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Research and Practice
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Taking an evidence-based approach to understanding police culture, this thorough and accessible book critically reviews existing research and offers new insights on theories and definitions. Tom Cockcroft, an authority on the subject, addresses a range of contemporary issues including diversity, police reform and police professionalisation.

This invaluable review:

- Identifies and discusses differing conceptions of police culture;

- Explores the contribution of different disciplinary and methodological approaches to our understanding of police culture;

- Assesses how culture relates to many different operational aspects of policing;

- Contextualises our understanding of police culture in relation to both contemporary police agendas and wider social change.

For students, researchers and police officers alike, this is an accessible and timely appraisal of police culture.

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This chapter seeks to outline the challenges of understanding police culture as a tangible phenomenon relevant to practitioners and academics alike. It will identify and explain existing definitions and present police culture as a contested concept, that is, as a subject with a broad range of interpretations, all of which are, to a degree, dependent on the immediate context within which it is being situated. As a result, it will then encourage an understanding of the concept that will allow readers to identify those areas of resonance between the research and literature and their own professional lives or experiences of real-world policing issues.

Probably the first task of any book of this type is to define the subject of its focus, or, in other words, to explain what it is we are actually looking at. If this were a book on, for example, community policing, one would expect this to be a relatively straightforward task. The author could source some textbook definitions, outline community policing initiatives in action and perhaps find some police policies regarding how best to implement such styles of policing. Police culture is an altogether different kind of concept. It does not describe a model of policing, nor an approach to it. It does not generate specific policies on how to do it correctly or lead to targets or key performance indicators (KPIs) on how little or how much of it we think is appropriate. It cannot, arguably, be measured, and does not exist in a physical or tangible sense.

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This chapter will explore the framework from which the evidence base for knowledge around police culture has been drawn. In doing so, it will chart the sociological underpinnings of much of the early ethnographic work in the area through to knowledge derived from a range of other perspectives. As a result, studies including those from the socio-legal, historical, psychological and ethnographic traditions will be explored, as will EBP approaches, to allow for an assessment of the different ways in which knowledge is generated in this subject. The opportunities offered by different research paradigms will be identified to allow readers to critically assess different forms of evidence and their use in exploring policing issues.

In many respects, our understanding of police culture has been driven by the subject of criminology. According to the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) Subject Benchmark Statement for Criminology (2014), ‘Criminology draws on a wide range of human and social science disciplines. The subject’s theoretical and methodological development reflects the rapid social changes of contemporary society and is responsive to the increasing cross-fertilisation of ideas and methods between the human and social sciences’ (2014: 9). It is therefore the case that our criminological understanding of police culture is largely directed by a mixture of research from a variety of disciplinary subject areas. Over time, the boundaries between these areas have become increasingly blurred and the origins of the subject matter itself have become less easy to identify. To complicate matters further, both policing and the subjects and disciplines that seek to explore it have, over time, developed and expanded their range of concern and influence.

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This chapter will focus on what the knowledge base in this area tells us about operational policing and the ways in which police culture has been seen to influence the quality and nature of interactions with different sections of society. It will draw explicitly on research in the area to explore the impact of culture on interactions with groups defined by their ethnicity, gender and social class. Finally, it will chart the ways in which academic views have changed over time to accommodate more nuanced views of police culture, police behaviour and the relationship between the two.

The concept of police culture is inescapably entwined with that of operational policing. This is largely because it is in the arena of operational policing that the police are most likely to interact with members of the public. This is not to say that police culture and the behaviours and values only impact on non-police officers (police racism and sexism are well documented as problems experienced by female and minority ethnic police officers). However, to many authors and commentators, the first step to exploring police culture is to look at how the manifestations associated with it impact on the experiences of members of the public. Furthermore, it is these issues (for example, racism and sexism) that motivated early work in the area of police culture to attempt to link the values and attitudes held by officers with the experiences of members of the public who interact with them.

For a starting point, we need to understand why police culture, its impact on police behaviour and the subsequent way it is received or understood by the public are important.

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This chapter will address the challenges of both applying the concept of culture to police leaders and the challenges faced by police leaders in terms of managing police culture. In particular, attention will be drawn to the existence of multiple cultures, of tensions between management and operational cultures and cultural resistance to leadership agendas. In doing so, this chapter will draw on my work (Cockcroft, 2019), which sets out these particular themes as a way of extending our knowledge of the relationship between police culture and police leadership. These topics will be contextualised in respect of the new public management (NPM) agenda and its impact on policing over recent years.

For many years, the relationship between police culture and police leadership failed to attract systematic attention from academics, with early work into police culture tending to focus on the interactions between lower-ranking police officers and civilians. In this regard, police culture essentially focused on the values, attitudes and behaviours of officers towards their external audience, the public, and the cultural dynamics as played out within the rank structure of the organisation were subjected to substantially less scrutiny. On those occasions where academics did explore the role that culture played in shaping internal relations between groups of officers this was likely to focus on either the divide between management and ‘street’-level officers (see Reuss-Ianni and Ianni, 1983) or between different roles (see Manning, 1993). Over time, however, the link between police culture and leadership has received more attention, and this has facilitated a greater understanding of the challenges for police organisations of implementing strategic decisions at the operational level.

