How useful is the idea of police (sub)culture in explaining the behaviour of the police, and of police misconduct more specifically?

Police culture has been considered an important topic, mainly due to the difficulties that occurred when reforming the police service. The police service has long been associated with a system that is resistant to change mainly due to the entrenched attitudes and beliefs of the ones working within the force that present the biggest barrier.

The idea of ‘cop culture’ first emerged as a means of understanding the practices of the police. Scholars sought to understand the perspectives and views of the police over the social world and their role in it and the subject became the basis of considerable literature in Criminology. Studies regarding police culture has later found that, contrary to general belief, there is not a one to one relationship between attitudes and behaviour. Waddington (1999) noted that many observational studies has shown that officers fail to enact the attitudes they express in canteen or interviews, in practice. Moreover, Reiner (1999) draws a distinct line between cop culture and later named the Canteen culture that represents the beliefs and values more typical to an off-duty officer. He noted that, in writings about policing, a tendency of assuming that the ‘banter’ the officers have during the off-duty hours in interviews or pubs or canteen, reflects the beliefs and values the police officers have during their working hours. As a response, Waddington argued that this is not only misleading, but it is probably altogether wrong (Waddington, 1999). He claims that what the officers do or say when off-duty is a way of releasing the tension build up during the working hours, a ‘safety-valve’. This led to a second observation in regards of police culture, the misleading assumption that can be sometimes found in the police writings, respectively, the fact that the police force has a monolithic, single culture whereas, in fact, it is better to think of police cultures or cultures and subcultures.

Ianni and Ianni (1983) draw a distinction between ‘street cops’ and ‘management cops’ as representing two ideal-typical, distinct types of cultures. Further on, in his analysis of police culture, Reiner (1999) comes with seven core characteristics of ‘street cop’ culture: Mission, Suspicion, isolation/solidarity, conservatism, machismo, racial prejudice and pragmatism. This essay will focus on Conservatism, Machismo and Racial Prejudice.

Conservatism: The evidence of the political views of the police organisations suggest a tendency to conservatism, morally and politically. The very nature of the police force was construed on a tightly disciplined, hierarchical organisation (Skolnick, 1969). Police organisations have openly lobbied for right-winged political candidates and supported specific right-wing policies (Skolnick, 1969). In addition to supporting conservative political parties, police organisations adhered to conservative morals as well. A survey conducted in New York in 1960 has shown that the categories of ‘offenders’ most disliked by the police after ‘cop-fighters’ were the homosexuals and the drug addicts (Niederhoffer, 1967). On the other hand, the emergence of police officers being able to come out as homosexual represents a progress during the last half of the century. However, they are still victims of discrimination and homophobia became a convert, but consistent part of the police culture (Paddick, 2008).

Moreover, police conservatism has led to a patriarchal view of the social world and of ‘how things should be’ resulting in police machismo and became a ‘cult of masculinity’ (Manning, 1978). Further on, this resulted in an over exaggerated heterosexual orientation most often represented through patriarchal and misogynistic attitudes towards women.

In consequence, police conservatism affected the impartiality of certain police officers in specific cases of rape, domestic violence, prostitute murders, homosexuals, minorities and more, potentially leading to victim-blaming. (Reiner, 1978). Ultimately, the police subculture presented the potential to submerge in the following ones: Machismo and racial prejudice.

Machismo: Reiner (1999) notes that traditional police culture is one of ‘old-fashioned machismo’. One of the most valued characteristics within the culture is bravery, which is represented by sexism, sexual-promiscuity, and physical resilience. Sexism within the force is reinforced by constant ‘sexual boasting and horseplay’ towards the female colleagues (Policy Studies Institute, 1983). Police organisations are notoriously male-dominated and sexist. Despite formal integrations, female officers still experience discrimination (Silvestri, 2003, 2007). Another important aspect regarding machismo, is the police aversion to illicit sexual activities due to the ‘glamour of the job’, resulting in the highest divorce rates within the United States (Reiner, 1978). Further on, despite obvious contempt for other drug users, policemen are notably indulging in alcohol consumption. These sexual and alcoholic indulgences within the police culture are considered results or consequences of the masculine ethos that the force involves and created by the tensions of the work. This non-puritanical ethos of gambling, drinking and heterosexual behaviour can be the cause of tensions and strains when enforcing laws within these areas. Hence, the propensity of corruption within the enforcement of vice laws (Reiner, 1984).

