Policing | Section 5.3

Fundamentals of Policing by Adam J. McKee

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The 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.

Law enforcement organizational culture is very strong force in shaping individual police officers’ occupational characteristics. Working as a police officer or as a police administrator modifies individuals. While individual officers try to enforce the law and restrict or control the actions of the public to maintain public order, they intentionally or unintentionally change their personal nature. Members of policing become not only alien to the public that they serve but also alien to their own personal individuality.

Prior to starting their work as a police officer, they were John, George, or Ahmet. However, after entering the law enforcement profession, they begin to change and become different individuals. They identify themselves first as police officers and secondly as individuals. Diversity among cops is virtually non-existent. How is such a strong occupational culture formed? How is police organizational culture shaped? Does organizational structure influence organizational culture? If so, how did organizational structure in the reform era of policing affect police organizational culture? This study argues believe that police culture largely shaped in the reform era of policing due to the structural reforms. Accordingly, this article aims to take a close look to reform era of policing.

Organizational Structure

Organizational structure refers to how organizations are configured. In other words, It is the “way in which the parts of the organization are arranged” It can also be defined as the organization chart that regulates the distribution of authority and task responsibility within the organization. Structure is the design of organizations.  These elements are closely linked to organizational goals and policies that organizations are supposed to enact. It is a design of fitting the means, activities, and ends together.

Organizational Culture

Scholars have been paying more attention to organizational culture over the past decade.  The idea is important in the context of understanding organizations since it is the collective “programming of the mind” which distinguishes the members of one group of people from another group. Organizational culture defines a shared, unwritten, and constant value system within an organization. Organizational culture consists of artifacts, professed values, and basic underlying assumptions. Artifacts are visible aspects of the organizations such as architecture and technology. Espoused values refer to beliefs that rationalize the behaviors of the members of the organization. Underlying assumptions contain postulations that determine how group members think, feel, and perceive.

Organizational culture has four core characteristics:  

  1. that it is stable and resistant to change
  2. that it is taken for granted and less consciously held
  3. that it derives its meaning from the organization’s members
  4. that it incorporates sets of shared understandings

An organization’s culture substantially affects its members and their activities. That is to say that culture identifies organizations from one another. Organizational culture shapes behaviors of members of an organization. Changing organizational culture is difficult issue since all aspects of it are stable and difficult to alter. In other words, organizational culture is the mirror of traditions in any given organization.

The Historical Context

The “culture” of a police department reflects what that department believes in as an organization. These beliefs are reflected in the department’s recruiting and selection practices, policies and procedures, training and development, and ultimately, in the actions of its officers in law enforcement situations. Clearly, all police departments have a culture. The key question is whether that culture has been carefully developed or simply allowed to develop without benefit of thought or guidance.

There are police agencies, for example, where police use of force is viewed as abnormal. Thus, when it is used, the event receives a great deal of administrative attention. Such a response reflects the culture of that department: the use of force is viewed and responded to as an atypical occurrence. Contrast such a department with one which does not view the use of force as abnormal. In the latter case, there may be inadequate or poorly understood policies providing officers with guidelines regarding the use of force. There probably is no administrative procedure for investigating incidents where force is used. And, most importantly, the culture of the department is such that officers come to view the use of force as an acceptable way of resolving conflicts.

Over the past few years, there has been significant progress in improving police-community relationships. Yet, the major problem creating friction between the police and the community today—especially in communities of color—is police use of deadly force. This is an age-old problem of which only in recent years has the public become aware. The fact that this problem existed for such a long time before receiving widespread attention can again be related to the culture of the police.

Until the Tennessee v. Garner decision in 1985, few if any police departments had developed their firearms policy around a value system that reflected reverence for human life. Rather, those agencies which did have written policies (and many did not) reflected the prevailing police culture in those policies. The prevailing culture centered on enforcement of the law. Thus, the official policies of most police agencies allowed officers to fire warning shots, to shoot fleeing felons, or to use deadly force in other circumstances reflected less than the highest value for human life.

It is clear that the culture of a police department, to a large degree, determines the organization’s effectiveness. That culture determines the way officers view not only their role, but also the people they serve. The key concern is the nature of that culture and whether it reflects a system of beliefs conducive to the nonviolent resolution of conflict.

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.

A Closed Culture

In addition to assignment patterns, the job itself tends to cause social isolation. After a period of time as a police officer, it is not uncommon for an officer to begin avoiding contacts with old friends, even when scheduling permits, because of the tendency to hear stories about traffic tickets and other negative encounters people may have had with the police. The result is the creation of an environment where an officer withdraws further and further from the community. He or she moves towards the protective shell of the police world where colleagues understand the nuances of the work.

