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Culture in the Police Force

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2546 words Published: 16th Aug 2018

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Culture is a way of life, different nations, different countries or even different families have their own cultures. There is one occupational culture inside the police force, that what we called “Cop Culture”. According to Reiner (2000), police occupational cultures can be defined as a kind of share values, beliefs, norms, working practices, and informal rules, police officers will use these cultures to justify their works in their world. In this essay, we will talk about the principal features and characteristics associated with “cop culture”, also we will further discuss the main recent critiques of the previous scholarly understandings of “cop culture”.

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Culture is the way of life which varies from place to place, or changes over period. It exists in many forms like, behaviors, attitude or norms, etc. “Cop culture” is an organizational culture within the police force, it is not the formal rules but still widely spread within the force. These informal rules and share values will not be published as written manuals. There will not have a ceremony to announce these rules, but when new recruits enter the system, during the recruitment and training period, they will be socialized and learn about the culture. New police officers are then engaged in following the informal rules as they are all assumed to achieve the same goal. With this unavoidable socialization, police and cop culture are always closely interdependent.

Many studies always use “cop culture” as the key debate in contemporary policing, it is because public concerns that, police is the professionals in our society, their works involve danger and risk. They are paid to protect the public safety and prevent crime, so they should take these responsibilities. Public expect and demand police officers the highest standard of work, but they do not truly understand the complexity of police work. Working between this ambiguous gap, there is a need for police officers to work out a special way of life to sustain the whole system.

“Cop culture” involves different underlying values, these may affect or guide the police’s working behavior. It can be seen as the reference for police to understand more about the way of work and the policing style of its organization, or we may say it is a kind a learning behavior. As many criminologists mostly concern about “how the cop-culture shapes the ways in which officers use their discretion?” we can make use of the police culture to further understand and interpret how the police use the discretion power. (Westmarland, L, 2008) Discretion power takes an important role in the police role, police use this specific authorized power when they have to make decision for their operation. As we all know, it is impossible to implement the law fully, there still have differences between “law in practice” and “law in theory”. We cannot write down every single case in a rule book, and ask the police officers to follow them strictly. In this case, police need to make good use of the knowledge learnt from the training school and experiences from the senior officers as references. Police have to face thousands of decision making process at their work, for example, whether to arrest or warn a careless driver. Discretion power provides them a wide range of methods to enforce the law correctly. In this case, cop-culture may affect their perception about the criminal behavior or the criminals. Finally, it may change and control the results or even the justice directly.

To combine different scholars’ studies about “Cop culture”, they tried to list a numerous of features to characterize “cop-culture”. They are “a sense of mission”, “cynicism/pessimism”, “machismo”, “suspiciousness”, “internal solidarity/social isolation” and “conservatism”.

Robert Reiner (2000: 111-114) strongly emphasized the central feature of cop culture is “a sense of mission”. Police have a strong sense to protect the public and the weak, as it is not only their job but their way of life. They have strong commitment to this valuable work. About the “cynicism/pessimism”, it dominated the personalities of police officers. Because their work makes them the exposure to dangerous conditions, they become mistrust to the public or even everyone. “Machismo” is “a product of the masculine ethos of the force and the tension built up by the work” (Jewkes, Y. & Letherby, G., 2002 : 276), it is a very typical sketch in every police force. With a cult of masculinity and the strong and aggressive self- images, this has great influence power on their attitude and behaviors towards offenders, victims and crime.

Moreover, Skolnick (1966) introduced other three main characteristics in making of “cop culture”, they are suspiciousness, internal solidarity linked with social isolation and conservatism. It is all started from the job nature of police, the work of police is closely related to danger and risk. With this nature, police firstly become more suspicious of everyone in the society, probably, they are trained to be suspicious as to stop the danger matters as soon as possible, suspicious manner thus lead to “social isolation” which includes isolation from families, friends or the mainstream of community. They may think that all the people except their colleagues do not understand their works. As internal solidarity is linked with social isolation, they will also be mutually reinforced. It is easily to understand that because of that external social isolation, they will become more rely on their working partners, they will feel that only police officers will know and support their works, and thus enhance their internal solidarity. “Conservatism” is related to the traditional image of police, as they are the authority figures which upholding strong legitimate powers in the society, their working style will be conservative too. They will not be easily affected by other norms, such as they should not have any sympathies towards any crime related parties. Also, conservatism makes the police organizations lack of incentive to change and reforms. All of above features are not written as formal rules but they are all known by any police officers.

According to Skolnick (1966), police view themselves as the safeguards of society, they are working in danger and they are required to be suspicious. They need to use their authorities to enforce the law as to protect the society. Within this framework, Skolnick (1966) pointed out the police always face a dilemma that “we are working under pressure to achieve results in the form of law enforcement, but we are restricted by the rule of law to enforce the law” Also, as their work are closely watched by the public every day ( Newburn. T & Reiner. R, 2007: 918), these give the police work greater pressures, and thus provide them an environment to develop a set of unique culture for dealing with their works. And public may see this culture as deviant but it has been accepted and justified as normal in the cop-culture.

