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Police… the Culture… the Ethics… the Deviance… and if were lucky… Control

April 25, 2012
Timeline of yearly U.S criminal justice spendi...

Timeline of yearly U.S criminal justice spending. 1982-2007. By function (police, corrections, judicial). Inflation-adjusted expenditures in 2007 constant dollars. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The balance of power, “When Thomas Jefferson proclaimed the truth of human equality “self-evident”, he was not recording a fact; he was asserting one”

The culture ethics deviance and control of policing and police have emerged and developed because of many complex factors taking place over many hundreds of years across several continents and within many nations.  Over the last two hundred and fifty years the American criminal justice system and the police who represent it have been fashioned by politics, wars, constitutional issues and  myriad other social forces.  During this time, the police have gone from being largely autonomous sheriffs and constables to cronies of political bosses, glorified civil servants with guns, to secretive members of powerful major organizations, to paramilitary professional “elites” or super-citizens having obtained exclusive rights to the use of legal coercive force against others of their society along the way.

Furthermore, given that they see themselves, along with a majority of those in the society that they police, in terms of crime control as well as maintainers of safety and social order and due to in large part to their insular and defensive natures both as individuals and organizations the transparency of their ethos remains essentially opaque to outsiders.  Moreover, this is apparently how they like it and effort to keep it even in the face of harsh circumstances and criticisms.

Police Culture and Ethics

To understand policing along with police culture and ethics it is essential to recognize the primary motives and rationales for their formation in conjunction with the various factors and dynamics that have influenced and shaped them since their inception.

In the course of modern nation building, Western societies have increased their overall levels of prosperity and technical sophistication and as a result the burgeoning of their populations.  The majority of these Western societies embrace pluralistic social-political-economic systems (liberal democracy) based on capitalistic principles such as equality, individual rights and the rule of law.  Although this social paradigm has many harmonizing aspects, one can nonetheless repeatedly find instances within these systems riddled with deep-seated structural inconsistencies disparate to their principle tenets.  As such, these structural inconsistencies work at cross-purposes to them, consequently fashioning in effect [bourgeois] democracies as distinguished from constitutional democracies (Unk, 2011).

Accordingly, the same advances and structural inconsistencies that lead to burgeoning populations, in turn generated numerous issues inherent to distinctions of intra-societal socio-economic class.  Distinctions that are further aggravated by matters pertaining to immigration from less affluent regions and countries, especially those in close proximity.  Moreover, whereas this is generally true of most westernized nations, it seems particularly relevant to America, which in spite of its long history as a nation of immigrants remains highly xenophobic at its core.

Increases in population, from native birth rates or immigration, legal or illegal, typically result in corresponding decreases in the population’s homogeneity.  These changes in homogeneity usually present as stratum and subcultures within the population.  More often than not, a central feature of these stratum and subpopulations is a comparative disparity in access to resources and opportunities within the general population.  Disparities typically bringing with them stresses and conflicts amongst these dissimilar classes, ethnic communities and cultural groups based on the in-congruencies between them (Krisberg, 2005 p. 33).

In terms of the convergences and divergences affecting these classes, ethnic communities and cultural groups, the specific rate and loci of these variations in uniformity, as well as the overall measure of inequality of access to resources and opportunities is somewhat analogous to the concept of shear, both in a structural as well as a legal sense.  Defined in the structural sense shear is a force vector component parallel to the cross-section of a material or object.  Defined in the legal sense, shear is the degree of force specifically [appropriate, but not inordinate] to defending one’s person or property.  These differences and resultant shear forces between dissimilar classes, ethnic communities and cultural groups are the a priori cause for development of police as a means of state sponsored social control.

According to Barry Krisberg, a mounting sense of alarm was taking hold of the [wealthy] in relation to growing social unrest stemming from the now greater than ever inequalities between the rich and poor first in Europe and then later in America.  Many of whom began to see the escalating numbers of the “dangerous class” in terms of such previous economic upheavals as the French Revolution.  These elite and privileged groups of well to do reformers thus called for the creation of  police forces whose goal would be to prevent crime and increase social order but whose true ethos primarily concerned the establishment a formal state-run social control with the aim of preserving their wealth and status (2005, p. 27-33).