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This chapter will address the fundamental relationship between the work roles of the police and the cultural dynamics associated with police organisations. This principle will be used to explore work that sees the cultural world of police officers as intrinsically determined by the roles that they engage in. In this way, the book will explore cultural similarity and difference between police officers working in different roles and contexts to explore the tension between ideas of singular and plural cultures.

To understand the idea of police culture we need to be aware of the ways in which culturally determined police values, attitudes and behaviours are shaped by the specific roles that police officers undertake, and the way that these sit against the wider external context of a particular society. At times, it can appear that a somewhat simplistic juxtaposition exists in respect of our understanding of police culture whereby the mere act of joining a police organisation as an officer denotes exposure to, and internalisation of, a specific set of assumptions that will dictate not only the ways in which that officer sees the world but also how they interact with it. This apparent convention was the orthodox way of understanding police culture for many years and can be attributed to a number of factors, all related to the idea that there is one, relatively distinct, police culture.

The sociological study of police work was, for many years, research into lower-ranking police officers undertaking patrol work in problematic metropolitan areas. In this way, police culture became synonymous with the challenges posed for the police by routine activities undertaken by patrol officers.

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A key theme throughout the book so far has been the complexity of police work and the challenge of utilising the concept of police culture in a way that reflects this. In the last two chapters, we have predominantly focused on those internal elements of policing that lead to very different working styles and orientations such as rank and role. In this chapter, we will look beyond the policing organisation to wider pressures, forces and dynamics that have, in turn, led, or are currently leading, to cultural change in the police. In doing so, once again we will draw into question the extent to which simplistic assumptions regarding police work and the communities in which it is enacted have contemporary relevance to our understanding of police culture. The chapter will begin with a brief overview of ‘late modernity’, a sociological concept that provides a starting point for many explanations of societal change and, indirectly, of those changes we witness in policing organisations. This will be followed by an exploration of more focused types of change agendas, which might indirectly be associated with late modernity and that link to our understanding of police culture.

The period from the 1980s to the present day has been described, sociologically, as that of ‘late modernity’, and represents a substantial change in the nature of our society from the preceding era of ‘modernity’. Modernity was an era characterised largely by optimism in a world based on certainty and driven by progressive values and a faith in science and technology.

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This book has attempted to explore, in a meaningful way, the somewhat idiosyncratic concept of police culture. Like any other form of culture, it is abstract, intangible and non-physical, yet impacts greatly across a wide range of subjects in a variety of ways. Increasingly, it has begun to attract attention not just from academics (who have found themselves drawn to the subject since the latter part of the 20th century) but also from those professional bodies that will shape the form of policing for years to come. Given the increasing sense of partnership between the higher education sector and the police institution, the impact of the PEQF and the continued debate about police professionalisation, it is my hope that this book will be of some support to a range of people, across academia and police organisations, who want to understand both the established and the emergent themes in this area.

As mentioned in the Introduction (Chapter 1), the book has attempted to avoid, where possible, the normative or reformist stance that some authors adopt when tackling such issues. This is for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the book has tried to avoid adopting an overly politicised voice that invariably rests on structural assumptions that might distract us from the matter at hand. Second, I believe that, quite simply, such ‘critical’ approaches limit our ability to adequately explain all of the issues we are dealing with here. Instead, the focus has largely been on the issue of policing’s relationship with change.

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A number of years ago, I wrote a book on police culture (Cockcroft, 2013) aimed predominantly (although not exclusively) at an academic audience. When I was originally asked by the editors of the Key Themes in Policing series to consider writing another book, I was admittedly a little sceptical of the immediate need for another book in this area. By the time I sat down in earnest to work on the book, sometime later, it had become obvious that, despite my earlier reservations, the policing sphere (and the knowledge that surrounds it) had developed substantially and in ways I would not have predicted back then.

One substantial change has been the degree to which police institutions are working closely with those of higher education. A cornerstone of the current professionalisation agenda, the Police Education Qualifications Framework (PEQF), has meant that academic knowledge about policing now needs to be presented in an engaging way to a much wider audience, and one that will increasingly be representing those who practise policing as well as those who just study it. Recent years have also seen a growth in the number of those individuals who simultaneously both practise and study policing and, having been fortunate to spend time working with such colleagues, I am convinced that their presence provides a refreshing and reinvigorating dynamic and purpose to the realm of police studies. Similarly, it is probably very true to say that my own interests in policing, its culture and the surrounding elements that impact on this area have broadened in recent years, and that my perceptions of these issues have been greatly enhanced through working in closer proximity to those who work in the profession.

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