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Police Culture and Sub Culture

Community Policing, Police Corruption

“He who saves a nation breaks no law” (Napoleon)

My purpose in this assignment is to define police culture, deviance from the standard, acceptable behavior and suggestions on how to amend the organizational culture that promote police deviance. What I hope to illustrate is the traditional, historical purpose of a police force and the functions it performs today, in respect to deviant police behavior and how it can be modified.

Police Culture and Subculture

Defining Culture

“Culture has been defined in a number of ways, but most simply, as the learned and shared behavior of a community of interacting human beings” (Useem, Useem, p. 169).

“Culture is the shared knowledge and schemes created by a set of people for perceiving, interpreting, expressing, and responding to the social realities around them” (Lederach, 1995, p.9).

Culture is the shared set of values, knowledge, mores and behavior of the individuals of a community which is shared between its members. A subculture is a grouping within the dominant culture that believes in its fundamental principals but functions differently from it. A subculture, therefore, is a culture within a culture. Members of these subcultures are still a part of the dominant culture but also have varied material and nonmaterial beliefs, which are exclusive to their subcultures. For instance, in law enforcement, one aspect of the overall culture could be camaraderie but within the subculture of camaraderie, individuals may function along different aspects of it – sometimes even unlawful. Subculture often forms ones identity.

A society is a group of interacting organisms and culture defines complex learning patters and perceptions. Culture is created and shared between members of a society, which evolves as the society itself develops.

From the Past to the Present of Policing & Police Culture

The word police has its roots in the Greek word politeia which referred to all the dealings that affected the safety and stability of the Greek state. In the 1700’s, many European employed the French word la police and German term die Polizei to refer to the internal management, security, defense, and supervision of a region.
It’s widely believed that the Roman vigils, who were a group of nonmilitary and non-mercenary police, were the first organized police force. They were formed in 27 B.C. by the grand nephew of Julius Caesar, Gaius Octavius and were effective in maintaining law and order in the Roman states.

The period of 400 A.D. – 1600 A.D, commonly known as the Middle Ages, enjoyed a system of law enforcement in different parts of the world. The system of law enforcement that did exist was one of vigilante – a watch system. Volunteers were structured to patrol the streets and guard the cities. The principal function of that form of policing became class control (keeping watch on vagrants, vagabonds, immigrants, gypsies, tramps, thieves, and outsiders in general) (Johnson, 1981, p.52). However, this was far from an organized system and the sphere of influence of the vigilantes was limited.

In the Colonial Era (1600 – 1800 AD), the U.S. implemented an unorganized version of the English vigilante system of policing. Sheriffs, previously known as shire-reeves (Hoad, T.F., 1996) appointed constables who controlled groups of watchmen who organized civilian volunteers to restrain crime. Boston’s night watch was the first watch system in the U.S., which was formed in 1631. It consisted of 6 watchmen, one constable and hundreds of unpaid volunteers who did most of the work. New Amsterdam city, as New York City was then called, adopted a rattle watch in 1652, which entailed patrolmen communicating with each other by the shake of little wood rattles.

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Around 1835, widespread riots broke out across America. Cities reacted by assigning their vigilante to control riots, but they soon came to realize that these volunteer watch systems were greatly inadequate to curb the unrest. A full-time, organized system of policemen was required. New York City is where the first, salaried, professional policing force (called as Coopers, after the star shaped, copper badges they wore) was formed in 1845. They were armed, highly disciplined and quite capable of controlling the riots. Other cities built up on and made various improvements on this model; using wanted posters and mug shots (Philadelphia); training detectives, seeking informants and managing lineups (Boston); horse patrol or the “flying squads” (Detroit and Chicago), which immediately caught on in most parts of the U.S. This period is also when the first state police agencies were formed. The Texas Rangers (created 1845) is thought to be the first state police organization (Wilkins, 1996, p. 28) but is also thought to be the first corrupt state police organization, since they worked by the Western motto, “shoot first, ask questions later”. They, instead of preventing crime, were responsible in committing it and were soon obliterated. Pennsylvania Constabulary is known to be the first professional state police agency. Other early groups of police included the Massachusetts State Police and Rangers from other Western states. This era, at the turn of the twentieth century, also witnessed the formation of federal police agencies, which included the IRS, Border Patrol, Postal Inspectors and the Secret Service (later called the FBI).

The twentieth century is also known as the progressive period of policing, with it evolving other duties including inspecting, licensing and anti-corruption measures. The Pendleton Act was the first anti-corruption measure put to task, which was enforced in 1900. In 1902, The Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) was formed, whose president was Richard Sylvester, commonly regarded as the father of police professionalism, was the one responsible for the birth of the paramilitary features of policing. Crime labs, fingerprinting and a scientific model of policing was introduced by August Vollmer, chief of the Berkeley P.D by 1918. Police unions (like the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and the International Conference of Police Associations (ICPA), citizen groups (like the Chicago Crime Commission) and policewomen were introduced also in this era, as was the idea of higher education for law enforcing officials.

