An occupational culture is a means for coping with the vicissitudes or uncertainties arising routinely in the course of doing a job. An occupational culture is a reduced, selective, and task-based version of culture that includes history and traditions, etiquette and routines, rules, principles, and practices that serve to buffer practitioners from contacts with the public. A kind of lens on the world, it highlights some aspects of the social and physical environment and omits or minimizes others. It generates stories, lore, and legends.

The sources of the occupational culture are the repeated, routinized tasks incumbent on the members, a technology that is variously direct or indirect in its effects (mediated by the organizational structure within which the occupation is done), and the reflexive aspects of talking about these doings. In this sense, an occupational culture reflects not only what is done and how it should (and should not) be done but also idealizations of the work.

An occupational culture is a context within which emotions are regulated and attuned to work routines. As Waddington (1998, 292-93) writes perceptively, the police culture is ”… an expression of common values, attitudes, and beliefs within a police context.” A political economy of emotions, or a distribution of emotions consistent with power, stratification, and control, complements characteristic value configurations and interactional patterns. These, in turn, are a reflection of the fit between the differential exposure of practitioners to work-based contingencies. This creates segments within the occupation.

Clearly, uniformed officers face different contingencies than do detectives, and supervisors differ in their experience from top management. Career success is based in part on skills, in part on politics and networks, as well as on reorganizing and reassembling one’s emotional equipment. The emotional tone of an officer on the street may not suit for the demands of top command. Conversely, failure and status deficits may create a shadow world of invalidated role performers, those who are seen to have achieved their positions by political means. In this drama of work, of course, patterns of rise and fall, of failure, redemption, and renewal are seen. In recent years, these minidramas often surround key figures in sexual miscues, harassment, and discrimination by age, gender, or ethnicity. Such minitragedies, as in any occupation, mark its outer boundaries and provide warning signs and cautionary tales.

Policing is politics by other means. Ironically, as Hughes (1958) points out, an occupational mandate consists of setting aside functions others may not do as well as designating those that the occupation may or must do. As the guardians of order, they are ”dirty workers,” who must do what others may not: enabled to violate the law, they must act violently and intrusively, shoot, maim, and kill. They are also required to rationalize or justify the necessary. Perhaps because it is inherently political in function and origins, policing manifests a turgid and resilient occupational culture.

This culture resides within a police organization constituted by several occupations and specialties. Police officers and others police, while police organizations are the accountable means by which this is accomplished. The occupational culture in the literature often is depicted as that of one segment, the uniformed patrol, while the police organization includes and employs civilians (about 25% of the employees of local police organizations), janitors, cooks, consultants, lawyers and researchers, and other short-term employees. It is also entangled in intraorganizational relations as well as local politics. However, the uniformed police occupational culture shadows and dominates the several occupational groups within the organization, and its values are variously subscribed to by the several occupational groups working within the organization.

Structural Features of American Police Organizations That Divide and Unify the Occupation

The police occupational culture is shaped by five structural features of police organizations. The first is the inspectorial strategy of policing, which deploys a large number of low-ranking officers who are ecologically dispersed to monitor and track citizens in the environment and make complex, difficult decisions, usually alone, with minimal supervision and/or review. The second is the localistic, common-level entry and apprenticeship training pattern of police. In the United States, most officers serve their entire careers in one organization, and only top command officers join as a result of lateral mobility. Officers above superintendent are mobile in the United Kingdom.

The third feature is that the police organization is both fact rich and information poor. The police mission, to penetrate and control problematic environments, leads them to overemphasize secrecy and deception as means of achieving organizational ends. Police information consists of collections of scraps of unintegrated data, quasi-secret and secret intelligence files, an amalgam of outdated context-specific information, and a layered archaeology of knowledge. Although secrecy is not the highest value among officers, it is safe to say that the conditions under which information is shared (rarely) are carefully observed.

The fourth structural feature is that risk (positive and negative consequences of high uncertainty) is associated with policing. These features turn officers inward, away from the public, and laterally to their colleagues for support. The features vary empirically from force to force, and the salience of one or the other may vary by local political context.

The task-role complex of the job differentiates the police and serves to highlight variations within the occupational culture. The core tasks and routines are uncertain and unpredictable. Officers share assumptions about the nature of the work (risky, exciting, worthwhile, ”clinical” in nature) and operate in an environment perceived or created by such work routines and codified definitions of relevant tasks. In urban policing, the cynosure of ”the job” is ”working the streets,” patrol response to radio calls. Boredom, risk, and excitement oscillate unpredictably.