Some other studies (Wortley, R, K., 1992) also noted “Racial prejudice” as a feature of cop culture. It is shown that police are targeted a specific races as their policing target informally. They believe they are the authorized moral judges in the community, so they are allowed to do some prejudge before the formal due-process. The important point is that they usually focus on the minorities and develop a certain “unfair” or “discriminative” attitude to deal with them.

You may ask in what ways the police officers share these cop culture, and does it really so long-lasting? According to Andrew Brown (1995:26), culture is a product of ‘historical process’. When years and years pass, this has become a set of identical working style within the organization. Experiences are accumulated day by day, and become the “history” today. The shared norms and values are easily spread between department and officers.

However, many criminologists wrote to criticize the existence of “cop-culture”. Most of their studies focused on problem of races and gender discrimination, and it raised the public attention on “police abuse of discretion power” or even more serious problem like, miscarriage of justice. Different scholars had brought out their complaints about the “cop-culture”, and have advocated kind of “reform” to stop the spread and development of the “cop-culture”.

Is that really so serious that we need to restrict this internal culture within the police organization? Some recent scholars like, Chan (1996) and Waddington (2004) started to look “cop-culture” with a different angles and paint a new picture for it. They challenged the previous scholars about their conception of the “cop-culture”.

According to “Police (canteen) sub-culture: an appreciation” of Waddington, P.A.J (2004), he tried to offer us an alternative view of “cop culture” which opposed the previous scholars’ understanding and criticisms about “cop-culture”. Waddington(2004) stated that it is only a “canteen culture” whereas we can treat it as an oral phenomenon, he emphasized the differences between “talk and action”( Waddington, 2004 : 364), we do not need to pay too much attention on their “private talks” in such private backstage like canteens where far away from public. He argued that it is only an act of “storytelling”. In some case is that senior officers make use of the channel to share their “war stories” with some exaggerate manners. However, we should believe the professional training as those police officers have abilities to determine its reality and decide whether to take it as reference or not.

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In addition, it can be a positive thing which provides them opportunity to express their emotions as they have already suffered from high pressure on their daily work. This police occupational culture also provides them an idea of spirit, it fosters a strong sense of cohesion between officers and thus enhances their working attitude. Officers believe that there is a mutual understanding which makes them find their own values within the organization and community. Waddington (2004: 375) also described this “canteen culture” is simply developed by a condition of “talking a good fight” , officers just want to “glorify” themselves, it is also related to their personalities of “machismo”. The process of “glorification” can definitely increase their self-esteem which makes them work harder and more efficient as to achieve the same goal and to maintain their internal working spirit.

Moreover, Waddington, P.A.J. (2004) argued that “cop culture” is just an in-group culture, it is unnecessary to link this with the problem of race or gender discrimination. Also, those characteristics are just the way of police lives, we should not comment it as “negative” or even to “reform” their way of lives. It is meaningless to concern about the “talk” aspect, or we should pay more attention on their “action” indeed.

Another key critique about “cop-culture” is proposed by Janet Chan (1996) recently. She made 4 main criticisms about the previous conceptions about “cop-culture” and its abilities to explain “cop-culture”. Firstly, Reiner (1992: 109) stated that the “cop culture” is not “monolithic, universal nor changing”. But Chan (1996) argued that the previous definitions are” too simple” and “not universal”. She concerns “the failure of existing definitions of police culture to account for internal differentiation and jurisdictional differences.” (Chan, 1996: 111) She stated that there must be different level of police sub-cultures inside the organization, but the previous scholars mostly just focus on the culture of “street level”, but they neglected the culture of “management level”. She criticized that the previous scholars could not provide a full definition and comprehensive conditions of “cop-culture”.

Secondly, Chan (1996) argued that police officers are not like what Reiner (1992: 109) described as “passive” and being “cultural dopes” She also criticized Reiner did not make an detailed explanation about “socialization” of police officers. Every police officer has their own choice to decide whether absorb and transform the values, they will not follow those informal rules blindly. They can separate which are “hero stories” and which are “real works and real world”.

Thirdly, Chan (1996: 112) proposed that “A theory of police culture must, therefore, situate culture in the political and social context of policing.” As the police is closely related to the society, it is impossible to extremely separated them. However, Chan (1996) found that the previous scholars failed to do this. No matter the street level and management level officers also need to respond to the public reaction. About those problems of “injustice” or “corruption”, police organization still have to react to these scandals.

The final criticism is closely linked with the previous criticisms, according to Chan (1996:112), “an all-powerful, homogeneous and deterministic conception of the police culture insulated from the external environment leaves little scope for a cultural change”. She stated that the previous scholars were failed to examine the scope and possibilities for changing this “cop-culture”.

Almost thirty years ago, people are started to pay attention on the police occupational culture which we named as “cop culture” nowadays. Police take an important role in our society, a minimal difference between their behaviors may result very differently. Most of the studies are focus on the “street cop culture”, especially those “patrol officers”. “Cop culture” is the shared values and norms within the police officers, although this culture will be varies from place to place, there are still some standard features in general. However, many scholars always defined “cop culture” as something “negative” and “destructive” to society. After a period of time, some current scholars argued that those previous criticisms about “cop culture” may not be correct in all cases, and made a newly and clear way for us to understand the concept about “cop culture”.


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