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How Does ‘Police Culture’ Influence Police Practice?


Police culture is influenced by a number of social and political factors which determine its main functions and internal structure. Police accounts take the efficacy of law for granted: it is assumed that any important variation in the impact of rules (so long as they are competently drafted) is due to external issues rather than from their nature (Van Maanen 1974). The assumption of the police model that law enforcement is the sole function of policing is replaced by a realization that the precedence of police work is service-provision and social order maintenance, and that these are usually achieved by methods other than law enforcement.

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Such factors as violence, masculinity and the politics of gender determine the main functions and relations between police and society. The nature of police response to many social situations depends upon (and can vary according to) officers’ understanding and definition of events and participants, and their assessment of consequences of different courses of action (Chan, 2003). This emphasis on the interpretive and definitional character of police work fits well with the most significant culturalist view. In this case, law is presented, not as the template of policing, but as a resource which is employed in order to achieve aims established by police culture: A great benefit of street or public-order offences to police is that an officer’s confirmation is usually sufficient to ground a charge (Reiner, 2000).

Though, the issues of violence and masculinity leave culture as the determinant, with law in a clearly subordinate position. Police officers moving beyond this tradition have been more willing to equalize the relationship, or to reverse it, seeing law as a frame, structure, or discourse within which culture operates. Contrary to assumptions that police culture is universal and permanent, it is clear that the cultures of various police organizations vary and have changed. First, national and regional variations have to be appreciated (Chan, 2003). Significant differences within police cultures can also be identified at a local level. Foster (2003) shows how officers at two police agencies exhibited very different attitudes, styles and approaches to their functions which are products of the socially contrasting areas which they policed (including violence and masculine audience). This account of masculine culture is an excellent example of the use (as opposed to mere recitation) of theory. Many police men and researchers who have been intimidated or alienated by cultural theory see here the value of theorizing police work as a mixture of social factors and violence (Bradley, 2009).

The perspective of violence and gender differences can also be linked to the emergence of studies of police work which join high-quality observational and interview data with an understanding of political and organizational theory which has been largely absent from police accounts These forces are (according to modern accounts) in the process of basic change as a result of the downfall of those social regimes or are largely resistant to change because of the longevity of the new social order based on masculine power and aggression. Thus, the reality is somewhere in between: valence is occurring but reform efforts are impeded both by social caution and by the uncharted depths of the relations between police and legal and illegal environments. The socio-political aspects of legal environment may also be important (Fielding, 1994).

The research underlines that all attempts have been (and continue to be) made to influence police functions and structure police discretion through explanation and codification of police powers and criminal procedure. For modern legal environment and policy-makers, the attraction of legalism is its promise that their interventions will be effectual and efficient. The appeal to the police of legalism is the political autonomy which it justifies. If the police are accountable to the law, then, it is argued, other modes of accountability are deemed superfluous or inappropriate (Waddington, 1999). If problems in policing arise, it is the law which has become unrealistic and inadequate. From this perspective, policing is essentially a straightforward matter: the law and common sense are all that are required. Bittner remarked that police organizations are ‘permanently flooded with petty military and bureaucratic regulations’ Legalism is closely linked to the conception of police organizations as effective bureaucracies (Foster, 2003).

Also, researchers underline that a problem with this formulation is that it seems sociologically unconvincing to treat police practices in case construction and what the police ‘want’ as if they were natural phenomena divorced from the law itself, or as if they were determined straightforwardly by prevailing economic and political forces. As noted above, a deficiency of cultural analysis has been failure to appreciate the complex relations between law and police culture: this tends to be reproduced at a higher level in the work by members of police agencies. Their own work shows the need for a more complex formulation. For example, Foster (2003) notes that police use of interrogation is linked to the need to prove certain mental elements of offences. The historical relationship between police practice and substantive criminal law in this area requires more specific study, but it seems likely that what would be found is a complex interactive relation between practice and law which assertions of police culture’s dominance serve only to obscure (Waddington, 1999).

