Section 5.3: Police Culture

Fundamentals of Policing by Adam J. McKee

Have you ever thought about how being a police officer can change a person? Before they join the police force, people have their own unique ways of thinking and doing things. But once they become officers, there’s a strong culture that starts to shape who they are, both at work and in their personal lives.

In the world of policing, there’s a special kind of culture that has both good and not-so-good aspects. On one hand, people sometimes see this culture negatively. They think it’s about being overly tough, developing a sort of “us against them” mindset, and being cynical. But, it’s not all negative.

On the positive side, police officers share some really important values. They believe in teamwork, supporting each other, and showing empathy. These values are super helpful in their challenging and emotional work. They create a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood among officers, encouraging them to be brave and ready to take risks to protect one another.

Identity Transformation

When someone becomes a police officer, their professional identity becomes a big part of who they are. This strong police culture can sometimes make officers feel like they’re different from other people, even from who they were before joining the force. In this culture, many officers think and act in similar ways.

The Roots and Effects of Police Culture

This section of our book takes a deep dive into how this police culture came to be. It especially looks at a time called the reform era of policing. We explore how the structure of police departments and various changes have shaped this unique culture

Reflect 🔍

How do you think being part of a strong culture, like that of the police, might change a person? What are the pros and cons of such a culture?

Understanding Organizational Structure

What is Organizational Structure?

Have you ever wondered how a company or any organization is set up? That’s what we call organizational structure. It’s like a blueprint that shows how different parts of an organization fit together.

The Framework of an Organization

Think of organizational structure as a puzzle. Each piece of the puzzle is a part of the organization, and how these pieces are arranged is what we’re talking about. It’s not just about who works where, but also about who has the power to make decisions and who is responsible for what tasks.

More Than Just a Chart

While you might first think of an organizational chart, where you see who reports to whom, it’s more than that. This structure is the backbone of how an organization runs. It connects the goals and policies of the organization with the actual work that needs to be done.

In simple terms, it’s a design that matches the methods (means), the work (activities), and the goals (ends) of an organization. It’s like a well-thought-out plan that makes sure everything in the organization works smoothly and efficiently.

The Role of Structure in Achieving Goals

The way an organization is structured plays a big role in how well it can reach its goals. Just like a well-organized closet makes it easier to find your clothes, a well-structured organization makes it easier for everyone to do their jobs effectively.

Reflect 🔍

Why do you think the structure of an organization is important? How might a well-designed structure help an organization achieve its goals?

Exploring Organizational Culture

What is Organizational Culture?

In the last ten years, experts have started paying more attention to something called organizational culture. Think of it as the unique personality of an organization – the special way everyone in a company or group thinks and acts that sets them apart from other groups.

The Invisible Backbone of an Organization

Organizational culture is like the invisible rules or vibes in a workplace. It’s not written down, but everyone just knows it. This culture is made up of three key things:

  1. Artifacts: These are things you can see, like the building’s design or the technology used.
  2. Espoused Values: These are the beliefs that explain why people in the organization act a certain way.
  3. Basic Underlying Assumptions: These are deep-seated beliefs that influence how members of the organization think, feel, and see the world.

The Characteristics of Organizational Culture

Organizational culture has four main features:

  1. Stable and Hard to Change: It’s like an old tree with deep roots; moving it isn’t easy.
  2. Taken for Granted: People in the organization might not even realize they’re following these cultural rules.
  3. Meaningful to Its Members: The culture gets its flavor from the people in the organization.
  4. Shared Understandings: Everyone in the organization shares certain common ideas and ways of seeing things.

The Impact of Culture on an Organization

The culture of an organization really shapes how its members act and how they do their jobs. It’s like a mirror that reflects the traditions and ways of the organization. Changing this culture is tough because it’s so ingrained and stable – it’s part of the organization’s DNA.

Reflect 🔍

Why do you think organizational culture is important? How can a strong and positive culture influence the success of an organization?

The Historical Context

The Influence of Culture in Police Departments

The culture of a police department is like a guiding force. It shapes everything from how officers are recruited, to the policies they follow, the training they receive, and how they act when enforcing the law. Every police department has its own culture, but the big question is whether this culture is created on purpose or just happens by accident.