Then as today, the “dangerous class” represents certain types of persons groups and activities perceived as threats to the social order.  Correspondingly, politicians reacting to the perceived threats and fears enact statutes defining these types of persons groups and activities as criminal but equally important they also enact statute and rules that define the principles and purposes of the criminal justice system, that is to say the breadth and scope of legally authorized state action (Dixon, 2005).

As Klockars observed, Bittner in The Functions of Police in Modern Society, put forward the idea that a “core cultural goal of Western society has been the establishment of peace– as a condition to everyday life”, a goal Klockars notes that is believed achievable only by way of “development and application” of peaceful means.  However, limiting the legitimate exercise of force by its citizens compelled Western societies to devise organizations possessing singular control of the use of cohesive force.  Moreover, to be seen as legitimate in greater society mandated portraying these entities in such a way that it [obscured] their true natures.  This in turn required what Bittner called “circumlocutions” specifically the legal, military, and professional-“izations” of the police (p. 442-443).

Waddington suggests these evolutions in policing, though given virtuous  sounding names and missions as well as symbols and emblems denoting state authority to ensure and protect [the rule of law] have come at a cost to the civil liberties of certain individuals and groups who by their undesirability, criminality or [seemingly, emphasis mine] unlawful activities “exclude themselves from full citizenship”.  He states this is especially true in class-divided societies within which police easily exploit “the division between the [roughs] and the [respectable]”.  Further, he points out that according to Brogden, due to the discretionary activities of the police this essentially amounted to a truce with one class and “criminalization of the lower orders” (Waddington, 2005).

Thus, decreases of homogeneity of the population, together with xenophobic perceptions of threat arising out of cultural strain, and ensuing enactment of statutes by the dominant classes defining crime and the breadth and scope of law enforcement activities: – necessitated the various “izations” of the police so as to permit them greater insularity and secrecy vis-à-vis their use of discretion.  This combined with what Klockars calls the “Dirty Harry problem” that is to say achievement of the [morally, emphasis mine] good through “dangerous” or extra legal means mark out the ideological and practical milieu from which police dealings and behaviors are discerned and judged by the [respectables] as well as the police themselves, (Klockars, 2005, p. 582).

The ensuing praxis of these tensions, co determines police culture, ethics, and its widespread approval by members of the same cultural field wherein like creeds and morals become both authorized and expected, despite their disproportional coercive consequences on disparate elements within it.  Essentially ensuring that despite any potential constraints poised by regulatory restraints or legalities of due process, the police will nonetheless do as they wish for the two following reasons,  “- the law is a product of state agencies (the police in particular; or – the law is sufficiently flexible to accommodate what the police want to do” (Dixon, 2005) (Principle, 2012).

Police Deviance and Control

In the 1982 American science fiction, film “Blade Runner” directed by Ridley Scott, the “blade runners” comprise specialized police units in the year 2019 whose mission is to find and “retire” genetically engineered organic robots called replicants.  “Retire” is a euphemism for the act of killing or executing replicants.  Although these humanoids are essentially indistinguishable from the humans who made them, possessing both emotions and intellectual capacities, they are nonetheless considered chattel or [non-human] having no choices or rights.  They are the future members of the “roughs” or “dangerous class”, (“The internet movie,” )  (Krisberg 2005, p. 27-33)  (Klockars, 2005, p. 582).

While this may seem an overly dystopian example compared to contemporary Western societies, and their pluralistic social-political-economic, systems it is nevertheless illustrative of some of the issues facing them.  In both societies, the fictional one of 2019 and our current one of 2012 government-sponsored systems of social control have become increasingly intrusive and power orientated while at the same time exercising force that is ever more coercive in nature as evidenced by the following two examples.  The March 3, 1991 beating of Rodney King by four officers of the LAPD and the beating of Jessie Larez and members of his family by officers from the LAPDs’ aptly named “CRASH” unit on June 13, 1986 (Skolnick & Fyfe, 2005).

