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
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.

Expert Contributor
Jeffrey Perry

Jeffrey Perry earned his Ph.D. in History from Purdue University and has taught History courses at private and state institutions of higher education since 2012.

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.

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Additional Activities

Writing Activity

Imagine you are a police officer. When investigating a burglary charge, you and your partner discovered the suspect hiding in an alley. The suspect refused to cooperate and your partner used excessive force, which resulted in significant injury to the suspect. Both you and your partner were suspended while the police department pursued an internal investigation. Your parents saw a media report about the incident and are worried that you will lose your job. They write a letter pleading with you to come clean to the investigators and tell them what happened: that your partner reacted with excessive force and that you had nothing to do with the suspect's injuries. Neither of your parents are in law enforcement.

Write your parents a 2-3 paragraph letter explaining why you do not feel like you can speak to the investigators to clear your name. Remember, they do not understand police subculture, so you will need to explain things like the thin blue line, your allegiance to your fellow police officers, your views on the pros and cons of police subculture, and what you believe may be the media's role in the internal investigation.

Additional Questions to Consider

  1. What is the definition of police subculture?
  2. In what ways do police shows like Law and Order and CSI contribute to civilian perceptions of police officers and policing?
  3. How can a police department's demographic makeup affect its relationship with the community it serves?


  1. Police subculture is defined as a specific set of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors exhibited by those in law enforcement.
  2. They often portray police officers as noble and heroic and their work as dramatic and exciting. This can lead to disillusionment when civilians encounter routine police work or corrupt officers.
  3. If the department's officers do not reflect the community's demographics, it can lead to civilian distrust and a reinforcement of a police subculture.

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