The Police

V. The Culture of the Police

The nature of police work is different from that of work performed in most other occupations. As has been noted, the police are among the few professionals that are required to be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. Furthermore, the police deal with social problems and societal ills that extend beyond simply fighting crime. The police are also unique in terms of the persons with whom they most routinely interact. While police officers deal with the entire spectrum of humanity, they spend the majority of their time dealing with the seamier side of society. The central features of the police culture may be categorized according to the way officers relate to the unique nature of the job, the special category of persons with whom they come into contact, and the environment in which they work. In other words, the unique aspects of the police role, such as being given tremendous authority, and the corresponding right to use force on citizens; morality issues related to the police being the enforcers of right over wrong; and danger, or the threat of danger, shape the nature of the police and their work.

Research indicates that the environment in which police do their work is shaped by their isolation from citizens, their solidarity within the police subculture, their loyalty to each other, and their desire for autonomy in carrying out policing duties. These conditions all contribute to the character of the police subculture, which has been characterized by extreme loyalty to one’s coworkers, particularly one’s partner. However, the police operate in a bureaucracy that is based on a paramilitary model with many guidelines or policies, rigid lines of authority, and communication that is authoritative and clear. These also make important contributions to the police culture and have an important impact on how the police do their work.

Police Bureaucracy

Police departments are organized in a manner similar to the military, using ranks to designate authority (captain, lieutenant, sergeant, etc.). True to the bureaucratic form of organization, the larger police departments are divided into special divisions and units with lines of authority leading from the chief to the line officers. Police department hierarchies of authority vary in respect to how tasks are divided and which divisions report to which supervisors.

The traditional hierarchy is represented by a pyramid-type structure. On the top, to set and enforce policies and to provide overall leadership, is the chief. Other divisions include at least internal affairs, communication, and patrol. Smaller agencies may combine different elements into one division, but all agencies must perform the same basic duties.

For example, internal affairs or professional compliance bureaus investigate all allegations of police misconduct. These concerns can be initiated by civilian complaints or by fellow police officers. This division or section is of paramount importance to the operations of any law enforcement agency and must receive support from the chief administrators. Most Internal Affairs Division managers report directly to the chief of police to avoid any question of prominence or importance.

One of the most critical elements of police work is its system of communication. It is this “heart line” that receives calls for service and forwards information to officers in the field. The communication process forms the link between the community and the police. The information provided to officers is the basis on which they prepare and respond. In other words, if the police department is told about a particular situation, officers and supervisors must recognize how many officers are needed, how quickly they need to respond, and where they need to be sent.

The degree of centralization in the organization is one of the most critical decisions an administrator must make. A centralized structure, with a dominant supervisor, will have strong controls and may be cost effective. A decentralized structure will have flexibility and will be cost efficient as it emphasizes team building as a mode of problem solving. As each structure has positive and negative characteristics, the goals of the organization, with input from the community, should serve to design the structure. Certainly, large departments can centralize administrative and certain investigative functions while they decentralize patrol and other activities. The trend has been to decentralize many police functions and to be more responsive to the unique characteristics of communities. Regardless of the type of organization, there are always going to be critical concerns and high-risk activities performed by the police. The next section looks at these activities and places them in their proper perspective.

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