The technology, unrefined people-processing recipes, that is, judgments of officers working with little direct guidance, pattern work, and a rigid rank structure officially organizes authority. Policing is realized within a bureaucratic, rule-oriented, hierarchical structure of command and control on the one hand and a loose confederation of colleagues on the other. The interaction of these factors, tasks, environment, technology, and structure produces characteristic attitudes and an ideology, a set of explanatory beliefs rationalizing the work and its contingencies. The operation of these factors stratifies and differentiates the organization and partitions officers’ experience.

Other structural factors unify police. These include the ideal of shared fate or of occupational unity, an experiential base (all served as officers initially), task dependency (officers rely on each other to accomplish joint tasks), and shared, mutually discrediting secrets. There is also an abiding ideology or mythology about policing that concerns the mandate, the legal and societal obligations, and the role as it is represented in public rhetoric, or ”presentational strategies” (Manning 1997). These unifying factors stand in some tension with the differentiating factors. It should be further emphasized that the values produced are also points of ambivalence and counterpoint and do not form a single integrated whole. Unfortunately, detective work, specialized squads such SWAT teams, and staff functions such as internal affairs are omitted in the descriptive catalogs of the police occupational culture (Reiner 2000; Crank 1998).

An Overview of Studies of the Occupational Culture

The academic view of the police occupational subculture is disproportionately influenced by a handful of studies of American or English uniformed patrol officers serving in large urban areas, and it has been reified by text topic treatments. Although rich ethnographic treatments of policing exist (Banton 1964; Holdaway 1983; Bittner 1990; Rubinstein 1972; Van Maanen 1974; and Simon 1991), the police are often flattened, desiccated, and displayed like insects pinned on a display board. Acute observers have noted the differentiation and segmentalization of policing using role types (Terrill, Paoline, and Manning 2003; Reiner 1992, 130-33), the conceptions of external publics (Reiner 1992,117-21), the distinctive misleading binary subcultures such as a ”street cop culture” and a “management culture” (Punch 1983), and the conflicts within forces based on ethnicity and gender (Foster 2004). Value variations based in part on task differentiation also exist within departments (Jermeir et al. 1991). Other social forces, especially technology, management training, the law, and pressures to produce such as traffic ticket quotas and case clearances in detective work, also impact policing.

Some recent work has worked toward a generalized model of the occupational culture (Klinger 2002; Paoline 2003). Janet Chan’s work (1997) is the most theoretically informed of present work. She takes a complex Bourdieu-influenced perspective, arguing that policing is organized around various forms of knowledge and practice shaped continuously by a habitus or way of being and doing. Waddington (1998) has made the most important distinction in the study of the occupational culture in recent years, noting that the oral culture (see also Shearing and Ericson 1992) and the behavior of officers differs. His review points out the fallacy of generalizations based on talk rather than observation.

New Horizons

Three important changes have taken place in the past twenty years in policing. They suggest both the strength of the occupational culture and its roots. The first is the impact of new information technologies. Technology, especially information technology (IT), has eroded authority and altered police workloads. Although technology has absorbed and transformed some work tasks (such as immediate supervision), ”middle managers” have grown in number and importance in policing. (Due in part to the effects of massive hiring between 1968 and 1975, these officers are now nearing retirement.) Ironically, spawned by paperwork and supervisory duties, these positions, sergeant, inspector, lieutenant, and superintendent, are threatened by the introduction of computer-based formal record-keeping systems. These developments suggest the existence of a management cadre or segment within the occupational culture. It has emerged between the lower participants and senior command officers. It also suggests that in the future a division across ranks will be between those who are computer facile and those who are not.

The second is the impact of female and minority officers. While their attitudes seem to fit closely with their colleagues on survey, closer studies (Morash and Haar 1991) suggest that modes of relating and coping and the stresses faced by female officers differ from males and that this may emerge as a cross-cutting segment unified not by rank but by shared sentiments. It already tightly shapes who interacts with whom and why (Haar 1990).

Finally, the rising educational levels within policing and the growth of suburban departments means that tensions arise between the educated officers and the others, that bias and prejudice exist, and that opportunities for promotion may be compromised not only by union rules but by prejudice against educated officers. The most powerful and systematic research, based on observation, interviews, and surveys done in England in the wake of the McPherson report on the investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, shows that racial/ethnic bias remains very strong and virulent, that it affects promotion and rewards at every level of the force, and that the traditional themes of masculinity, violence, crime fighting, and danger remain thematic and not attributed to people of color and women.