From the standpoint of addressing the problem of police-community violence, the “police society” is critical. The reinforcement of narrow views by limiting contact only to other officers has an impact on the creation and perpetuation of violent encounters with citizens. The “police society” also severely hampers efforts to investigate complaints of excessive force. The police profession must reach a point where violence is discouraged at the peer level. When violence does occur, police officers themselves must be involved in providing information to the investigative process impartially and with integrity. At the same time, there are also positive aspects to a close-knit work group, and care must be taken to ensure these positive aspects are not harmed when attempting to deal with the negative ones.

The Socialization of Police Officers

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).

The socialization process for patrol officers has been well documented in the literature—as discussed elsewhere in this publication. Police officers tend to become the kind of police officers they are socialized to be. The two most important components of the socialization process—and thus the process of leadership—are formal training and informal “peer group” indoctrination of the young officer.

The field training officer (FTO), field training program, and formal classroom training form the cornerstone of the young officer’s operational personality. The acquisition of acceptable operational traits and the inculcation of “preferred” organizational values during this period will last for years under the tutelage of effective leadership. The acquisition of “bad habits” can be avoided through a carefully designed socialization process that is implemented by handpicked personnel at the training academy and in field orientation experiences.

The field training officer is all important to the success of a department’s training program as the FTO is the first person in authority who will orient a new officer to the job environment. These officers must be:

…role models and actually represent the explicit values of the organization. Otherwise, a situation of conflicting behavioral expectations may occur during the training of new police officers…Managers must be aware that the values of police officers are directly related to the concept of the hidden curriculum since values significantly influence organizational performance and community perceptions. Therefore, a manager can use the selection…of FTO as a proactive method for developing a work environment that promotes organizational goals and objectives in Field Training Programs.  The progressive leader can use the influence of the FTOs to build positive work environments by being aware that the influences of mentors and the need to be accepted are powerful factors in the training of new officers. When there is consistency between explicit and implicit organizational values, explicit job-related behavioral expectations are continually reinforced throughout the training program, creating a conducive learning environment for new officers. Accordingly, leaders that set forth explicit behavioral expectations through the development of a “value-congruent” training program have the potential to significantly improve organizational performance.


There are several questions the police executive may ask which will help to gauge the effectiveness of a department’s leadership in the area of socialization. While the following are generic questions, they will help identify areas that need improvement:

Do FTOs demonstrate conformance to the department’s values?

What type of officer is routinely appointed as a field training officer for police
cadets, those with a high tolerance for violence or those with a low tolerance for

Are officers routinely appointed as FTOs for police cadets “negotiators” or “Confrontationalists”?

Are FTOs trained in methods of referral, negotiation, problem resolution, and other “alternative” police responses?

Are FTOs routinely encouraged to attend public forums, neighborhood meetings, task forces, and other “formal” group processes involving the community?

Do FTOs receive informal as well as formal rewards for their services to the Organization?

Does the formal training process include classroom time devoted to community relations, problem resolution, negotiation, and alternative police response? Is it Ongoing?

Which receives greater emphasis in the training curriculum, self-defense and firearms instruction or group and interpersonal interaction skills?

The chief executive’s answers to these questions will aid in identifying areas which should be addressed concerning the socialization of new police officers. Once the desired socialization of police officers is attained, it is a role of leadership to continue to refine this socialization.

Developing a Positive Departmental Culture

How do you establish a positive departmental culture? In answering this question, it is important to emphasize again that all departments have a culture. It is also important to recognize that the culture of a police department, once established, is difficult to change. Organizational change within a police agency does not occur in a revolutionary fashion. Rather, it is evolutionary.

The Community Relations Service (an office of the Department of Justice) suggests that the way to create a positive departmental culture is to start with the development of a set of values.  Of course, any culture has a set of values, but often these are unspoken and are not shared to an equal degree. Specifying them in writing can go a long way in providing clarity to command staff and line officers alike.

Thus, the beginning point in establishing a departmental culture is to develop a set of values.  Values serve a variety of purposes, including:

  • Set forth a department’s philosophy of policing
  • State in clear terms what a department believes in
  • Articulate in broad terms the overall goals of the department
  • Reflect the community’s expectations of the department
  • Serve as a basis for developing policies and procedures
  • Serve as the parameters for organizational flexibility
  • Provide the basis for operational strategies
  • Provide the framework for officer performance
  • Serve as a framework from which the department can be evaluated

In developing a set of values for a police department, it is not necessary to come up with a lengthy list. Rather, there should be a few values which, when taken together, represent what the organization considers important. For example, if it is the objective of the department to create a culture that is service oriented, then that should be reflected in its set of values. In other words, the importance of values is qualitative, not quantitative. Finally, an essential role of the police chief is to ensure that the values of the department are well articulated throughout the organization. To accomplish this, the chief as leader must ensure that there is a system to facilitate effective communication of the values. This includes recognizing and using the organization’s informal structure. This is important because, in addition to the formal structure, values are transmitted through its informal process as well as its myths, legends, metaphors, and the chief’s own personality.

