This paper explores the culture of the police department’s in this country and gives a better understanding on how they are affected and how they affect the communities. It will explore the past and present cultures and some different ways they have changed.
The police culture is a very unique subject and is often skewed by the person telling the story. In this paper we find out some interesting facts about police departments and how they operate. We will look into the some positive aspects of police culture as well as some of the negatives.
Understanding Police Culture
It does seem as if there is a police culture in society today, but it is not easily defined. People have the impression that police officers are frightening. At least, they uphold the law, and it is known that there are many corrupt officers. Indeed, such stories make headlines. But the reality is that police work is accomplished within a unique culture and structure just as a corporate culture exists in any business. Police culture however transcends regional culture and it is not all the same. It has changed over the years.
Many refer to the Blue Wall of silence, something that Serpico broke through some years ago, but one that remains on the front lines in many police departments around the nation. The blue wall comes about in some way because of the authority that exists within the department. In essence, the police officers can get away with looking the other way, which is exactly what the blue wall is. It is a concept that refers to the fact that police officers often cover for the illegal things that their coworkers are doing or better known as “Cops don’t tell on Cops” (Dempsey, Forst pg. 165), and in the end, it is difficult to break through and get to the truth. The idea that officers will cover the other’s back is entrenched in the culture and whistleblowers often are treating negatively. The infamous Serpico did blow the whistle when he went to the New York Times (Dempsey, Forst pg. 25).
First, what is police culture? The idea of police culture is only loosely defined. It came about from a combination of shared norms, values, goals, career patterns, lifestyles, and occupational structures operating under the apparently rigid hierarchical structure which is different from tee combination held by the rest of society (Dempsey, Forst pg. 576). In other words, certain commonalities came to the forefront to define police work and police culture.
The Blue Wall of Silence is simply one factor in evaluating Police culture, but the fact that it exists should not overshadow the overall culture. This camaraderie, and a sense that police officers stick together, is only a part of the police culture. It should be noted that despite the fact that police forces are not connected through the nation—they are local entities—they each contain certain similar protocols. The officers wear uniforms, carry guns, work in a hierarchal organization and embrace certain strict rules. There is little flexibility or leniency in policing, though officers do have some discretion. At least, they do have to follow the law and if they stray, there is a right and wrong answer. Police officers are not creative directors or producers. They follow the rules to the letter of the law and as stated in the mission statement “We will apply the law fairly and ethically, emphasizing quality in everything we do”. This is very much the same as the militaristic view that all rules are to be taken as law, and a superior officer is always right. The same type of setting is found in police stations across America. Yet, some settings are more lenient than others as community policing becomes more popular. Of course, in corrupt departments, the culture is a bit different as some rules are bent to different degrees.
In some way, the hierarchical structure creates a culture on one hand, of perfection or at least an aim towards perfection, but on the other, it creates an atmosphere of unease. Many are aware that those in the military must make their beds perfectly, with no bit of blanket wrinkled. The gun must be cleaned just as well, and any stray from the requirement will likely lead to ridicule or punishment. While police departments may not be that strict, the same attitude is generally present. While in some way, an organization entrenched in perfection is good, there is a drawback: police brutality. It seems that there is a backlash against the powers that be and it comes out in police behaving badly. There are many such cases when officers just snap at the end of a shift and beat a suspect, which is clearly stems from the stress that a police officer endure day in and out, the body has a natural reaction to stress it is known as the “flight-or-fight response” (Dempsey, Forst pg. 169). Police Brutality still exists and over 26,000 cases reported in 2002 according to the Department of Justice (Dempsey, Forst pg. 246).
It seems that the past traditions are somewhat gone, there are other aspects of policing that have faded too. There now seems to be little appreciation among young people regarding the complexity and variety police work can offer, or of skills developed in the course of police work, that can be transferred to other arenas. There is therefore the perception that policing offers limited opportunities. This is true in part because the world is rather specialized and it is often the case that experiences in other professions simply do not transfer easily. At the same time, policing is seen as outside of the scope of the business world. Although this is the case, many police departments are now requiring either college degrees or at least some college, some of the most successful police recruiting operations are in high schools and colleges (Dempsey, Forst pg. 112). It seems that there may be more flexibility in the future for officers in terms of career changes. This in part may be due to increases in educational requirements. Thus, while there are police officers who command large salaries such as on Long Island, New York, it is still considered blue collar work. To some extent, policing is not viewed as part of the general population. Indeed, the officers are a part of the government and not trying to make profit for a company. All of these factors play into the culture.
It should be said that while the traditional police force is militaristic in nature, more and more bureaus have been moving towards community policing. There is a difference in culture between the community police officer and one who is entrenched in the traditional hierarchy. The rigid structure is not aligned with the new culture that many police forces embrace. Clearly, there must be a meld of police culture and the larger culture. Much also depends on whether or not the police station is in Brooklyn or OshKosh. Large cities demand more complex structures and a paramilitaristic feel whereas small towns can cope with an Andy Griffith mentality, at least to an extent. While there is certainly a “police culture” in the United States, and even around the world, the flavor of that culture varies by region. Sometimes, the significance of this is slight, but sometimes it can make a tremendous difference.
Finally, it becomes clear, in examining the history of policing and its changing culture that things are in fact changing. There are fewer police families and there is more ethnic diversity. Today, officers are usually better educated and some command higher salaries than their friends and neighbors in private enterprise. Still, they are in their own business niche and while the blue wall has been disappearing to an extent, it is not completely gone. Obviously, the blue wall which came about due to old forged relationships, arrogance, outside culture and so forth, is fading but not fast enough. The blue wall is still present. Should anything be done about this? It seems that community policing should be encouraged in order to change police culture and create a better future for policing and for the communities at large. Also, attention must be paid to police brutality. At the same time, the positive changes in police culture should be applauded. No drastic changes seem to be necessary.