Segmentation of the Nondetective Occupational Culture

A segment is a group of people loosely bound by interaction patterns. In policing, the limits on interaction are tightly drawn around rank, although some interaction occurs laterally via sponsorship of proteges and political ties based on religion, union membership, past links in the academy, and so on. The dominant values of the occupational culture, taken as a whole, are espoused throughout but are most salient in the lower segment, where they find a functional, task-relevant home. The occupational values cohere around the most sacred notion of the occupation: one must display, enact, and maintain them before authority. This is often connected to other general beliefs such as loyalty, honor, patriotism, and duty.

Independence, autonomy, authority, and uncertainty are key values of the police occupational culture. Each of these four values has its opposite: dependence, collective obligations, powerlessness, and certainty. They are in effect paired and dynamic oppositions that take meaning from each other. Kai Erikson (1976, 83) argues that ”… people think or feel different things in the service of an overall pattern of coordination. In the same sense that people contribute different skills and abilities to the organization of work, so they contribute different temperaments and outlooks to the organization of sensibility.” The occupational culture in some ways is a configuration of sentiments and values, core and counterpoint, that are more or less salient from time to time (Shearing and Ericson 1992).

The values are also linked to the structural factors noted above that sustain their reality. The dependence pair is linked to the control mission or mandate of policing, the autonomy pair is linked to the fixed character of the organization’s normal functioning, the authority pair is linked to adversarial encounters, and the final pair, certainty, is animated by the appearance of risk.

Their dynamic relationship surfaces primarily in crises in which the veneer of authority is shattered, the public performance is threatened or collapses, or the officer is embarrassed or fails to fill role requirements. In these situations, the officer reflects, and draws on the occupational perspective for support and clarification. The residual of these encounters and their ambiguous outcomes is the basis for the narrative or storytelling that reinforces and renews the culture. The culture rises and falls in salience and does not remain a lens through which the world is always viewed.

Lower Participants

The ”lower participant” segment is composed of officers and sergeants. Sergeants, like foremen in factories, interact in both segments and are occasionally caught between them. Organized in narrative form, the values connect in the following way. The uniformed officer works in an uncertain environment in which choice, action, and decision are emphasized, in which the veneer of objectively guided decision making is essential, and in which an often tenuous authority frequently must be asserted with strangers in public. The officer is routinely dependent on fellow officers and the public to maintain a credible performance of authoritative assertions and action, yet the occupation emphasizes autonomy. While dependent, the officer must act authoritatively and without full knowledge of the facts or the consequences of potential actions. An underlying premise is that a neutral emotional tone is to be maintained, and the body, its posture, gestures, shape, and performance, are to be ready.

Working class culture, from which most police are recruited, supplies the most frequently noted emblems, or symbols, that collapse attitudes and practices into valuations of action characterizing policing. Thus, emphases upon individual control of situations, toughness, machismo, hedonism, deprecation of paperwork and abstraction, concrete language, and description are working class values. Officers ”at the coal face” or ”in the trenches” appear to exchange a degree of organizational autonomy to maintain a working class style. There are other visible signs of membership in this segment. Patrol officers, for example, unlike ranks above sergeants and including sergeants in some departments, may acquire overtime for court appearances, work rotating shifts, and wear a uniform and receive a uniform allowance, unless assigned to staff or detective work temporarily.

Lower participants generally emphasize dependence, autonomy, authority, and uncertainty. The latent function of these emphases is to suppress the equally powerful potential, evidence that suggests that police officers are often dependent upon and obligated to others, powerless, or are least relatively powerless, and quite clear and certain about the contours of their work.

The four value themes for the lower participants can be clustered into two metathemes: (l) ”the job,” an index of the interrelated themes of (job) dependency and autonomy, and (2) ”real police work,” an index combining authority and uncertainty in relationships with the public.

The Middle Management Segment

This segment is composed of officers in the ranks sergeant, lieutenant, inspector, chief inspector, and superintendent, or their equivalents. Stereotypically, their style portends an authoritative presence. They are in effect bureaucrats with guns. They walk, talk, and react as managers and persons whose authority rests on their verbosity, good humor, and ability to communicate in writing and verbally. Bodily skill is rarely required of managers. Officers in this segment perform their roles variously, depending on their orientation toward promotion, economic gain, or organizational change. They have achieved a desired rank, and some hope for promotion or transfer (into a detective or specialized unit, for example). Technological developments make management skill a likely consideration for promotion, for example, attending night school for an MBA rather than seeking a law degree.

