What Is Law Enforcement Culture

What Is Law Enforcement Culture

In 1991, the Christopher Commission noted that the LAPD promoted a culture that emphasized “the use of force to control a situation and disregard for a more patient and less aggressive approach.” He also noted a “siege mentality” among officers that encouraged “conflicting attitudes of hostility and disrespect.” The relationship between the police and the public is complicated. While many police officers often worry about their own safety, the vast majority believe the public does not understand the risks and challenges they face on the job. When asked how well the public understands the risks of policing, 46% of officers say they are not very good, and 40% say they are not good at all. Only 1% say the public understands the risks and challenges facing police very well, and 12% say the public understands reasonably well. About one in four white public servants (23%) say their law enforcement work almost always or often makes them angry. A smaller proportion of Black police officers – 17% – say so. Among Hispanic officers, 21 percent say they are almost always or often angry, a little different proportion than white or black officers. In a qualitative study of police officers, Loftus (2010) tracked police officers on the street and found that two characteristics are pervasive in police culture: cynicism and moral conservatism. While older police officers exhibit these characteristics, Loftus (2010) found that new officers are hired from a more diverse environment that includes different sexual orientations, cultures and races.

This can allow the police subculture to adapt and overcome its most negative traits. Although academics and critics have lamented police culture for decades, lasting change is possible and essential. British criminologist Sarah Charman described the results of some of her research in a recent article for The Conversation, noting that there is a “new generation” of officers who still value solidarity, but also integrity and compassion. The generation of young adults entering the police force today are not as willing to lie or cover up the mistakes of others and care about a healthy work-life balance that is: maintaining a social life outside of the police that prevents them from being too deeply rooted in a potentially toxic work culture. Charman predicts that “cultural sedimentation” will occur slowly as values such as compassion and integrity begin to prevail over cynicism and the code of silence. But there is no need to wait for the fluctuation of generations. Radical changes to the agency, such as those made in Camden, New Jersey, can quickly begin to change the relationship between police and the community. In 2012, the Camden Police Service was completely disbanded and a new borough-level agency was formed with more officers, better technology and a focus on community policing. Once the most dangerous city in the country, it has since increased public confidence and safety and reduced crime rates by patrolling officers on foot and engaging with community members. Despite the increasing diversity of policing, the emergence of problem-based policing, and efforts to implement community-based policing and build police-community relationships, some aspects of traditional policing culture remain entrenched.

For example, female police officers continue to accept the expectations of masculinity and power that dominate the organizational culture of most organizations. However, it is imperative to understand that traditional police culture is evolving, albeit slowly, and has never been monolithic. Adherence to sexist attitudes towards policing, the code of silence or the use of force, for example, varies considerably from one officer, unit and authority to another. After being selected and hired by local police services, police recruits are exposed to the police subculture during their training, in part because of the instruction they receive from officers who have recently retired or been seconded to the police academy. However, the decision to become a police officer is not made in a vacuum. When recruits begin their training, they often think like police officers at a visceral level because usually some people are attracted to the profession (Conti, 2010). In an ethnographic study of female police recruits at a U.S. police academy, Conti (2010) observed that the evolution of recruits into members who reflect the police mindset likely began at a young age, when they became convinced that they would become police officers. When potential officers enter the selection process, they participate in an extensive application process that is their first introduction to the police subculture.

Rokeach, Miller and Snyder (1971) concluded that there is a distinct police personality and proposed the idea that individuals enter an occupation with predetermined attributes that are identified with their new occupation. Rokeach et al. (1971), however, also found that this distinct police personality is due to personality predispositions that existed prior to the introduction of recruits into the police subculture. These distinct predispositions are conducive to a police career and allow individuals to comfortably choose and integrate into the subculture (Conti, 2010; Rokeach et al., 1971). Although the police subculture is different, it sometimes tries to catch up with the norms of the dominant culture and can move from negative to positive attributes (Skolnick, 2008). Across boundaries of gender, race, and age, most police officers say they see themselves as both protectors and enforcers. Black police officers (69%) say this more often than White police officers (59%), while a slightly higher proportion of White officers (32%) than Black officers (27%) say they see themselves primarily as protectors. Administrators are slightly more likely than non-commissioned officers or ordinary officers to see themselves primarily as protectors. Culture that exists at most levels of society can be defined as “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterize an institution or organization.” This seems to speak to the characteristics of a society in general. However, the police were often referred to as a subculture – a part of the whole, but separate from the whole. Subculture has been defined as “an ethnic, regional, economic, or social group that exhibits characteristic patterns of behavior sufficient to distinguish it from others within an embracing culture or society.” This definition seems appropriate when trying to characterize a police organization. The police subculture is characterized by three main norms: secrecy, solidarity, and social isolation.

Storytelling by police academy instructors can be a valuable and effective teaching tool, as Conti`s (2010) study of an American police academy shows. The stories told by trainers should reflect ethical behavior and be able to relate to the goals and outcomes of the lesson plan. Conversely, instructor narratives can inflate perceptions of danger (Banish & Ruiz, 2003) or cynicism (Ford, 2003), but instructor accounts can also be used to convey positive outcomes, such as surviving the life and death faced by police (Conti, 2010). Ultimately, storytelling perpetuates the police subculture by conveying both truisms and not-so-true legends (Newburn & Reiner, 2007). Banish and Ruiz (2003) further argue that storytelling negatively influences police culture by conveying negative traits of cynicism, mistrust, conservatism and authoritarianism. When it comes to positive feelings toward policing, white, black, and Hispanic agents are more closely aligned. Similar proportions of each group of public servants say their law enforcement work almost always, or often, makes them proud and fulfilled (although the proportion of Hispanic public servants who feel this way is slightly higher than the proportion of whites). Secrecy – Police officers involved in many sensitive operations and investigations often demand secrecy. However, the issue of secrecy in policing goes far beyond what is necessary for normal functioning.

Secrecy in policing often extends to silence about deviant and even criminal behavior of the police. Obviously, society despises an informant or a rat. In policing, it is taken much more seriously. For example, if a police officer informed another officer involved in criminal conduct, the informant would be considered a stool dove, even if he did what his oath of office required. Police officers express a range of emotions when asked how they feel about their work. Pride is a common feeling, but so is frustration. The majority of public servants say their work in law enforcement almost always (23%) or often (35%) makes them proud. About half say their work almost always frustrates them (10%) or often (41%). As society has evolved, so have law enforcement agencies.

Ethical behavior and diversity play a major role in recruitment and are considered important characteristics of potential leaders.

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