Both of these incidents clearly show how the use of coercive force on the part of the police is unconstrained by conventions limiting its use or the concerns for civil rights and due process in regards to certain elements or classes of persons in society.  As well in both the world of 2019 and the world of the 1980s and 1990s, police culture is characterized by dismissive internal attitudes toward violent use of force against civilians as well as mendacious tendencies concerning accounts of their activities.  Skolnick and Fyfe recount their own case review of 700 individual complaints against the LAPD concluding that without Holliday’s tape the beating of Rodney King would most likely; have been swept under the rug.  This was the case as well in regards to Jessie Larez.  During which Fyfe testified that two years worth of citizen complaint investigations by the LAPD were “riddled with holes” and that “whitewashes” were so common that despite the nature, severity or type of wounds sustained by the victims without video or electronic documentation no citizens report of an incident would be believed (2005, p.  572).

According to Gary T. Marx

“Police are moral, as well as legal, actors.  But apart from the rule of law and public accountability, the police power to use force, engage in summary punishment, use covert surveillance, and to stop, search and arrest citizens, can be used be used to support dictatorial regimes, powerful vested interest groups and practices” (Marx).

Yet here in lies the rub.  The ability of the police to “use force, engage in summary punishment, use covert surveillance, and to stop, search and arrest citizens”, is in fact in concert with the rule of law as defined in the majority of 19th and 20th century versions of Western democracies throughout the world, aside from being much less accountable to the public (Marx).  Explicitly then the rub lies in the distinctions between a [formalist] definition and the [substantive] definition of the rule of law.

“Formalist definitions of the rule of law do not make a judgment about the “justness” of law itself, but define specific procedural attributes that a legal framework must have in order to be in compliance with the rule of law”.  Whereas “substantive conceptions of the rule of law go beyond this and include certain substantive rights that are said to be based on, or derived from, the rule of law”, that is to say the “essential principles that a court applies in its work, not to the rules of procedure and practice” (2007, dictionary).  A distinction that makes all the difference in the world as one sets the stage for a bourgeois-democracy the other for a constitutional-democracy (“Wikipedia,” 2012).

Whereas bourgeois-democracies tend toward a dystopian society, where powerful special interests control and shape the laws and law-enforcement to conform to their interests at the detriment of many.  The constitutional-democracy tends towards Paine’s concept of a just relationship between government and society as a state of “natural liberty” in which all are equally represented and protected by the law (Paine, 1775).

The balance of power, “When Jefferson proclaimed the truth of human equality “self-evident”, he was not recording a fact; he was asserting one” (Liu, 2012).

Nevertheless, time and again the actions of the police demonstrate that this “fact” is really just a supposition as opposed to an actual reality because it is subject to their (the polices’) discretion.  A discretion almost uniformly based on an ethos typified within many policing cultures and organizations whose attitudes are more suggestive of authoritarian bullies and oppressors as against lawfully authorized agents of the state whose profession is to maintain order, prevent crime and uphold the “rule of substantive law.

For instance, “Studies conducted across two Midwestern States suggest that a significant minority of police officers have observed police using “considerably” more force than necessary when apprehending a suspect”.  Overall, their findings indicated, “improper force was used in 38 percent of encounters that involved force” (Samuels et al., 2000).

One hundred and eighty million is the high-end estimate of traffic stops traffic stops over a ten-year period from 1988 to 1997 (Lichtenberg,* & Smith, 2001).

According to Colleen Long, police stop and frisk more than one million people on the street each year in larger metropolitan areas:

“Police in major U.S. cities stop and question more than a million people each year – a sharply higher number than just a few years ago.  Most are black and Hispanic men.  Many are frisked, and [nearly all are innocent of any crime, emphasis mine], according to figures gathered by The Associated Press.  Civil liberties groups say the practice is racist and fails to deter crime.  Police departments maintain it is a necessary tool that turns up illegal weapons and drugs and prevents more serious crime.  Police records indicate that officers are drawn to suspicious behavior: furtive movements, actions that indicate someone may be serving as a lookout, anything that suggests a drug deal, or a person carrying burglary tools such as a slim-jim or pry bar” (Long, 2009).

