Blogs & Writings

Police Culture: A quick idea during an assignment

The concept of culture within an organization draws international headlines when it comes to American policing. The culture of policing has been heavily criticized. Culture is hard to define. From a certain logical perspective, thought is not tangible, it is a construction, like the idea of society, and to that extent, the organization itself can be validly argued to be a societal construct, a cultural phenomenon (Morgan, 2006, p. 116). The intangible construction of the organization is heavily influenced, maybe symbiotically, by the intangible culture within. Though, intangible, this culture is embedded in what the professions that make up the organization do. American police, police people, or more accurately, enforce laws. What they do is police and enforce and often, in contemporary culture, people identify themselves with their organization and their occupations. This occurrence demonstrates that cultural influence within the profession can very likely change the very cultural identity of the workers (Morgan, 2006). Currently, the culture of policing has changed the identity of the human holding the badge, but the symbiotic nature indicates that the human holding the badge can change the culture of policing.

In evaluating the culture of policing, on the surface, it appears to be united. Most agencies have words, mottos, formalities, and such. These common cohesion building tools, such as the establishment of a company philosophy, mission statement, or similar such creedos can help establish an inter-system culture if integrated and reinforced (Morgan, 2006, p. 120). What is missing is the integration and reinforcement which cannot be fully isolated from the environment in which the organization functions. In the United States, a competitive spirit proliferates the culture and focuses on winners and losers in popular discussion (Morgan, 2006, p. 122). This categorizing of the successful in-group and the unsuccessful out-group, was so common in Baltimore criminal justice that it was never an issue, it just was it they way it was. What gets measured is what gets done and the winners and losers are chosen by those metrics established by the organization as a whole and the subgroups.

Essentially, what ends up happening is that the institution becomes the culture, while the culture builds the institution (Kundu, 2010, p. 55). The cultural subgroups in policing extend far and wide. Federal, state, or local, urban, suburban, or rural and more, and these have further subgroups. K9, SWAT, narcotics, patrol, traffic, vice, and all of the various specializations and more. The specializations have subgroups within themselves. For example, narcotics has undercover work, street enforcement, major cases, and interdiction. When the values of subgroups are very different, a mosaic culture can form which overwhelms the corporate culture (Morgan, 2006, pp. 132-133). This is especially true within policing. These separated groups can develop into group mentalities that can isolate the groups from one another, as well as from other organizations. It is often the group most similar to the hosting culture, but when power collects and a minority frames the culture, that minority can control the tone of the culture and this is a management failure (Morgan, 2006, pp. 128-129). The critical element of where power collects is found back in those metrics of winners and losers. Those metrics for winners are arrests. Just arrests, not convictions, not justice, not quality investigation, not protecting and serving, just arrests.

When the power is collected by those who just enforce and arrest, then the culture is dominated by this subgroup and this subgroup is incentivized by the metric, to get arrests the quickest and easiest way. The quick and easy methods involve shortcuts, lies, civil rights violations, and when these transgressions become the new normal a strict adherence to a code of silence is culturally encouraged. Maybe it is because the reality of how culture influences the fabric of organizations has long been undervalued (Schein, 1996) that the progression towards power collection, greed, and privilege, as a natural product of the American environment, slipped by management and was magnified by the inherent power of law enforcement. The path to hell may have been paved by good intentions, but that does nothing to change the result of current police culture. This culture must change. A few general guidelines have been noted in regards to implementing cultural change. Those guidelines include, firmly grasping the scope of change needed, that leaders must fully become the change to guide and cultivate it, approach from as many angles as possible, integrate key personnel in developing the change, and vigorously manage and reassess (Levin & Gottlieb, 2009). The scholars of management, leadership, and psychology have provided the framework for organizational culture reform, it is now up to the leaders in American policing to do just that. As it stands, firmly grasping the scope of needed change is the current state of affairs, in 2015, but with the proper research, denial can be shed and fighting that denial is the first priority for fixing the culture of American policing.


Michael A. Wood Jr.

Levin, I., & Gottlieb, J. Z. (2009). Realigning organization culture for optimal performance: Six principles & eight practices. Organization Development Journal, 27(4), 31-46.

Morgan, G. (2006). Images of Organization. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.

Schein, E. H. (1996). Culture: The missing concept in organization studies. Administrative Science Quarterly, 41(2), 229-240.

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