Chapter 8: The Culture of Law Enforcement

8.2 Socialization of Police

It is through socialization that police recruits are inducted into the police subculture, enabling the subculture to maintain its norms and to continue its existence (Newburn and Reiner, 2007; Volti, 2008). Socialization is the process in which recruits are introduced to police officers who impart not only their knowledge but also any negative qualities they possess. The influence of socialization is enormous: it can erase the positive influences from training and introduce the recruit to the darker side of the police subculture (Ellwanger, 2012; Volti, 2008). Ironically, within law enforcement the negative aspects of the socialization of officers are also, at times, positive. Two examples are loyalty and solidarity, which can be both positive and negative. The stories told in police academies may lead to confusion about what is ethical loyalty and solidarity and what is unethical solidarity and loyalty.

Ford (2003) examined this phenomenon in a content analysis study in which he observed the use of parables or stories told by experienced police officers to police recruits during lessons, showing that shifts in the ethics of the recruits resulted from the socialization process that occurs when introducing recruits to the police subculture. To Ford’s surprise, 85% of the parables were neutral about the law and only 11% referred to illegal activities, such as excessive use of force, unconstitutional searches, and lying in court.

Typical of all studies using content analysis, Ford’s (2003) study contains flaws because it relied exclusively on the memory of police recruits. The possibility of poor recollection by police recruits can render the validity of such studies susceptible to bias (Gilbert, 2008). Even police recruits who correctly recall the parables may be mistaken about their intent and may bias their meaning by failing to understand what the instructor was trying to convey (Gilbert, 2008).

Socialization is not just a law enforcement phenomenon. Socialization occurs at all levels of employment, from assembly line workers (Thompson, 2003) to medical students (Becker and Geer, 2003). In most occupations, socialization is a positive influence, as it is a means of learning unwritten rules that help the new worker assimilate into the new work environment (Coffey and Atkinson, 1994; Harper and Lawson, 2003; Volti, 2008). While some occupations possess a strong organizational subculture, which assists new workers beyond their formal training and education, other occupations have little in the way of socialization to help new workers assimilate into the organization (Volti, 2008). However, according to Harper and Lawson (2003), the socialization of all workers is a necessary component for all occupations and professions. Because police exercise a high level of discretion and at times operate outside the realm of rules, the policing occupation relies heavily on socialization to help its recruits (Volti, 2008).

Two primary conditions that Volti (2008) identifies as being associated with higher levels of socialization are occupational isolation and danger. While the policing profession is not statistically dangerous, police officers perceive certain aspects of their job as more dangerous than they are (Banish and Ruiz, 2003; Loyens, 2009; Twersky-Glasner, 2005). Unlike other more dangerous occupations, police officers are subject to acts of willful harm, in which citizens target them intentionally. These dangers are different from those faced by other occupations in which accidents occur. The belief by officers that they are targeted by some citizens who mean them harm reinforces the perceived need to protect one another. The belief in the dangerousness of the police occupation, according to Volti (2008), reinforces the need for socialization in which experienced members of the occupation share information with new recruits that will protect and keep them safe.

Isolation, as identified by Volti (2008), reflects both physical isolation (as with oil rig workers), and social isolation (as with shift workers). Police officers, according to Newburn and Reiner (2008), suffer from isolation based not only on their shift work but also from their subculture, which emphasizes moral conservatism, suspiciousness, and internal solidarity (Naus, van Iterson, and Roe, 2007). Together these make for a potentially toxic level of socialization that police recruits confront when they first start on their journey as police officers. Police officers, as a by-product of their isolation, rely on the solidarity and loyalty of other officers, which may cause increased tension between upholding this solidarity and performing ethically (Reiner, 2010).

Police socialization is particularly invasive early on due to the dominant nature of a police academy’s paramilitary structure (Chappell and Lanza-Kaduce, 2010). Police recruits at the B.C. Police Academy, located at the Justice Institute of British Columbia, are immediately introduced to a formal military-style inspection in their first hour. The nature of paramilitary-style education has historically been to strip a person of his or her individuality and force a culture of compliance upon the individual (Chappell and Lanza-Kaduce, 2010). In doing so, the individual’s personal values are replaced with those of the organization. Chappell and Lanza-Kaduce (2010) further argue that such a pervasive culture should be closely examined, and attempts should be made to neutralize it.

