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Police Subculture: Definition & Context

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  • 0:01 Definition of a Police…
  • 1:05 Context of a Police Subculture
  • 2:39 The Media and Public…
  • 4:20 The Dark Side of…
  • 5:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Melanie Norwood

Melanie has taught several criminal justice courses, holds an MS in Sociology concentrating in Criminal Justice & is completing her Ph.D. in Criminology, Law & Justice.

In this lesson, we will discuss the concept of police subculture, including how it is defined in modern society, depicted by the media, and perceived by both those who work in policing and those in the general population.

Definition of a Police Subculture

Police subculture is defined as a specific set of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors exhibited by those in law enforcement. Because police officers spend the majority of their time dealing with crime, they tend to view members of the public as untrustworthy and potentially hostile. They look to fellow officers for support, unity, and teamwork, and this creates a dynamic of 'us (the police) versus them (the public)'. This mentality has a good side and a bad side.

On the good side, officers feel this sense of trust is vital to successfully doing their jobs. The mantra of police officers is that there is a 'thin blue line' between Order and Chaos, meaning without the existence of a police force the general order within society would dissolve into chaos. This mantra reiterates the notions of unity, mutual interdependence, and teamwork amongst officers that are necessary to perform the duties of an officer. On the bad side, embracing the us vs. them mentality can lead to some values and behaviors that deviate from what can be considered acceptable in modern society.

Context of a Police Subculture

As citizens, we look to police officers to resolve dangerous situations, enforce the law, and protect our rights. As such, police are often seen as an extension of the government. As a result, their actions are highly scrutinized by the public. Not everyone cares how a librarian treats customers, but everyone does care about how police officers treat members of the public. This kind of scrutiny often leads to a lot of criticism, and criticism from the public feeds into the idea of the 'us vs. them' mentality of a police subculture.

That criticism can be difficult to defend against because a police officer's actions require personal discretion, or an officer's individual judgment. Officers use previous training, departmental guidelines, and knowledge of the law in order to make quick decisions. Sometimes these decisions are not regarded as heroic. Sometimes they are criticized for being inappropriate or even illegal. Officers are held to very high standards, but they are human. Sometimes they perform well, sometimes they make mistakes, and sometimes, unfortunately, they exploit their position of public authority.

The actions of these few officers who abuse their power in some way often predominate what is covered by the media. Accordingly, they predominate public perceptions of police. Unfortunately, the result is that the public often views police officers as being untrustworthy and abusive, and police officers often see the public as being ignorant and dangerous. 'Us versus them,' in other words.

The Media and Public Perceptions of Police

There is also a fascination regarding the police officer in society. Television shows that focus on police officers have existed for decades. On one hand, shows such as CSI, The First 48, Chicago P.D., and Law and Order: Special Victims' Unit glamorize and simplify the job of policing. These shows depict officers as heroic and noble. Members of the public who have this perception can become disillusioned when they see police officers in real life.

On the other hand, whether these shows attempt to focus on the dramatic elements of policing, document case investigations, or follow officers' lives, they frequently depict some form of verbal and/or physical abuse by officers toward citizens in a way that implies these actions are commonplace for police officers. As a result, the public may believe that the police are always abusive, regardless of the interactions they have had in real life with police officers.

In addition to how television shows depict police subculture, how local and national media cover police interactions with the public also shapes public opinion. Police performing their duties without incident does not warrant news coverage. What receives coverage by the media is largely negative and critical of police.

Furthermore, public perceptions of police vary according to an individual's class or racial or ethnic background. Too often, a police force does not demographically reflect the population it serves. When there is a mismatch between the demographics of those who serve on the police force from the citizens in the communities they serve, the element of distrust amongst citizens toward police is inevitable, heightening the stress felt by officers and reinforcing a police subculture.

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