study of police officers, Loftus (2010) followed officers on the street and determined that two characteristics are ever-present in the police culture: cynicism and moral conservatism. While older officers exhibit these traits, Loftus (2010) did observe that newer officers are hired from a more diverse background that includes different sexual orientations, cultures, and races. This may enable the police subculture to adapt and overcome its more negative characteristics.


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Ethics in Law Enforcement Copyright © 2015 by Steve McCartney and Rick Parent is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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