Different Perspectives on Use of Force

Imagine two different police departments. In one, using force is rare, so when it does happen, it’s a big deal. This reflects their culture where force is seen as unusual. On the other hand, another department might not think using force is out of the ordinary. They might not have clear rules or ways to look into incidents where force is used. In this case, officers might see using force as a normal way to solve problems.

The Critical Issue of Deadly Force

One major problem that really affects how the community sees the police, especially in communities of color, is the use of deadly force. This has been an issue for a long time, but it’s only recently that it’s gotten a lot of public attention. This is all tied to the overall culture of the police. Before a big court case in 1985, Tennessee v. Garner, many police departments didn’t focus much on valuing human life. Their main focus was on enforcing the law, and they had practices like firing warning shots or shooting at people running away.

The Evolving Culture and Its Effects

The culture of a police department really matters. It affects how well the department works, how officers see their roles, and how they think about the people they’re supposed to serve. The key is whether the culture encourages solving problems without violence.

Historically, the culture in police departments has reflected what society believes. For example, studies from the 1940s showed that police behavior often mirrored the racism common in society back then, especially towards African Americans. This suggests that new police officers probably had the same biases as the rest of society.

But as society changes, so do police departments. Nowadays, there’s more focus on ethics and bringing in people from diverse backgrounds. Some experts think that new recruits start with strong ethical beliefs, but others argue that the culture they find in police training might change these beliefs for the worse. This ongoing discussion shows how important the culture in a police department is, affecting how officers behave and what they think.

Reflect 🔍

How do you think the culture of a police department impacts the behavior of its officers and its relationship with the community? Can you think of ways to positively influence this culture?

Understanding a Closed Police Culture

The Impact of Police Work on Social Connections

When someone becomes a police officer, their job can really change their social life. Over time, many officers start to spend less time with their old friends. This often happens because they get tired of hearing complaints about traffic tickets or other negative experiences with the police. As a result, officers might pull away from their community and get closer to their colleagues in the police world, who really understand what their job is like.

The “Police Society” and Its Challenges

This situation creates what we call the “police society.” It’s like an exclusive club where officers mostly interact with each other. This can lead to some problems. For one, it reinforces narrow views because officers are mostly talking to people who think and act like they do. This can contribute to violent encounters with citizens. It also makes it really hard to investigate complaints about police using too much force.

Balancing the Good and the Bad

The police profession needs to reach a point where using violence is not the go-to solution among officers. When violence does happen, it’s important that officers help out in the investigation honestly and fairly. But it’s not all negative. Being part of a close-knit work group has its benefits, too. When trying to fix the bad parts of this closed culture, we have to be careful not to lose the good parts, like the strong support among officers.

Reflect 🔍

How can a closed culture within a police department affect its relationship with the community? What steps can be taken to maintain the positive aspects of a close-knit police group while addressing the negative impacts of this culture?

The Socialization Journey of Police Officers

The Path to Becoming a Police Officer

The journey of becoming a police officer often starts way before any formal training. For many, it’s a dream that begins in childhood. This isn’t just about picking a job; it’s about following a calling that reflects their deepest values and beliefs. Once these individuals join the police force, their training becomes a key doorway into the world of police subculture.

Training: The Gateway to Police Culture

New recruits are usually trained by experienced officers, who might still be on the job or recently retired. This training is super important. It’s where recruits learn the norms, values, and behaviors that make up the life of a police officer. This early stage sets the groundwork for their future roles and responsibilities.

More Than Tests and Physical Training

Becoming a police officer is about more than passing exams and being physically fit. It’s a transformation. Recruits come with their own ideas and ideals, which get shaped and aligned with the police subculture during training. Many arrive already in tune with what it means to be a police officer, often matching the values of the policing community. This isn’t by chance; it’s a kind of self-selection. People drawn to policing usually have a strong sense of justice, a desire to serve and protect, and a love for structure and discipline. Training hones these traits and blends them into the larger law enforcement community.

