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Police Culture

Organizational integrity systems, including integrity systems for police organizations, rely heavily on the members of organizations to report the ethical misconduct of their colleagues and, in the case of criminal offenses, to be prepared to provide sworn evidence against them (Miller et al. 2006; Miller and Blackler 2005; Miller 2010).[1] Historically, police officers have been very reluctant to “rat” on their corrupt colleagues, and this reluctance has been explained in large part in terms of police culture (Reiner 1985: Chap. 2) and, specifically, the above-mentioned “blue wall of silence (Kleinig 2001; Skolnick 2002)”.

Police culture is a complex phenomenon and one much-commented on. Moreover, we need to distinguish the sociological description of police culture from the ethical or, more broadly, normative analysis of it. According to Robert Reiner, a sense of “mission” is a defining characteristic of police: “it’s a sect, it’s like a religion, the police force”, “you’re ‘ordained’ as a policeman, so to speak” (Reiner 1985: 245); “it is important in understanding police work that it is seen as a mission, a worthwhile enterprise, not just another job” (Reiner 1985: 85); “The core of the police outlook is this subtle and complex intermingling of the themes of mission, hedonistic love of action and pessimistic cynicism” (Reiner 1985: 91).

Brian Chapman (1970) refers to Balzac’s notion of policing as the noblest profession, because in their person police play the roles of soldier, priest, and artist. But Chapman suggests there are moral dangers associated with these roles:

The policeman like the civil servant, the judge and the soldier is preconditioned to accept the doctrine of the golden end, the doctrine of the Jesuits, the raison d’etre of the health of the Republic, of St Ignatius, of Bismark and of Gaugin. The policeman like the soldier does not flinch from force, since contact with violence, as well as with human stupidity, is part of his professional life. The danger inherent in this doctrine for the policeman is that, if unchallenged, in the end the soldier may have to sacrifice the women and children, the priest the Jews, and the artist his family (Chapman 1970: 103).

Social scientists have documented how police officers inducted into a police culture of this sort can begin to see many of the situations that they confront as so-called Dirty Harry scenarios, as we saw in Chap. 3. The point to be stressed here is a variant on the one made by Chapman above, namely, the inherent potential of this police sense of mission to lead police to believe that at least on some occasions they can disregard, or even think that they are somehow above, the law.

As noted earlier, a feature of police culture is the strong sense of loyalty felt by police officers to one another. Police work is inherently dangerous and requires a high level of cooperation and trust, particularly among street police. So it is unsurprising that police culture is characterized in part by a strong sense of solidarity among police officers. Moreover, at least in many large metropolitan police services, this solidarity goes hand in glove with an “us versus them” mentality in respect of both the public and police management. The public are often thought by police to misunderstand, dislike, and/or fear the police; after all, it is the public who are being policed and in urban crime-ridden areas it may be difficult for the police to separate offenders from ordinary law-abiding citizens. Police managers are often thought by street police to be unsupportive, untrustworthy, and punitive; after all, it is the managers who are policing the police and in police organizations with an acknowledged corruption problem street police are likely to be especially distrustful of the police managers who are under political pressure to be seen to be doing something about the corruption.

Numerous inquiries into police corruption have noted that police officers typically expect other police officers not to report them, even when they have engaged in criminal acts and notwithstanding the legal requirement that they do so. This “blue wall of silence” depends in part on the feelings of loyalty that I have been describing. Perhaps it also draws support from the feeling among many police officers that at times they are justified in breaking the law, whether by failing to report corruption or by engaging in (at least) noble cause corruption. Many police officers interviewed in the aforementioned Victoria Police study said that they would be very reluctant to report a minor assault by a police officer on an offender if the offender had been provocative or had otherwise “deserved it”, notwithstanding that the assault in question was a criminal act (Miller et al. 2008; Kleinig 2001; Skolnick 2002).

Police solidarity can often be a virtue. It enables officers to cooperate with one another and to stand solid in the face of danger, for example, to successfully discharge their responsibilities in relation to crowd control or when two police officers “on the beat” confront a violent offender. It also reinforces the individual capacity for physical courage, including a preparedness to die in the service of others. And it generates a willingness to help other police when they most need help. But such solidarity can also be a vice. Historically, in many police organizations solidarity has manifested itself in a willingness to elevate organizational interests above those of the public, including by tolerating corruption in the ranks. Notoriously, police have engaged in cover-ups of the crimes of fellow officers. Such cover-ups represent examples of the immorality that solidarity can bring about.

As mentioned earlier, one dimension of police culture is the schism between street cops and management cops and, more specifically, between street cops and internal affairs investigators (Reuss-Ianni and Ianni 1983). This aspect of police culture can have profound implications for the effectiveness of the police organization. If there is an “us-them” attitude between lower and upper echelon employees, an organization is hardly likely to perform at optimum levels of efficiency and effectiveness. For example, it is conducive to a punitive culture in which minor ethical misconduct on the part of subordinates, once exposed, is harshly punished—often following an internal affairs investigation in the service of a police management hell-bent on demonstrating a tough anti-corruption stance to its political masters and the public at large—when a remedial/development response would be far more appropriate. Naturally, such a punitive culture reinforces the “blue wall of silence”, particularly among lower echelon police officers.

