POLICE CULTURE AND
"What would you do.. if you found out.. your 'enemy' looked just like you..?" (martial arts saying)
Policing, as an occupation, has often been described as hours of boredom, followed by minutes of sheer terror. In any occupation where such extremes exist, it is necessary to have cultural characteristics which reinforce the collective and impersonal nature of the work. Cultural characteristics are the man-made aspects of social organization, as distinct from structural institutions, but both structure and culture influence personality and behavior. Much of social science is devoted to the study of structural institutions (e.g., family, economy, polity) and the ways in which they influence human awareness and/or determine behavior (invisibly, in the background, as motivators, in determining needs and interests). Culture, however, can also operate invisibly (at a deeper, almost mythic or subconscious level), but because culture is always still under control (often phrased as culture always "being in the making"), there ought to be highly visible and highly symbolic aspects of it. These bright shiny aspects of culture are what make it worthy of study, and most people know them as "traditions" which are just taken for granted.
To define culture is to embrace a word with multiple meanings. The first meaning or definition, according to Brooker (2003), is that culture consists of those intellectual and/or artistic practices which define an epoch, period, social group, nation, or society as being socially constructed (man-made) and not just formed naturally. In this sense, culture is the mark that man has made upon the world. Hence, it is common to talk about "ethnic" or "modern" cultures, depending upon which ethnic group or which technology has made the most impact. Think of it as the way world historians sometimes classify the Iron Age or Bronze Age. The second meaning, again according to Brooker (2003) is that culture consists of those shared assumptions which have an active, shaping influence upon ideas, attitudes, and experience. In this sense, culture is a signifying system which represents a "whole way of life of a social group or whole society." According to Williams (1981) who popularized this "whole way of life" definition, there is nothing incompatible between it and the first definition. Debates over culture abound in the academic literature, primarily between Marxists and non-Marxists who argue over whether culture expresses ideology or value, but these issues need not concern us since we are solely interested in the culture of one social group -- police.
THE POLICE UNIFORM
It is sometimes said that police culture has been overstudied. However, there are probably many aspects of it that are overlooked. There may be many things to study. A "tradition" may go unquestioned. The object of study might be a "taboo" topic; or, it might simply be that some long-standing custom has always been taken for granted. As an example or illustration, let's take the UNIFORM. Lots of social groups wear uniforms -- athletes, soldiers, students, teachers, musicians, cheerleaders, religious leaders, hospital staff, bellboys, and policemen, to name a few. During Hitler's reign in Nazi Germany, all civilian occupational groups were ordered to come up with, and wear, dress uniforms (as part of Hitler's plan to get rid of undesirables). What is the role of the uniform? What does it signify? Fussell (2003) has some answers, and he begins by distinguishing between costumes and uniforms. A costume is what you put on when you are play-acting or role-playing; and a uniform is what you put on when you are deadly serious and role-filling. A real uniform brings honor to the person wearing it, and it marks that person as someone who performs important impersonal and demanding tasks for the powerful (the duke, the king, the president, or God). There is a quasi-religious aspect to uniforms, suggesting that the wearer is one who commonly engages in self-sacrifice and risk-taking. Uniforms also have some kind of erotic, masculine appeal, since they usually highlight or try to emphasize big, strong shoulders (with epaulettes, shoulder boards, insignia, and braiding). Uniforms for females have less of a specific eroticism, but are nonetheless erotic to some. At one time in history (before 1300), it was the length of a man's hair which made him appear dutiful to his lord. Then, there was an era when wigs signified much the same thing. Our modern age is the uniform age, and neckties were invented (in the 1890s) to be worn with suits as a "democracizing" influence (every man can wear a tie, and any tie looks good on a man). With so-called "suits," the number of buttons on the sleeve and whether the shirt is buttoned-down (technically, buttoned-up the neck) has traditionally represented either seniority on the job or a sense of superiority to everyone else (lapel pins probably serve this purpose today). There is another thing about uniforms which deserves mention, and that is uniforms were meant to stand straight up in, not to be worn sitting down. Fatigues or camouflage clothing were designed for that, or when carrying out punishment or demeaning tasks.
ACADEMIC STUDIES OF POLICE CULTURE
The study of police culture has traditionally been from one of two perspectives -- the sociological or the psychological. In recent years, however (ever since the Christopher Commission report that studied the Rodney King incident), we have witnessed the emergence of another perspective -- the anthropological.
worldview -- this is a mentality or cognitive orientation involving how people see themselves and see others. Police are said to have a "we-they" or "us-them" worldview. This in-group, we (police) v. they (civilians) solidarity is associated with the idea of police subculture, but in practice the more general term culture is commonly used to describe everything police share in common.
ethos -- this is the idea of a spirit or force in the organization that reflects an unwritten (and largely unspoken) value system. It's what makes daily life worth living. Police culture is said to have the following elements in its ethos: bravery, autonomy, and secrecy.
theme -- this is the idea of a belief system that regulates or guides the kinds of relationships or social interactions (scripts, roles) that people have inside and outside of their culture. In the case of policing, for example, the belief that you are never off duty would be a theme constraining a full interactive life with the general public.
postulate -- postulates are beliefs the integrate (homogenize, or make alike) the people in the culture. They do this by being neat little proverbs that simplify a vast amount of complex information. For example: "don't talk too much or too little" would be a postulate. Your textbook treats postulates as the most important anthropological concept and the things closest to norms that are threatening by police deviance.