The 1970’s were a phase of active investigation of police corruption – the oldest problem in law enforcement. Many cases of police abuse were brought to trial – one of the most famous included the Buddy Boys, which was an entire precinct which included officers involved in buying and selling drugs. In the recent years, numerous charges of police brutality have come to light. In 1991, a commission was appointed to investigate the brutal beating of Rodney King by 15 officers. Racism, stereotyping and prejudice are all-too-common themes in the recent past.
The current era is synonymous with the latest advancements in policing. As the technological advancements in the police force has amplified, so have cases of police offenses. September 11, 2001 was a turning point of sorts in the dynamics of law enforcement agencies in the United States. There have been numerous cases of racism, abuse, denial of justice or fair trials, stereotyping, labeling and even death. When the surface is scratched, it is revealed that within the police structure there lies the police culture which defines the code of conduct, responsibilities and values of the members, which are, oftentimes, not in the best interests of the people they are serving.

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Police Culture and Sub-Culture

Historically, due to the adoption of the English policing system of vigilante, the U.S. system has evolved and is unhealthily characterized by: (1) limited authority (legitimacy problems); (2) decentralization (local control and variation); and (3) fragmentation (one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing). (Fletcher, 1990, p. 83).
Defining police culture is tricky. As Chan suitably notes, “the concept of police culture in the criminological literature is loosely defined” (1996:111). However, the phrase police culture can define a few different features of policing. It can refer to the “us-versus-them” mind-set that is a quality of police forces nearly everywhere – where “them” includes the society in general, miscreants, offenders and police management. It can also refer to attitudes towards the use (and often misuse) of unrestrained powers, especially where discretionary powers are unlawfully used to justify societal needs (for e.g. excessive use of coercion to protect society from criminals). Police culture can also refer to the intense devotion and solidarity with fellow police officers, feelings of which are beyond those normally experienced among employees of other professions (Walker, 1992, p. 92).

Allegiance to and camaraderie with one’s fellow police officers is essential for successful and safe police work. Police often work at the periphery of society, often in dangerous and frustrating situations. However, this loyalty and solidarity is misused when officers are expected to overlook another officer’s unlawful behavior or grave misconduct, either by choosing not to report him or her, or lying when inquired about it. This unfortunately is all too common, and as in a societal culture, where members are expected to look out for each other, a police culture is rife with cases where officers overlook the faults of others to a catastrophic degree.

Deviant Police Behavior

Police officers enjoy lack of restrictions that do not apply to ordinary citizens which include speeding, using force, seizing vehicles and property, etc. The police occupation provides opportunities and justification for deviance (Bjerregaard & Lord, 2004, p. 262-284). Also, deviance within the culture of a policing organization is unlikely to be discovered due to loose supervision and the isolated nature of their work. Researchers have found that as recruits are promoted from the academy to streets, with an exposure to the police subculture, their attitudes towards deviance become more permissive and covering deviant behavior within the organization becomes common.
Researchers have also concluded that that police deviance is a learned behavior that is learnt within an organization, seeping through its departments. Only through sustainable training and regular testing of officers’ attitudes regarding definitions of wrongdoing and deviance, can change be achieved (Johnston & Shearing, 2003).

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Changing Deviant Police Culture

A change has to be initiated whose focus will be the improvement of the working conditions of police personnel inside the police organization and on the effective delivery of services to the public outside the organization, with a special emphasis on policing of minority groups which have been discriminated against. The culture change could come about through a policy change, a change in in-house training, modifications in the management of workforce, introduction of associations within the organization to promote and facilitate cultural understanding between the various factions of people, reforming the core principals of the organization – specifically through ‘community policing’ philosophies (O’Neill & Holdaway, 2004, p. 854 – 865).


Culture affects a society by laying down norms and values which manifest in the behavior of the people who make up a society. A strong, healthy culture breeds strong, healthy individuals and a weak, ineffectual culture will breed weak, inadequate individuals. Police and other law enforcing agencies, within their organizations, have a culture which is learned and reflected in attitudes and behavior by the police officers within that culture. In order to produce an effective and honest law-enforcing force, the central culture of each policing body has to be analyzed, its defects studied and modified. Selection of appropriate candidates, continuous training, well-defined management/supervisory roles, clear roles of inspectors/policemen, strict professional standards/internal investigation and the responsibilities of the top brass can all be looked into and revised to promote a productive workforce who enforce law responsibly and conscientiously.

Bjerregaard, B., and Lord, V., (2004). An examination of the ethical and value orientation of criminal justice students. Police Quarterly, 27(2), 262-284.

Chan, Janet. (1996). Changing Police Culture. British Journal of Criminology.

Hoad, T.F. (1996). “Sheriff.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology.

Johnson, David R. (1981). American Law Enforcement: A History. Saint Louis, MO: Forum Press.

Johnston, L., & Shearing, C. (2003). Governing Security: Explorations in Policing and Justice.
London: Routledge.

Lederach, J.P. (1995). Preparing for Peace: Conflict Transformation Across Cultures. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

O’Neill, Megan & Holdaway, Simon. (2004). The Development of Black Police Associations: Changing Articulations of Race within the Police – The British Journal of Criminology, Vol. 44.

Useem, J., & Useem, R. (1963). Human Organizations, 22(3).

Wilkins, Frederick. (1996). The Legend Begins – The Texas Rangers: 1823 -1845. New York : State House Press.

Walker, Samuel. (1992). The Police in America: An Introduction, 2nd ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill.Issue 6.