It might be argued in response to this, and by way of supporting punitive management action, that it is often very difficult to convict experienced police officers of serious forms of corruption. They have a thorough knowledge of criminal law and police investigative methods, and the evidentiary threshold for conviction—that is, beyond reasonable doubt—is high. Accordingly, the argument runs, management may need to settle for less and should do so. Hence it is allegedly justifiable to relentlessly pursue, and harshly punish, officers for relatively minor ethical misconduct, that is, non-criminal, disciplinary matters. After all, they are known to have committed serious criminal offences—albeit this cannot be proven—and the evidentiary threshold (for example, on the balance of probabilities) is much lower for disciplinary matters; so success is far more likely.

This argument is highly problematic. For one thing, in the absence of good evidence, the supposed “knowledge” on the part of management or internal affairs investigators of the corrupt activities of certain officers is questionable; accordingly, there is a real danger of taking excessively punitive action against officers who are innocent or who have at most engaged in minor ethical misconduct. For another thing, even in the case of those officers who are engaged in criminal activity, disciplinary action that is short of termination does not remove the problem. Indeed, it may exacerbate it, for example, by alerting the officers in question to the fact that they are under scrutiny.

Although the structure, purpose, and culture of an institution provide a framework within which individuals act, these dimensions do not fully determine the actions of individuals. There are a number of reasons for this. For one thing, rules and regulations cannot cover every contingency that might arise, and laws, norms, and ends need to be interpreted and applied. For another thing, culture is not necessarily fully determinative of action, or even the dominant factor in play. Not only is there available space within the institutional framework and occupational culture for a degree of individual autonomy, but also changing circumstances and unforeseeable problems make it desirable to vest individuals, including individual police officers, with discretionary powers.

Notwithstanding the malign influence of certain aspects of police culture in many police organizations, the moral courage of individual police officers can enable them to resist encroachments on the exercise of their autonomy. The image of a pervasive, monolithic, and dominant attitude and action determining culture is only ever partly true. Moreover, there is a range of responses to the malevolent aspects of police culture, including reducing the opportunities for corruption and introducing an elaborate system of detection and deterrence. As discussed above, such responses constitute part of the overall integrity system. However, they are not sufficient.

For as argued above, reliance on detection and deterrence alone bypasses the issue of moral responsibility which lies at the heart of corruption. In the last analysis the only force strong enough to resist corruption is the moral sense—the motivating belief in doing what is right and avoiding doing what is wrong. If most police officers do not for the most part have a motivating belief in avoiding doing what is illegal or otherwise immoral, no system of detection and deterrence, no matter how extensive and elaborate, can possibly suffice to control corruption.

Again, as earlier argued, the motivating belief among police officers in doing what is right can be reinforced by ensuring a just system of rewards and penalties within the police organization itself and reinforced by ensuring an appropriate system of command and control. Moreover, the belief in doing what is right can be reinforced by ensuring that ethical issues in police work, including the ethical ends of policing itself, are matters of ongoing discussion and reflection in training programs and the like.

The belief in doing what is right can be reinforced by utilizing the intrinsically collective nature of policing, and, in particular, by stressing that police officers are collectively responsible for controlling corruption. The collective effort to ensure that the fundamental ends of policing are pursued will contribute to their internalization by police officers. More important, such a collective effort will ensure that police officers identify with those ends so that self-respect, as well as the respect of others, depends on the pursuit of those ends and on opposition to corruption. This amounts to a change in police culture, but not one that is at the expense of loyalty per se or of the commitment to cooperation and assistance to fellow officers that underpins it.

Of course, it is one thing to provide a coherent account of what police culture ought to be, and quite another to change it and, specifically, to break down the “blue wall of silence” and bring about a culture that is intolerant of corruption and encourages professional reporting of corruption. However, the provision of such a coherent normative account is a necessary first step, and designing the various elements of an integrity system—including reduction of opportunities, accountability mechanisms, ethics education programs—is an important second step.

An important aspect of the process of developing a culture that is intolerant of corruption involves rationality, as opposed to morality or legality. I suggest that developing such a culture presupposes that the conditions exist under which it is rational for individual police officers to report their corrupt colleagues, and not simply deemed to be legally or morally obligatory for them to do so. It is this issue that I explore in the final section with particular reference to the relationship between professional reporting and internal affairs investigations.

  • [1] Earlier versions of the material in this section appeared in Miller et al. (2006: Chap. 9), Miller andBlackler (2005: Chap. 5), Miller (1998, 2010).
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