Contrary to the general belief, the ‘macho’ nature of policing and its social and cultural manifestations does not only have effect within the internal police life and sector but, this masculinity and need of physicality has led to misogynistic thinking that can have considerable effect on a broader scale. A good example of the effects that the machismo within the police culture is the Yorkshire Ripper’s case. Feminist scholars argued that this was a femicide found within a culture of misogyny that allowed the male-dominated legal process to deny the victimhood of less respectable women and failed to value the lives of thirteen women (Radford, 1992). Academic assessments on the Peter Sutcliffe case focused on the practical and procedural failing of the police (Byford, 1981), however, feminist assessments on the case highlighted the misogynist views of the victims in the way the investigation was shaped by the police culture (Smith, 1992). Moreover, Smith (1992) claimed that the machismo and sexism within the Yorkshire ripper’s community was also shared by the West Yorkshire police whom was male-dominated.

Ultimately, the machismo found within the police culture had effects on broader scales and the neglect of addressing the issue has led to serious consequences in the areas of victimology and victimhood, and essentially, the failure of providing justice (Westmarland, 2001).

Racial Prejudice: Racial prejudice has been an important aspect of police conservatism. Multiple studies have found police hostility and prejudice towards minorities and blacks (Crank, 2004). Issues of racial discrimination and bias are still very much present within the American police force with the most recent controversies over police stops for moving violation named ‘driving while black’ and the racial profiling (Walker, 2009). Scholars argued that racism found in the police culture is a result of the broader societal culture build on racial bias and discrimination. Therefore, the police are prejudiced but only as much as the community is prejudiced as a whole and they reflect the same attitudes as the majority towards the minorities (Skolnick and Fyfe, 1993). Studies have shown that the prejudice and racism are a result of the communities the police officers come from and it is a reflection of the working class they are coming from with no higher education than high school. Similar attitudes were found within the British police culture. Arrest records show a prejudice towards black individuals whom were considered more prone to crime and violence, suspicious and incomprehensible (Lambert 1970). On the contrary, police records from the 1970’s show an under-involvement in crime of black people based on their proportion in the population (Lambert, 1970).

Moreover, the racial prejudice has been diluted by the recruitment of black police officers in recent decades but did not result in significant changes within the police practices, which are not a primary result of prejudice (Skogan and Frydl, 2004). On the contrary, observations made on groups of police officers known for racial prejudice has shown that their relationship with black and minor ethnicities were actually relaxed and friendly (Henry, 2007).

Ultimately, contrary to the general belief, the consensus of social research has shown that police officers do not have specific prejudiced or authoritarian personalities (Skolnick, 1969; Reiner, 1978; Waddington, 1999; Skogan and Frydl, 2004). Rather, police recruits share the beliefs and values of the communities and social groups they are coming from, the working and lower classes, respectively, the bulk of the society.

Overall, it is crucial to highlight that the police prejudice is a result of societal racism which places the minorities in the less privileged strata that makes them more prone to the limited types of crimes that the police focuses on. As a result, they become police ‘property’, which serves as a bolster for any prior prejudice the police might have (Reiner, 1993; Fitzgerald, 2002).

In conclusion, Police cultures are the results of the power structures within the societies policed. Police culture is neither monolithic or unchanging and it is shaped by the views of the society and the elite groups of the society. Officers respond differently, however these responses are based on the structural factors such as their demographic background, their role in the division of labour and individual interpretations and personalities. The police (sub)culture is useful in understanding the responses, behaviour and attitudes of the police force. It also provides the serious issues that lay within and influence the police practice and, in specific cases, the lack of a correct provision of the law.


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Criminology & Psychology Student. Academic & Creative Writer.

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