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You may have seen the police come into your neighborhood and have not been pleased with their methods. It’s also possible that you have seen the police respond to incidents, ranging from a serious, life-threatening situation to a low-risk call for their services, and have been happy with the results. As a taxpayer, you have every right to question the methods of how police do their work. Are they being fair, legal, ethical, safe? Are they treating people who are out of control with empathy, and not taking things personally? Do they make arrests with the least amount of force necessary, to keep the arrestee, themselves, and the public on the scene, as safe as possible? The old saying, “No one hates a bad cop more than a good cop,” has never been more relevant than today.
Most people get what they know about cops and their methods from TV shows and movies – not always the most historically accurate resource, to be sure. Perhaps it would help your understanding of how the police function in your community, by getting a better sense of their work culture?
Every profession has a collection of behaviors that contribute to its workplace culture. Some of these are learned by new employees as they start the job, just by what they observe. Others are taught to new employees by longtime employees, who say, “Here’s how we really get things done around here.” Some workplace cultural norms are defined in the policies and procedures manual; others are expressly trained to all employees by the leadership team (or through the company or agency lawyers).
Some workplace cultural traditions are deeply ingrained, going back decades, to when the business or profession was first founded. Some workplace traditions weren’t illegal or highly inappropriate “back in the day,” but they certainly are now. This includes pranks, hazing, bullying, sabotaging someone’s work, sexually or racially-themed attacks, or trying to drive certain people (most often women and minority applicants or employees) out of their jobs.
All five military service agencies (Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marines) have long-standing traditions. (The Space Force is too new to have any.) Some of these come with rituals, rites, and elaborate ceremonies. (Your Homework Assignment: Ask any current or former Navy sailor what event took place when he or she crossed the Equator at sea for the first time.)
Bankers have a workplace culture, as do truck drivers, airline pilots, lawyers, hairstylists, and even librarians. They all use jargon, slang, and coded language unique to their professions, as a way of communicating quickly and effectively amongst each other.
Now imagine that your work culture told you from Day One on the job, that, “You could be killed while trying to protect the people you serve. Cops die in spectacularly bad ways, every day, mostly in shootings and car crashes. By the way, welcome to the Police Academy.” This is what happens, even today. Besides a military basic training/boot camp experience, I can think of no other profession that indoctrinates its new members this way. Officers and deputies are taught constantly to think about “Officer Survival,” and that “Hands Kill,” on every call they go on or every stop they make.
Consider how that influences their interactions with people, most of whom are not posing a threat to them. “Because of our uniforms and badges, everyone already knows who we are and why we are there. We usually know almost nothing about the people we encounter while doing this job.” This creates a mindset that affects how they work.
On that happy note, consider this list of factors that make up the police culture:
- It’s a calling, not just a career or a job.
- A male-based work environment; women have to work much harder to be accepted.
- Some hazing of probationary employees. (Much more happens in the fire department culture.)
- Paramilitary structure, with military-influenced job titles.
- Pride, bordering on arrogance, about their chosen career.
- Fearful of losing face in front of the public, which leads to the need for constant fear control at scenes.
- 24-hour business means a 24-hour lifestyle (work, sleep, go back to work, respond to calls, discuss work, repeat).
- Highly-specialized career; highly-screened applicants; takes a long time to get hired; lengthy Academy and first-year probationary employee training process.
- Alcohol-centered culture.
- High suicide rate. (More cops kill themselves each year – 160 to 180 – than are killed in the line of duty – 125 to 150.)
- “Five-year disease” by new employees who get too salty, too soon.
- Injuries are a part of the job. Unlike with firefighters, fitness fades after the first few years, mostly due to apathy, bad food, stress, and rotating shift work.
- Potential to witness death or be killed on the job, or see co-workers injured or killed.
- Close friendships and work relationships, that can last for life.
- Lone Wolf workers; much of their work takes place alone.
- Peer support, unless you make an unforgivable tactical mistake.
- Wary of senior leadership. Everyone above the rank of Lieutenant no longer remembers what it’s like to do “real police work.”
- Distrust of the need for getting clinical help, and most clinicians, for depression, suicidal thoughts, PTSD, or marriage counseling.
- Need to “pay your dues first” before you can act like a veteran.
- More community suspicion and fear, when compared to firefighters, who are usually much more beloved.
None of the above ever excuses the behavior of unprofessional, rude, dismissive, poorly trained, or dangerous officers who arrive when you call them. If you’re not getting good service from them, it’s time to call the Watch Commander and have a conversation about what happened and how it needs to be better.
But, if you are truly empathic about the needs of your fellow citizens, can you also be just as empathic toward the police officers or sheriff’s deputies who come to your aid, with the primary intent of protecting (themselves and you) and serving (you and others)? A little understanding of how their culture orients their worldview can help you understand why they do what they do.