Each police department should develop a set of policing values that reflects its own community. Fortunately, there is a general set of policing values that can serve as a framework for any department to build upon to meet local needs. Developing a set of organizational values is not difficult. A police executive should first clearly explain what values are to those in uniform. Then the executive should ask each member of the department to list what he or she considers the five most important values for the department. The findings of such an exercise will represent a consensus on the values department members hold most dear—an excellent starting point for creating a set of departmental values. What follows is the previously mentioned general set of values of good policing, which can be the springboard for a department’s own formulation:

The police department must preserve and advance the principles of democracy. All societies must have a system for maintaining order. Police officers in this country, however, must not only know how to maintain order but must do so in a manner consistent with our democratic form of government. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the police to enforce the law and deliver a variety of other services in a manner that not only preserves, but also extends precious American values. It is in this context that the police become the living expression of the meaning and potential of a democratic form of government. The police must not only respect but also protect the rights guaranteed to each citizen by the Constitution. To the extent each officer considers his or her responsibility to include protection of the constitutionally guaranteed rights of all individuals, the police become the most important employees in the vast structure of Government.

The police department places its highest value on the preservation of human life.  Above all, the police department must believe that human life is our most precious resource. Therefore, the department, in all aspects of its operations, will place its highest priority on the protection of life. This belief must be manifested in at least two ways. First, the allocation of resources and the response to demands for service must give top priority to those situations that threaten life. Second, even though society authorizes the police to use deadly force, the use of such force must not only be justified under the law, but must also be consistent with the philosophy of rational and humane social control.

The police department believes that the prevention of crime is its number one operational priority. The department’s primary mission must be the prevention of crime. Logic makes it clear that it is better to prevent a crime than to put the resources of the department into motion after a crime has been committed. Such an operational response should result in an improved quality of life for citizens, and a reduction in the fear that is generated by both the reality and perception of crime.

The police department will involve the community in the delivery of its services. It is clear that the police cannot be successful in achieving their mission without the support and involvement of the people they serve. Crime is not solely a police problem, and it should not be considered as such. Rather, crime must be responded to as a community problem. Thus, it is important for the police department to involve the community in its operations. This sharing of responsibility involves providing a mechanism for the community to collaborate with the police both in the identification of community problems and determining the most appropriate strategies for resolving them. It is counterproductive for the police to isolate themselves from the community and not allow citizens the opportunity to work with them.

The police department believes it must be accountable to the community it serves.  The police department also is not an entity unto itself. Rather, it is a part of the government and exists only for the purpose of serving the public to which it must be accountable. An important element of accountability is openness. Secrecy in police work is not only undesirable but unwarranted. Accountability means being responsive to the problems and needs of citizens. It also means managing police resources in the most cost-effective manner. It must be remembered that the power to police comes from the consent of those being policed.

The police department is committed to professionalism in all aspects of its operations. The role of the professional organization is to serve its clients. The police department must view its role as serving the citizens of the community. A professional organization also adheres to a code of ethics. The police department must be guided by the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics. A profession polices itself. The police department must ensure that it maintains a system designed to promote the highest level of discipline among its members.

The police department will maintain the highest standards of integrity. The society invests in its police the highest level of trust. The police, in turn, enter into a contractual arrangement with society to uphold that trust. The police must always be mindful of this contractual arrangement and never violate that trust. Each member of the police department must recognize that he or she is held to a higher standard than the private citizen. They must recognize that, in addition to representing the department, they also represent the law enforcement profession and government. They are the personifications of the law. Their conduct, both on and off duty, must be beyond reproach. There must not be even a perception in the public’s mind that the department’s ethics are open to question.

Recognizing that society is undergoing massive changes, police agencies are confronted with a great challenge. The essence of that challenge is to be able to respond to problems created by social change, while at the same time providing the stability that holds a society together during a period of uncertainty.

By setting forth a clear set of values, articulating what it believes in, the police department has a foundation to guide itself. Such a foundation also allows for organizational flexibility. In addition, a set of values provides the community with a means of assessing its police department without having to become involved in technical operations. Value statements serve as the linkage between the ongoing operations of a police department and the community’s ability not only to participate, but also to understand the reason for police department strategies.   

Key Terms

References and Further Reading




Modification History

File Created:  08/15/2018

Last Modified:  06/14/2019

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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