Selecting the Right Traits for Policing

The selection of new officers isn’t just about physical and intellectual abilities. It’s also about spotting and nurturing the natural qualities that fit the police ethos. Studies suggest that these qualities often exist in recruits even before they start their police training. The ‘police personality’ isn’t just created through training; it’s an extension of who these people already are. The best officers are often those whose personal values and traits match the core principles of policing, even before they wear the uniform.

Evolving Police Subculture and Training Influence

Police subculture can change to mirror society’s norms, moving from negative to positive aspects. The socialization of officers, including formal training and informal peer influence, is crucial in shaping their professional identities.

Field Training Officers (FTOs) play a big role in this. They need to really represent the organization’s values to avoid confusing new recruits. Police leaders should keep an eye on how well FTOs stick to department values, how they handle conflicts, their community engagement, and what the training focuses on. Understanding these aspects can reveal where improvements are needed in training new officers. Constantly refining this socialization process is key for police leadership.

Reflect 🔍

Considering the importance of early training and socialization in shaping a police officer’s approach to their role, what qualities do you think are most important for Field Training Officers to have? How can this influence the overall culture of a police department?

Creating a Positive Culture in Police Departments

The Challenge of Building a Positive Police Culture

Every police department has its own culture, but changing it can be tough. It usually happens slowly. To start shaping a positive culture, the Community Relations Service of the Department of Justice suggests making a clear, written list of values. These values help guide the department’s philosophy, goals, policies, and actions.

Setting Core Values

The first thing to do is to create a list of values that are short but meaningful. These values should reflect what the department sees as most important. For example, if the goal is to focus on being service-oriented, the values should show this. The police chief has a big job in sharing these values throughout the department, using both official and casual ways of communication.

Reflecting the Community in Departmental Values

It’s a good idea for each police department to have its own set of values that mirror its community. While there’s a general list of values to start from, it’s important to tweak these to fit local needs. This process can begin with every member of the department sharing what they think are the most important values. This helps build a consensus and a solid base for the department’s values.

These values should include things like:

  • Preserving democracy
  • Valuing human life above all
  • Making crime prevention a priority
  • Involving the community in police work
  • Being accountable to the community
  • Staying committed to professionalism
  • Keeping high standards of integrity
  • Being adaptable to changes in society

Values as a Guiding Light

By clearly defining its values, a police department sets a roadmap for how it operates and stays flexible. It also helps the community understand and evaluate how the department is doing. This set of values bridges the gap between what the department does and how the community is involved and understands its work.

Reflect 🔍

Why is it important for a police department to have a clear set of values? How can these values influence the behavior of police officers and the perception of the department within the community?


In our journey through the world of policing, we delve into the unique culture and structure that define a police department. Let’s take a closer look at how being a part of the police force can shape an officer’s identity and how the organization itself is put together.

The Culture in Blue: Picture being a police officer as stepping into a new world with its own rules and vibes. This world has good parts, like a strong sense of brotherhood and sisterhood, where officers have each other’s backs, believe in teamwork, and show empathy. But there’s also a challenging side, where sometimes officers feel like it’s them against the rest of the world. It’s not just about wearing a uniform; it’s about how this culture, with its mix of good and tough aspects, starts to shape who officers are, both at work and at home.

Policing as a Puzzle: Now, think of a police department like a big puzzle. Every piece represents a person or a job, and how these pieces fit together is the organizational structure. It’s not just about who’s the boss and who follows orders. It’s about how everyone works together to make things run smoothly, from making big decisions to handling daily tasks. This structure is the backbone of the department, linking their goals and actions in a well-thought-out way.

Change and Challenges: As society changes, so do police departments. They’ve started focusing more on things like ethics and diversity. But changing the culture within a department isn’t easy; it’s deeply rooted, like an old tree with strong branches. The way officers are trained and brought into this culture is super important. They learn the norms and values of being an officer, which shapes their way of thinking and acting.

So, as we explore the world of policing, we see how culture and structure play crucial roles. From the way officers view their jobs to how a department runs, everything is influenced by these underlying themes. It’s a world that’s constantly evolving, adapting to new challenges and societal changes.

Key Terms

References and Further Reading


Modification History

File Created:  08/15/2018

Last Modified:  12/17/2023

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

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License

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