Becoming blue: the story of police culture

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Becoming blue: the story of police culture

Researching with, for, or on the police is always a challenge – a satisfying challenge, but a challenge nonetheless. I understood this relatively quickly when as a young researcher, my first project in the mid 1990s was interviewing senior police officers as part of a project on the changing nature of the then Association of Chief Police Officers. A more fascinating and eclectic group of senior professionals you couldn’t hope to meet. My latest research however was to go right back to the beginning of the police career.

Police culture has always been a source of great interest to academics, of sporadic interest to politicians promising change and of marginal interest to the policing organisation itself who have tended to equate such interest with an attack on officers’ integrity. This latter point is of no great surprise when one considers that the academic literature on the prevailing policing cultures remains overwhelmingly negative. Policing cultures are almost universally condemned as being sites of, among other things, masculine hegemony, prejudice, discrimination and exclusion.

In order to reach such conclusions, much of the literature on policing cultures tends to explore the often-static characteristics of those cultures yet neglects any interpretation of their origins and influences. Who or what influenced police officers in the development of their cultural characteristics? It was with that in mind that I embarked upon a piece of research which aimed to take a few steps backwards and consider the influences upon, and changing attitudes of, new police recruits over the course of the first four years of their policing careers.

Longitudinal research seeks to do much more than take a snapshot of a particular group of people and instead offers a fuller and deeper explanation of change, particularly attitude change. It does this through collecting data at regular and key intervals. This inevitably brings with it implications with regard to cost, sample size, drop-out rates and a lengthy wait for results. However, the richness of the data brings with it many rewards.

The research interview is not the most natural of conversations. At the first set of interviews at least, it was composed of two strangers in a room with a recording device. I was also mindful that I was relying upon self-reported rather than observed behaviours. Over the course of four years however, it would not be easy to maintain a position which only provided socially desirable accounts of role, outlook and identity. Inevitably, as time passed, trust and rapport grew and interviewer and interviewees became more familiar with one other. The stories, the humour and the anecdotes shared (in addition to the occasional tears) revealed in the main an apparently frank account of their views and attitudes to all aspects of the job. This was sometimes revealed when the recording device was switched off or when standing afterwards in the car park but it would be difficult to assume that a facade of socially desirable answers was maintained throughout the research process.

The research, upon which my new book is based, (Police Socialisation, Identity and Culture: Becoming Blue) attempts to tell a different story about both the new and enduring cultural characteristics of the police. It portrays new officers who are keen to learn, not necessarily through more formal learning channels but more notably from their peers and their tutors. It portrays officers who are motivated to make a difference but frustrated by their inability to do so. It portrays officers who have close bonds with one another but who, unlike their predecessors, tend to equate policing with a ‘job for now’ rather than a ‘job for life’. It also portrays officers who place ‘public protection’ and ‘safeguarding’ at the forefront of their role and with that, seek to utilise the tools of communication and empathy rather than physical strength and authority. What this research does is analyse the modern realities of joining the police service and adapting to a new identity as a police officer in challenging social, economic and political times.

Dr Sarah Charman, Reader in Criminology
University of Portsmouth

023 9284 3064 @sarahc2612