Like other ”white collar” workers, they are a middle mass with shared tenuous mutual identification, although they may have a separate union. This segment is likely to be riven with cliques (upwardly oriented groups) and cabals (groups resistant to change) and linked by interaction networks with other officers. Organizational politics, both of careers and of the top command, is a keen interest and concern of middle managers. Computer-assisted dispatch, management information systems, computer-based records, and crime analysis applications have altered their workloads (although not necessarily increased them). Symbolically located between command and other officers, they must adapt to organizational realities. They rarely earn overtime and work shifts if not assigned to staff positions. They generally wear uniforms, usually without the jacket since they work ”inside,” and are provided with a uniform allowance. Their claims for occupational prestige are aligned either up or down: toward administrative officers or those on the street.

Middle management officers emphasize independence and collective obligations to form the metatheme (3) ”politics” (of the job or the occupation, oriented partially to internal and partially to external audiences), while the twin themes of authority and certainty (the need to control contingencies through supervision) are clustered as a metatheme (4) ”management.”

The Top Command Segment

The top command segment is composed of officers above the rank of superintendent (or commander), including chief and deputy chief(s). Their style is less obviously working class, and their speech and manner often emulates those they admire in the business world. They have options in dress—full or partial uniform, business suit, or casual wear—and some have adopted the term ”CEO,” mimicking business practice, and talk about ”… changing the way we do business.” They are oriented in a somewhat dualistic fashion, since they must seek the loyalty of the lower participants as well as city ”fathers.” They curry favor with officers on the street as well as external audiences, including political elites, elected officials, and worthy citizens’ groups (Reiner 1991).

Much of their work is ”fire fighting,” managing various kinds of crises. In theory, they make ”policy” decisions, or at least consider issues enduring beyond the end of a shift or day’s work. The administrative cadre is dependent on the goodwill and discretion of officers, because ”working the streets” produces most of the scandals and political incidents. The values of the lower participants remain surprisingly salient: They function as a ground against which the figure of commitment to the perks, rewards, and intrinsic satisfactions of command are seen. Some think of themselves as ”good police officers,” and emphasize their ”street smarts,” ”toughness,” or past crime fighting successes, rather than their administrative skills, wisdom as ”people managers,” or educational achievements. Command officers’ views of policing are reflexive, because they are obligated to manage the consequences of decisions made by others. They must ”read off” these value themes and metathemes to understand and interpret police work.

Command officers emphasize that they manage the dependence and autonomy issues that lower participants label ”the job” and middle managers call ”office politics.” Top administrative officers also emphasize the ”politics” and ”management” themes of middle management. The refracted value tensions of lower participants and managers are an element of the command segment’s work. One metatheme (5) is called ”managing the job.” They see their work bearing external responsibility, being accountable, while being dependent on lower participants. The second meta-theme, (6) ”policing as politics,” glosses command responsibility. Command officers emphasize ”management” rather than ”the job” and view police management as paperwork and coping with and managing the lower participants’ subculture. Uncertainty reappears, although administrators’ uncertainty focuses on their authority in the context of dependence upon the discretion (in both senses of the word) and competence of the lower participants.

Finally, it appears that they combine two metathemes of other segments into a single megatheme, combining the meta-themes ”management” and ”politics” into one that might be called ”policing as democratic politics.” This formulation glosses their interest in sustaining and amplifying the political power and independence of the police in the criminal justice system and dramatizes and displays the role of police in both the local and occasionally the national political system. Policing as democratic politics implies sensitivity to the encumbrances and political implications of policing.

The three segments within policing are indicated by values and value emphases that connote potential division within and across segments. The culture both divides and integrates the occupation, depending on the situation and the issue. These segments and value emphases signal a structural potential for conflict in the police organization. Conflict may arise not only from intrasegment variations in value emphases but from intersegment differences in the meaning of the work and modes of resolving differences.

The police occupational culture is not unique. It reflects the social values of Anglo American societies such as individualism, material success, bias against various others (minorities, people of color, women), and preference for the company of others like themselves. It is particularly shaped by local politics, situational pressures, and media dramatizations. On the other hand, police respond day by day to the untoward, the dirty, ugly, and violent and in general come when they are called. The emotional tone of policing as a practice, the laconic, somewhat distant view, when combined with the humor and stories, are sentiments that reveal basic humanity.

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