In spite of the negative aspects of socialization, there can be some benefits to the socialization of experienced police officers with junior officers. Paoline (2004) asserts that while socialization within the police subculture is generally negative, there are values that are learned in the process of socialization with senior police officers. Learning the craft of any complex occupation or profession is enhanced when senior members pass on vital information learned from experience (Paoline, 2004). However, it is critical for the recruit to adhere to the organization’s values even if they conflict with information received during negative socialization (Sato, 2003). Socialization can impart to a recruit values and ethics that are not formally written down, yet are needed for the recruit to function well in the job while on the road (Gould and Moore, 2003). A value that recruits learn through socialization is loyalty, which is strongly associated with the military (Loyens, 2009; Sunahara, 2002).

Campbell (2007) further states that the police academy process institutionalizes the culture of the organization in the recruit. This institutionalization is enhanced through the use of artifacts such as wearing uniforms and taking part in drill parades, which are overseen by experienced police officers who ultimately are responsible for enforcing the expectations they have of recruits to adopt the institution’s values and to prove they are suited to continue on the path of a policing career (Campbell, 2007). This is evident at the B.C. Police Academy where police recruits learn how to march and stand for inspection under the watchful eyes of senior officers. The process is designed to ready recruits for ceremonial duties and to learn formations that may be applied in situations such as crowd control.

Ellwanger (2012) agrees that recruits are socialized through these means, but sees a more sinister side to the police subculture, noting that the process of job socialization and enculturation may both purposefully and inadvertently threaten the positive ethical ideals and values brought to the police profession by new recruits. A strong or pervasive deviant subculture, according to Ellwanger (2012), may exist in some instances, which can passively or actively teach unethical behaviours to new police officers.

Chappell and Lanza-Kaduce (2010) add to this concept through their ethnographic study of a police academy in Florida. Here they observed the negative influences of the military nature of the police academy. The attributes of a military-style academy led to periods of socialization in which the recruits were indoctrinated into a paramilitary-style culture whose values included loyalty, solidarity, and dress and deportment (Chappell and Lanza-Kaduce, 2010). The socialization within the walls of the police academy was sufficient as an introduction to police culture; on the road socialization simply reinforces these ideas. Chappell and Lanza-Kaduce (2010) argue that the socialization within the academy is so pervasive that it creates an “us versus them” mentality, which is contrary to values found in community policing. Ellwanger (2012) further suggests that the socialization recruits experience on the job unintentionally thwarts the values and ethical practices they develop at the police academy. The subculture, Ellwanger (2012) argues, is responsible for teaching recruits unethical behaviours.

Additionally, to demonstrate the importance of socialization, Mastrofski and Ritti (1996) investigated the perspective of officers regarding impaired driver investigations. They found that officers trained in impaired driving investigations who returned to supportive organizations were more likely to follow their training. Those officers who returned to organizations that did not value impaired driving investigations eventually considered their training to be “technically irrelevant” (Mastrofski and Ritti, 1996, p.318). The implications of these findings suggest that socialization in a negative organization can undermine positive training.

In taking a different approach, Rokeach et al. (as cited in Twersky-Glasner, 2005) found that socialization plays a secondary role when recruits bring established values into their careers. These personality traits are congruent with those of other experienced police officers, and the socialization process is minor, likely reinforcing recruits’ long-held beliefs. According to Rokeach et al. (as cited in Twersky-Glasner, 2005), these distinctive personality traits are present when the recruit is deciding upon his or her career, and it is these traits that attracts the person to policing.

The socialization of police and other law enforcement officers has both positive and negative components. The negative components create an atmosphere that may lead some officers to immoral and/or unethical conduct that runs contrary to the stated values of the agency. As mentioned previously, citizens who have demonstrated a high level of moral conduct are recruited into policing. Despite demonstrated morality being a key required attribute, a small percentage of officers act immorally on occasion. The socialization of some of these officers may be where they learned their immoral behavior.


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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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