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The Influence of Police Culture

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 2447 words Published: 3rd Jul 2018

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In order to appropriately address the topic of discussion, firstly, it is important to understand what is meant by the concept ‘police culture’. After establishing its definition, it then becomes a task to assess whether ‘police culture’ does indeed have a negative influence on the way the police work as an institution or whether it merely ensures that a certain level of consistency in achieved in terms of the way officers conduct themselves in their daily working environment.

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The term ‘police culture’ has in itself been a topic of some discussion with sociologists being divided over what the definition should and should not include as there isn’t an established, concrete definition of the concept. For example one contributor who has attempted to rectify this problem is Reiner (1992) who describes it as ‘the values, norms, perspectives and craft rules which inform police conduct’ (Reiner 1992 quoted in Loftus 2009: 3). Whereas another definition comes from Manning (1989) who defines it as ‘accepted practices, rules, and principles of conduct that are situationally applied, and generalised rationales and beliefs’ (Manning 1989 quoted in Loftus 2009: 3). Although these definitions don’t appear too different at first glance, there is in fact a clear distinction between the two that should and must be made – mainly the fact that Manning stresses that such principles of conduct are ‘situationally applied’, which of course suggests that ‘police culture’ is not always necessarily influential to an officer’s conduct. Some officers can and do hold a certain level of professionalism when taking to the streets and any values which may corrupt such professionalism remains behind closed doors in the company of their colleagues only. Yet Reiner’s provided definition suggests that the police culture remains with the police officer when they take to the streets and he/she then enforces the informal rules which have been established with their fellow colleagues, which generalises that all police officers act in accordance to the ‘police culture’ . However what must be taken from both definitions is that there is reason to suggest that there is a network of a shared set of norms and values within police forces which could potentially have an effect on how they operate in a working environment.

What also must be stressed is that there is also a distinction between the terms ‘police culture’ or ‘cop culture’ (as it’s otherwise known) and ‘canteen culture’ which is another concept which crops up time and time again in countless criminology texts. ‘Canteen culture’, as mentioned by Waddington (1999), is understood to be the norms and values held by police officers whilst off-duty, whereas ‘police culture’ is the norms and values which are expressed during the course of their occupational lives (Waddington 1999 cited by Crank 2004: 16-17) Newburn (2007) also makes this a key point by explaining that there is a common tendency to assume that what police choose to say and how they choose to act when off-duty is not only indicative of how police officers think, but also how they act in public. (Newburn 2007: 216) Yet Waddington has a problem with such assumptions, as he claims that this is not the case all of the time. The way officers’ act and the views they hold whilst off-duty, whether in the pub with friends or work colleagues is but a “safety valve to release the pressures of the realities of life as a police officer” (Waddington quoted by Newburn 2007: 618) Such an argument claims that in experiencing somewhat controversial views outside of the working sphere, a person is opened up to new perspectives which sociologists such as Waddington would argue helps to avoid them from being over-exposed to a particular ideology which could then influence the way in which they carry out their duties. But what also must be considered is just how valid Waddington’s argument actually is. Yes, of course in some instances exposure to different attitudes and values can be beneficial to an officer in terms of becoming more aware of the possibility of potential new threats, but there are also some officers who would then, due to any extreme views which they may have been subjected to, may target an individual or a group of people because of the stereotypes attached to such persons and not because of genuine suspicion.

‘Police culture’, it is claimed by Reiner (1992) has many characteristics in which it can be identified with, with ‘suspicion’ being just one of them. Suspicion is an absolute necessity in the police force as it is suspicion that helps the police prevent crimes from occurring and therefore everyday working experiences encourage officers to generalise people into particular labels, whether or not this is a legitimate way to suspect possible offenders (Reiner cited by Newburn 2007: 618). Unfortunately there is a strong link between suspicion and ethnicity, with ethnic minorities suspected to engage in criminal activity more than people of white ethnic origin. The 2005/2006 Home Office statistics relating to police searches provide a great example for this. In interpreting the results of stop and search practices, 15.4% of the entire UK Black community were stopped under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE Code A) in comparison to only 1.6% of the entire white population. This discrimination however doesn’t just end with the police; it branches out into other areas of the criminal justice system such as the prison service. Genders & Player in (1989) claimed that prison officers sometimes use active stereotypes and labels to help order their working environments by predicting inmate behaviour in order to maintain authority at all times. Prisoners within the ethnic minority demographic were perceived as having a ‘chip on their shoulder’, as they felt they were being victims of racial persecution and thus the officers paid more attention to monitoring their behaviour.

