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Police cultures

Article on police cultures.
Policeman on duty
© University of York

The rules of policing only tell part of the story of how police work though. PACE is a set of rules, but the issues which it was intended to address did not arise solely by virtue of an absence of rules. As with any organisation, what happens there is informed by the cultures of the organisation – that is, its informal practices, norms and assumptions – as well as the relevant rules.

I mentioned in a previous video that there is a lot of discretion built into the rules of policing, and so how that discretion is exercised must be informed by something other than just the rules. This is where culture comes in.

There is no single culture of policing – better to think of ‘cultures’ in the plural – after all, police do all kinds of different jobs, depending on their specific role and rank. But researchers claim to have identified a set of features of police culture among ‘rank and file’ officers. These are discussed by Loftus, in one of the more recent books on police culture. They include:

  • A sense that the key function of policing is fighting crime. This can lead to a lower level of commitment to work which does not fit within this concept and a sense that other aspects of the job may be of lower status.

  • Reliance on stereotypes, and prejudice. Rank and file police culture has been described as conforming to a macho stereotype, in which some women officers and gay men may struggle to fit in. Police culture has also been criticised for its racialised dimension, which leads to difficulties for officers from minority ethnic groups, and which also leads to overpolicing of minority ethnic communities.

  • Cynicism and suspicion. Police work involves dealing with people who may have done bad things, who may be untruthful, or who may be in difficulty. This can lead to a jaded attitude to the world and can reinforce the reliance on stereotypes. Cynicism can also be directed towards ‘management’ , who are insulated from the ‘dirty work’ of policing, and towards the criminal justice system in general, which might be seen to be lenient and out of touch.

  • Insularity and solidarity. A range of conditions can engender high levels of team solidarity among officers. These include the shift system and working patterns, and the high levels of mutual reliance, sometimes in dangerous situations. This solidarity can also involve an ‘us’ and ‘them’ type insularity in which police view themselves as guardians of social order, protecting the ‘deserving’ from the depredations of the ‘undeserving’.

Some of the research which led to these findings is quite old now, and Loftus notes that these conclusions need to be examined carefully. It is also important to note that it might not be sufficient simply to claim that these are features of ‘rank and file’ culture. Rank and file cultural norms do not arise in isolation. They may be informed both by other cultures within policing (e.g., from management and senior ranks, who may be setting targets which reinforce certain cultural norms); and by norms within society more broadly (e.g., the overpolicing of minority ethnic young men is not simply a product of police prejudice, but is a refection of broader social inequalities).


Bethan Loftus (2009) Police Culture in a Changing World Oxford University Press

© University of York
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