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Police Subculture

Supporting Our Law Enforcement Officers

Have you ever wondered how the police force in the United States works or what research has been conducted on the subject? Police Subculture Part 1 outlines exactly what a subculture is and how it impacts our law enforcement officers, according to a former police officer, as well as how management of police officers by police officers influence the subculture. 


(Malmin, Mark (2012). “Changing Police Subculture.” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 81(4), 14)

According to Mark Malmin, former police officer, detective, hostage negotiator, narcotics investigator, and courtroom bailiff from San Francisco, police officers are taught to act as though they can handle anything. There is an emphasis on individual strength and independence in police training, leading to the façade of invincibility throughout a department. Officers are consistently exposed to danger, but also must continue to show compassion and kindness to victims of crime. They must understand the complexity and legality behind taking someone’s life, and often must make split-second decisions which result in someone’s death or injury. The occupation of police officer comes with a multitude of smaller roles and an officer must learn quickly how to shift between disciplinarian, protector, social worker, etc.

According to Malmin, stressors which police officers face can be debilitating and all-consuming, yet there are limited resources for police officers to help them develop coping techniques for stress within police departments. Police subculture dismisses the inevitable human need for assistance, concentrating on survival alone, ignoring the importance of mental well-being in such a demanding occupation. American police departments have arguably the best training programs for tactical and operational skills globally. Yet, they fail to train officers how to cope with traumatic events, perhaps because there is a lack understanding of how trauma and stress impacts an individual and cognitive decision making processes.

Police subculture is indoctrinated early in a police officer’s career. Veteran officers act as field-training teachers for police officers recently graduating from the Police Academy. Teachers are purposely overly tough on recruits in order to prepare them for the daily realities of police work. They conduct daily evaluations to judge an officer’s performance, ability to make decisions under stress, awareness of office safety, use of appropriate level of force, and soundness of judgement. These daily evaluations greatly impact the future of the new officer’s career and are considered a harmful occupational stressor due to their importance so early in a career. Yet, new officers are not properly trained or evaluated on how to react to their first experience of trauma on the job. Neophyte officers often report physiological symptoms of anxiety in their first 6 months of field work, possibly due to unrealistic expectations and attitudes from their superiors.

(Eisenberg, T. (2005). Successful Police-Chief Mentoring: Implications from the Subculture. Public Management (00333611), 87(11), 21.)

As in every job sector, mismanagement has consequences. The consequences of mismanagement and dysfunctional organizational behavior in police departments include unnecessary or extreme operating costs, civil liability suits, labor/management relation strife, and loss of community respect and trust. Decisions made by police chiefs is often dictated by laws, but is also influenced by what traditional wisdom suggests and what is best for the organization and its members. In an incident where a chief must choose between his or her department and its members or the citizens they vow to protect, it is not unusual for departments to choose their own members over citizens.

One harmful belief in police subculture is the mentality that police officers, no matter their place in the organizational hierarchy, are members of a family, not colleagues in a business. This mentality results in an increased tolerance for misconduct, a decrease in the frequency of discipline, and diminished employee accountability. The role of police chief can be broken down into four main areas of concentration—high-risk incidents, employee-misconduct corrective actions, workplace diversity, and organizational performance. Yet, if there is any corruption or insubordination throughout the department, the role of chief becomes increasingly difficult.

How can we help our police officers be better protectors of the law and of society? It's a tough job, no doubt, and, as outlined above, not all police officers are receiving the training and support needed to do their job effectively. What are your thoughts?

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