Disassembling Police Culture
Police malpractice – from routine disproportionality to shocking abuses of power – is often blamed on ‘police culture’. Does this illuminate the issues, and help us to resolve them?
Drawing on his new book Disassembling Police Culture (Routledge, 2023),Dr Mike Rowe, University of Liverpool, discusses the limitations of ‘police culture’ as a concept and suggests how we can change in focus could lead us to practical solutions.
pejoratives without progress
Police culture is a concept widely used, often critically, to characterise the working attitudes and behaviours of (usually uniformed) police officers. It is shorthand for a workplace imbued with machismo, racism, sexism, a thirst for danger and excitement, cynicism and conservatism (Reiner, 2014). It is commonly used alongside pejorative words: ‘bullying culture’, ‘toxic culture’, ‘misogynistic workplace culture’, for example (Casey, 2023). It does little more than say that we condemn behaviour that we would not engage in. Police culture, as an idea, does not illuminate the causes of this conduct or any potential remedies. Indeed, it obscures them in part because its meaning is unclear.
“Police culture, as an idea, does not illuminate…causes…or…remedies”
Police culture is understood both to cause behaviour (e.g., Paoline, 2003; Paoline and Terrill, 2005) and to be a product of that behaviour (Chan, 1997). Sometimes, these two understandings emerge even in the same sentence: ‘the general principle of the concept, that specific yet formal values emerge among police officers and that these impact on how police work gets done’ (Cockroft, 2017: 229). Distinctions can be drawn between organizational and occupational cultures, between different ranks (street cops v management cops in Reuss-Ianni’s (1983) formulation), and between functions (traffic v CID).
put aside ‘culture’
This ambiguity and slipperiness is a problem as the idea becomes more widely deployed, both by academics and by practitioners. In earlier work (Pearson and Rowe, 2020), we found that we didn’t need to turn to the idea of culture to understand the actions of police officers. In my recent book (Rowe, 2023), I argue that we should put aside culture with all its ambiguities. This second book takes on some of the key ideas and asks, what does talk of culture obscure?
For example, what would we learn of police training if we put aside the idea that it entails socialization into a culture? What we begin to see is not uniformity of outlook among officers, but differences. Officers do not simply share similar views. Some carefully keep their views to themselves, while others challenge the opinions of their colleagues. They handle cases differently. They focus on different aspects of the job. Instead of uniformity, we find variety.
out of the canteen, into the briefing room
We hear a good deal about police story-telling. But what can we really learn from the tales they tell? Do they really offer a guide for how things are done? Many officers do not tell stories, and others try not to engage in discussions of them. Instead of listening to the stories told in canteens or staff lounges, we might pay more attention to the stories that officers draw upon when making decisions and choices. These tend to be micro-stories, little scraps of information or intelligence – about places, people, types of incident etc. They form plausibility structures (Turner and Rowe, 2017; Rowe et al., 2023) that shape the ways officers then engage in an encounter.
“Officers police in ways that generates disproportionality in the absence of individual prejudices.”
We also see that officers are not acting out of free will and they are not driven by some culture to behave in particular ways. They are part of an organization and are connected such that their actions are ones shaped by the institutional context. They are briefed to pay attention to particular people and categories of people – young working-class men and young Black men. When on proactive duties, they are deployed to communities to police those men. They act on the intelligence (the micro-stories) that largely confirm these same instructions – these people, this place. They largely do what they are expected to do.
This is not to say that there are no racist, sexist or homophobic officers. There are. What it does suggest is that officers police in ways that generates disproportionality in the absence of individual prejudices. When we talk of culture, police culture or police occupational culture, we obscure the detail. We miss the institutional dimensions of the practice of policing.
Dr Mike Rowe’s new book, Disassembling Police Culture, is now available from Routledge.
Casey, L (2023), An independent review into the standards of behaviour and internal culture of the Metropolitan Police Service. London: Metropolitan Police.
Chan, J. (1997), Changing police culture: policing in a multicultural society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Cockcroft, T. (2017), ‘Police culture: histories, orthodoxies, and new horizons’, Policing, 11(3), 229-235.
Paoline, E. (2003), Taking stock: toward a richer understanding of police culture. Journal of Criminal Justice, 31(3), 199–214.
Paoline, E. and Terrill, W. (2005), ‘The impact of police culture on traffic stop searches: An analysis of attitudes and behavior’. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management 28(3), 455-472.
Pearson, G. and Rowe, M. (2020), Police Street Powers and Criminal Justice: regulation and discretion in a time of change, Oxford: Hart Publishing.
Reiner, R. (2010), The politics of the police. 4th edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Reuss-Ianni, E. (1983), Two cultures of policing: street cops and management cops. New Brunswick: Transaction.
Rowe, M. (2023), Disassembling Police Culture. London: Routledge.
Rowe, M., Turner, E. and Redman, S. (2023) ‘Narratives as Plausibility Structures: it’s stories, all the way down’, in Flemming, J. and Charman, S. (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Police Ethnographies. London: Routledge, 543-555.
Turner, E. and Rowe, M. (2017), ‘Police culture, talk and action: exploring narratives in ethnographic data’, European Journal of Policing Studies, 4(4)-5(1), 52-68.
About the Author
Dr Mike Rowe, Lecturer in Public Sector Management, University of Liverpool
I was, for a number of years, a civil servant working in both management and policy roles. I left to complete a PhD, sponsored by the National Audit Office, and retain an interest in all things public service and public policy. In research, this has included work on the concept of accountability and on urban regeneration partnerships. More recently, and with colleagues, I have written on community land trusts and housing policy. This interest continues and embraces other forms of community activism and social enterprise. However, my main research interests at present are in policing. Again with colleagues, I have been involved in a six-year ethnographic study of police discretion, observing uniformed officers in the course of their duties. This is now bearing fruit in the form of publications, with a first book published by Hart in 2020 and second to come from Routledge. I am also Vice Chair of an EU COST Action on Police Stops. This research reflects a coming together of two interests, in public services and in ethnographic research. Since 2006, I have been part of the organising team for the annual Ethnography Symposium (www.liverpool.ac.uk/ethnography) and, from 2012-2021, founder and co-editor of the Journal of Organizational Ethnography.