Traditional approaches to the study of police culture have been twofold:
Cynicism -- this is a kind of "hardened", institutionalized kind of outlook. There are many varieties of it, running from tragic to comic extremes. It is believed that there are 4 stages of it: (1) overidealism (2) frustration (3) disenchantment (4) full blown cynicism. It's highest during the middle part of a police career.
You should associate the sociological approach with J. Skolnick (1966) Justice Without Trial. NY: Wiley which describes the cultural characteristics of isolation (bluewall), brotherhood (an attack on one is an attack on all), and action (the ability to recognize danger and symbolic assailants). Skolnick also gave us the concept of working personality (a potentially useful on duty, off duty distinction).
Stress -- most of the studies of police stress as unique or not (divorce, alcohol, suicide) are from a social causation point of view (the organization produces the kinds of personalities it needs).
Authoritarianism -- this is a set of attitudes and beliefs that was first observed in people who blindly followed Hitler. You can think of it as fascism, if you want, because in fact, it's measured by something called the F-scale. There are at least 9 basic components to it: (1) conventionalism (2) submissiveness (3) aggressiveness (4) being unreflective (5) being superstitious (6) toughness (7) destructiveness (8) projection (9) sexual exaggeration. Believe it or not, college students also usually score high on this trait which is not about dishing out authority (well, aggressiveness and toughness are) but preferring crystal clear lines of authority and following it to the letter.
You should associate the psychological approach with A. Neiderhoffer (1967) Behind the Shield. NY: Anchor which approaches suspicion as healthy, cynicism as unhealthy, and of course, authoritarianism as a personality trait.
Stress -- most psychological studies have emphasized the self-selection point of view, or predispositional model (the organization attracts certain people with the personalities it needs).
One sometimes hears about "syndromes." In the study of police culture, these usually refer to the problem of trying to live up to an IMAGE or IDEOLOGY (see lecture #1). They are not syndromes in the clinical sense, and are perhaps better understood as examples of role strain, when the job demands more of an individual than what they have to give. For example, it was Ramsey Clark who once said that police have to be "lawyer, scientist, medic, psychologist, athlete, and public servant." Examples of a few syndromes are the:
Wyatt Earp syndrome - badge heavy, macho, victim of image
John Wayne syndrome - overserious, coldness, tunnel vision
Doc Holliday syndrome - suspicious, bitter, quick-tempered
Custer syndrome - defending police work, anti-rest of system
Parker syndrome - defending thin blueline, anti-society attitude
amotivational syndrome - HEW term for police burnout
Ganzer syndrome - type of battle fatigue involving humor to ward off horror
In the actual life cycle of a police career, a syndrome is more likely to appear before cynicism does, in the TV cop stage. Here's a table showing the career life cycle:
|3-4 years||TV cop|
Other approaches in the study of police culture are devoted to the topic of TYPOLOGIES about types of police officers. The following typologies can be mentioned, and are discussed somewhat extensively in most textbooks:
(1) Idealists - college educated, high ideals, social order commitment
(2) Enforcers - ends oriented, least likely to choose or recommend police career
(3) Optimists - people oriented, management aspiring "yes" person
(4) Realists - just a job/heck with it attitude, retired in place
(1) Professionals - proper integration of coercion and sympathy
(2) Enforcers - both cynical and coercive
(3) Reciprocators - wishy washy, can't make up mind, oversympathetic
(4) Avoiders - avoids work, just collects paycheck, shirker/slacker
(1) Tough Cop - outcome oriented
(2) Problem Solver - pays attention to people's needs
(3) Crime Fighter - zealots, on a mission to wipe out a certain kind of crime
(4) Rule Applier - goes strickly by the book, would give own mother a ticket
(1) Legalistic-Abusive - extremely rigid/has to be right all the time
(2) Task-Oriented - concerned that rules and regulations cover everything
(3) Community Service - interested in documenting how community is helped
(commonly called the "4-World Syndrome"):
Ianni's distinction between us & them is a version of the "we-they" mentality which anthropologists call a worldview, but "us" in this case means willingness to work with the public. The street v. station distinction refers to whether or not the employee has a "patrolman's mentality"; e.g., if an officer assigned to the station most of the time (a sergeant) still keeps and uses a patrol car. The 4-world syndrome holds that officers must adjust to life in all 4 worlds: the inner (defensive) world of policing; the outer (cooperative) world of the public; the street (quick response) world; and the station (paperwork) world.
Angels in Blue
Fraternal Order of Police: Grand Lodge
Officer Down Memorial Page
Police Organizational Culture
The Thin Blue Line
The New Blue Line
Blumberg, A. & E. Niederhoffer. (1985). The Ambivalent Force. NY: Holt.
Bouza, A. (1990). The Police Mystique. NY: Plenum.
Brooker, P. (2003). A Glossary of Cultural Theory, 2e. London: Arnold.
Crank, J. (2004). "Police Culture in a Changing Multicultural Environment." Pp. 53-74 in Q. Thurman & A. Giacomazzi (eds.) Controversies in Policing. Cincinnati: LexisNexis Anderson.
Fussell, P. (2003). Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear. NY: Houghton Mifflin.
Neiderhoffer, A. (1969). Behind the Shield. NJ: Anchor Books.
Reuss-Ianni, E. (1984). Two Cultures of Policing. NJ: Transaction.
Skolnick, J. (1966). Justice Without Trial. NY: Wiley and Sons.
Skolnick, J. & D. Bayley (1986). The New Blue Line. NY: Free Press.
Williams, R. (1981). Culture. London: Collins.
Last updated: 06/26/05
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