In addition, she states that in New York the police keep a database of everyone stopped – innocent or not.  Making them objects for potential investigations later on, said Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (2009).

While it is true that not all these stops entailed the use of force, they are nonetheless coercive in nature, whether one views’ these acts as instrumental aggression or hostile aggression the fact remains that millions of persons are stopped, questioned, and frequently searched for having done nothing more than simply moving thru a public space.  Thus, they are transitorily de facto prisoners of the state’s authoritarian bully, no habeas corpus, no due process, and no right to object without risking further injury in both a legal-civil sense as well as a corporeal one.

Further, the police do this based on their idiosyncratic typologies of who is or isn’t “for us” or “against us” based upon their singular ability to sense right from wrong and decent from indecent.  Van Maanen explains they are able to do this based on their “heroic self-perceptions of moral superiority”.  He employs the colloquial term “asshole” that police use to describe certain predefined and yet to be defined persons in terms of their potential to “upset the just order of the regime”.  Actually, Van Maanen says police work from a view of the world in which three groups of people exist in the world, the “suspicious persons”, the “assholes” and the “know nothings”.

The dynamics that go into determining a given person’s assignment or inclusion into one of these categories is based on the situational particulars or outcomes of a person or persons’ interactions or reactions during an encounter with the police.  So in effect depending on what happens one may be stopped, stopped and questioned, stopped questioned then given further instructions, dismissed, arrested, or may become the recipient of some “street justice”.  The purpose of “street justice” is to teach a moral lesson to those who would question or affront their moral mandate.  In fact, Van Maanen predicts that the rising numbers of subcultures and their constituents along with growing criticisms by these and other groups of the police will only heighten the potential for “explosive” citizen-community police encounters in the future (Maanen, 2005).

In summation, Mills “vocabulary of precedents” produces in the police a particular subjectivity or “ethno-methodological” view and sensibility of the world.  This along with  conventions such as their need for secrecy, resentment toward criticism and their willingness to use extra-legal means in achieving their ends, suggests police culture and deviance will not change easily, if at all (Shearing & Ericson, 2005).


Dixon, D. (2005). The legal regulation of policing. In T. Newburn (Ed.), Policing Key Readings (pp. 636-669). New York: Routledge.

Encarta dictionary, Word 2007

Klockars, C. B. (2005). The dirty harry problem. In T. Newburn (Ed.), Policing Key Readings (pp. 581-595). New York: Routledge.

Klockars, C. B. (2005). The rhetoric of community policing. In T. Newburn (Ed.), Policing Key Readings (pp. 442-459). New York: Routledge.

Krisberg, K. B. K. (2005). Juvenile justice redeeming our children. California: Sage Publications.

Lichtenberga,*, I. D., & Smithb, A. Journal of Criminal Justice 29 (2001) 419– 428, (2001). How dangerous are routine police–citizen traffic stops?. Retrieved from website: Procedure in American ..

Liu, E. (2012, March 20). Times idea. Retrieved from

Long, C. (2009, Octob 08). Retrieved from    and-frisk-police-sto_n_314509.html

Maanen, J. V. (2005). The asshole. In T. Newburn (Ed.), Policing Key Readings (pp. 280-296). New York: Routledge.

Marx, G. T. (n.d.). Police and democracy. Retrieved from

Paine, T. (1775). Common sense. R.Bell. Retrieved from

Principle. In (2012). Retrieved from

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Samuels, J. (2000, May). Retrieved from

Shearing, C., & Ericson, R. (2005). Culture as figurative action. In T. Newburn (Ed.), Policing Key Readings (pp. 315-337). New York: Routledge.

Skolnick, J. H., & Fyfe, J. J. (2005). The beating of rodney king In T. Newburn (Ed.), Policing Key Readings (pp. 568-580). New York: Routledge.

The internet movie database. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Unk, U. (2011, November 16). Liberal democracy. Retrieved from

Waddington, P. A. J. (2005). Police (canteen) sub-culture: an appreciation. In T. Newburn (Ed.), Policing Key Readings (pp. 364-385). New York: Routledge.

Wikipedia. (2012, April 5). Retrieved from

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