The revision of police history noted above has principally been concerned with issues of organization, constitutional position, and police–public relations. Relatively little attention has been paid to the nature of police powers. Indeed, in this respect there is little to distinguish old and new histories (Foster, 2003). Generally, both speak as if the old police (constables who were elected from within a community to serve for a year, although deputies were often employed) were restricted to common law powers: ‘precisely because in legal theory he was a sort of delegate of the community, the constable exercised common law powers only’ Police powers are not conceptually distinct from, for example, a citizen’s right to make arrests or the powers of a wide range of public officials (immigration officers, welfare officers, revenue officers, public utility officials) to enter property or to arrest in certain circumstances (Chan, 2003).

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If a police power exists and is exercised, it ‘transforms legal relations between state and individual. A peace officer who arrests an individual puts that individual in lawful custody, from which escape is an offence, and deprives the citizen of a right to resist what would, without the authority to arrest, amount to an unlawful assault’. However, it is important to note that this transformative process is not all negative: arresting a citizen may activate certain rights (e.g. to publicly-funded legal advice) which a person who merely ‘assists officers with their enquiries’ may not possess. A doctrinal corollary of this approach to police powers is that they should be clearly defined and specific, so that police and citizen alike know what is and what is not authorized (Silvestri, 2003). Powers are only necessary when a person’s identifiable interest is infringed. The common law’s definition of such interests is limited. For example, a man whose telephone was being tapped sought an injunction against London’s Metropolitan Police. This was refused on the ground that the telephone tapping did not involve any trespass or other unlawful act: the court could identify only the Post Office’s property interest and not the man’s interest in privacy, communication, or the message communicated (Martin, 1994).

The linking of offences and powers has been influenced by the way in which statutes are written. As the examples cited in sections iii and iv demonstrate, the favoured style of legislative drafting in the nineteenth century was to define offences very specifically and minutely, rather than the broader generic drafting now adopted. Powers were attached to (or implied from) prohibitions. Similarly, when a perceived need for a power arose, it would be tagged on to other legislation. To this point, the analysis has been largely formalistic in implicitly defining police powers as specific authorities provided by statute or common law. However, a discussion of police powers as provided by case law inevitably stretches this formalistic definition and demands consideration of the relationship between law and policing practice (Chan, 2003).

The research shows that the new culture includes a new approach to the law-policing relationship: researchers are argued that true professionalism requires wide discretion rather than rule-based course. The new policing associated with problem-solving and community-oriented approaches distances itself from older traditions of professional policing the priorities of which are autonomy and crime control. Just as law enforcement agency is no more than one part of the police meaning, so law loses its place as the prime legitimator of policing. In a multifaceted and related development, policing has increasingly been assessed in terms of competence in tackling illegal crime behavior. The emphasis on ‘watchman’, ‘legalistic’, or ‘service’ police approach s substantially influenced by the social and political environment of the eight police departments.


Bradley, D 2009, ‘Education and Training’ in A Wakefield & J Fleming (eds) The Sage Dictionary of Policing, Sage, London, pp. 100-102.

Chan, J. 2003 Fair Cop: Learning the Art of Policing, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, pp. 81-144.

Chan, J 2003, Fair Cop: Learning the Art of Policing, University of Toronto Press Toronto, Toronto, pp. 201-247.

Fielding, N 1994, ‘Cop Canteen Culture’ in T Newburn & E Stanko (eds.) Just Boys Doing Business? Men Masculinities and Crime, Routledge, London, pp. 46-63.

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Foster, J 2003, ‘Police Cultures’ in Newburn, T (ed), Handbook of Policing, Willan, Cullompton, pp.196-227.

Martin, S 1994, ‘“Outsider within” the station house: the impact of race and gender on black women police’ Social Problems, vol. 41, no. 3, pp. 383-400.

Reiner, R 2000, The Politics of the Police, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 85- 107.

Silvestri, M 2003, Women in charge: policing, gender and leadership. Willan, Cullompton, pp. 21-43.

Waddington, P 1999, ‘Police (canteen) sub-culture: an appreciation’ British Journal of Criminology, vol. 39, no. 2, pp. 286-309.

Van Maanen 1974 ‘Working the Street: A developmental view of police behaviour’ in H. Jacob (ed) The Potential for Reform of Criminal Justice, Sage, Beverly Hills, CA, pp. 83-130.

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