Arguably the most problematic characteristic of a ‘police culture’ in terms of the impact it has on police and community relations is the element of ‘racial prejudice’. One of the most notable examples of racial prejudices derives within the Macpherson Report (1999), arguably the most notable report in criminology, which followed the death of black teenager Stephen Lawrence. The report found that the police were ‘institutionally racist’ after discovering that police were ignoring crucial evidence to the investigation and were displaying discrimination in the interviewing process of suspects – suggesting that it was black on black crime, despite Lawrence’s friend (an eye witness) being adamant that it was a racially motivated murder. Despite the findings of the report and the provisions set out to try and avoid the recurrence of racial controversy within the police, there is evidence to claim minority ethnic recruitment still remains low and there are still continuing problems in terms of police relations with ethnic minorities (Croall 2011: 221-222). The aftermath of the Macphereson Report proved that institutional racism was still rife in police recruitment centres, as four years onwards a BBC documentary titled ‘Secret Policeman’ was aired which centred on the police recruitment centre, Bruche which was located just outside of Warrington. Consequently after the footage of the documentary went public, the centre was forced to close so as to not further damage the reputation of the police. New police training systems were also introduced nationwide to try and expel racism from the police force as a result of the documentary. (The Observer 2004)

How officers are socialised is of another great significance. The next characteristic of a ‘police culture’ is the degree of solidarity, and it is this element which although is reinforced in numerous police forces, it is an aspect which is initially developed between candidates during the recruitment stages. Due to the intense nature of the job including the long hours which officers are required to work, the intensity of some of the work and the expectation of being the ones to prevent social decline, officers are encouraged to bond strongly and they learn to rely on one another, and as such tend to develop an ‘us-against-them’ attitude. This resulting mentality, in some situations, leads to not officers making pacts with one another in which they agree not to ‘grass’ on fellow officers for any discrepancies that they might have witnessed whilst on duty. This is more commonly known as ‘The Blue Code of Silence’. Just like any other subculture, in order to ensure cooperation and commitment to the Blue Code, a ‘tribal value system’ is implemented which makes ‘police culture’ sort of like a family structure in which members of the system will receive emotional support and security from the other officers upon requirement. Several police departments worldwide have been found to have followed the Blue Code, probably most notably was a New York police department which the Mollen Commission reported were to be covering up infringements of their officers. In such case where an officer was to break the Code, then his/her reputation and essentially his career too would be ruined as he/she would then be ostracised and labelled a ‘whistleblower’ and thus it is the threat of this tarnished reputation that encourages the officer to obey the unwritten rules. (Loftus 2009: 14)

Accusations of excessive force by members of the police force are far from uncommon, particularly in America. And it is the use of excessive for which Manning (1970) claims is a perfect example of police culture and how it can have a negative influence on the way officers carry out their duties. (Manning 1970 cited by Crank 2004: 107) However, excessive force is not detected in all cases. Victims of police brutality may feel that the odds are stacked against them in filing a complaint to an officer’s superiors and are thus reluctant to do so and may feel that even if a complaint is acknowledged and results in a court case, the judge and jury would overlook excessive force as the perceived perspective would be that the victim shouldn’t have gotten his/herself in a position in which the use of force was needed in the first place and thus the consequences of their anti-social behaviour was deserved. Yet with that said, there are of course examples where the victim of police brutality are non-deserving of such treatment and thus the police force as a whole have come under criticism despite it being a minority of officers that participate in such excessive violence. For example a British police constable, PC Simon Harwood, was charged with the manslaughter of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests in 2009. Tomlinson was finding another route home after his usual route was blocked by the protests when he was struck by PC Harwood with a baton and then pushed to the ground – Tomlinson fatally collapsed and an autopsy revealed the cause of death was a heart attack, which the actions of PC Harwood where no doubt a triggering factor. PC Harwood was acquitted of manslaughter, which only strengthens the argument mentioned previously that the courts are sympathetic to the police when the question of reasonable/excessive force is raised. However, it must be stressed that many police forces do have provisions in place to deal with any complaints of unacceptable behaviour regarding their employees in which inquiries will be carried out and, if found guilty, the officer in question may be reprimanded, suspended or permanently dismissed depending on the circumstances. Also, as in the case of PC Harwood they may also, if necessary, face criminal prosecution or at the very least face a civil hearing if the victim wishes to sue for damages caused by the officer’s ill-considered actions.

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But how are the police able to ‘get away’ with these kinds of infringements? Again, it all relates back ‘The Blue Code of Silence’. As already mentioned earlier in the essay, officers of some police forces claim ignorance of any wrongdoings of their work partners and in some cases, they ‘testily’ which is typically an American slang term for when an officer gives false testimony in court. Relating back to the tribal values, not participating in activities such as ‘testilying’ would lead to an officer being shunned and sometimes even harassed to the point of retirement as they aren’t assisting their ‘family’ members, in effect betraying their own kind.

In 1994, the Mollen Commission found that some officers within the NYPD fabricated crucial documents such as arrest reports and warrants and some officers were found to have falsified witness statements for the purposes of manipulating the jury as they felt that an accused individual deserved it. This is particularly common in cases of ‘bad character’ in which an accused has had a history of offences but has escaped punishment. Although corrupt as it is, ‘testilying’ is merely seen as another way of getting the job done. 

In conclusion, there is a huge interest towards ‘police culture’ due to the impact it can and sometimes does have on society. if it is to have an influence on the way the police go about their work. The police hold a massively important role to society as they are a visible symbol of law and order and are granted various powers such as those which enable them to arrest members of the public who they feel prove a threat to the rest of society. Although most officers do operate in a reasonable manner, it is generally the actions of the minority which enable the public to misconceive that all officers are bigoted and aggressive. Such generalisations lead to a mass distrust of the police and tensions then begin to occur between the police and their publics. You only need to look at the summer riots of 2011 (which were reported to have been sparked by an officer’s seemingly unauthorised use of deadly force on a suspect) to see just how damaging poor police-community relations can be to the police’s image as a social institution.


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