Spotlight on Police Culture

Real change in a policing organization can derive from changes in organizational culture.

ARTICLE | Feb 16, 2016

Seeing the Red Flags of Organizational Cultures Gone Wrong

National news coverage of alleged police misconduct has grabbed the nation’s attention and had a direct impact on local government managers. The serious and long-term impact of police misconduct is the broken trust between residents and law enforcement organizations that occurs when negative perceptions of police values are reinforced by allegations of unnecessary use of force. And to this is added the potential fiscal liability of police wrongdoing.

The Wall Street Journal reported in July 2015 that the top 10 cities with the largest police departments had paid nearly $250 million in police misconduct cases in 2014 alone. Smaller cities are not exempt either.

The city manager of Inkster, Michigan, reported that his city—population less than 25,000—would have to levy additional taxes to fund a $1.4 million 2015 misconduct settlement. The long-term cost of the broken relationship between residents and law enforcement only grows as trust further erodes.

According to an April 2015 ABC News report, law enforcement agencies are seeing a decline in applicants, and recruitment is down by as much as 90 percent in some cities as policing has lost some of its allure. This tarnish is due at least in part to low pay, high stress, and heavy workloads, but negative stereotyping of officers is increasingly a factor, according to police recruiters cited by ABC News.

“The significant improvements made in police-community relations over the past 25 years seem to have eroded,” says Cedric Alexander, immediate past president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and chief of police, DeKalb County, Georgia. “This strain—not just with minorities but now with the larger community—has grown along with the perception of overzealous policing, a phenomenon largely driven not by data but by citizen documentation of incidents by cellphone and video and sharing on social media.”

All too often, police and residents find themselves in a standoff in which neither side comes out the winner.

How did those appointed to serve and protect become perceived enemies of a significant proportion of the population, specifically minorities and those of color, in so many American communities?

Part of the answer lies in the organizational culture that has developed in many policing organizations, where cultural assumptions reinforce the “them-versus-us” attitude apparent since the Los Angeles Rampart neighborhood police scandal in the late 1990s.

Eye on Organizational Culture

Just as individuals have habits of thinking called schema, organizational culture is essentially a corporate schemata. Through workplace experience, employees often develop assumptions about organizational expectations. As values are shared, employee behaviors adapt to meet those expectations and over time, the organization develops its own distinctive culture.

In policing organizations, assumptions that derive from the culture are often passed along through more experienced officers, who effectively show new hires “how it’s done around here.” Although discretionary decision making is an integral part of policing, the individual’s behaviors and responses in discretionary action will slowly adjust to meet the expectations of the organization itself.

Policing operations can be high-risk enterprises. It is vital for public managers to look carefully at the organizational culture of their policing agencies to determine the existence of any warning signs, which may require a review of the values of the policing entity and, in some cases, the local government itself. Here are nine warning signs:

Fear of reporting wrong doing due to lack of trust. Timely and mandatory reporting of wrongdoing must be a condition of employment in all law enforcement agencies. When there is a lack of trust in the system, when employees believe there will be retaliation, and when they think reporting has no value, they are less likely to report. Without opportunities to address problems that are identified through reporting, there is no opportunity for correction, and rule breaking may be interpreted as the norm.

The unwritten “Blue Wall of Silence” in police departments may stem from a culture of stress driven by the public, the hierarchy, and internal investigations. Having a safe route for reporting can help change this dynamic.

Failure to adequately address ethical violations. In his classic 2005 article in The Princeton Review, “The Cognitive and Social Psychology of Contagious Organizational Corruption,” author John Darley makes two important points about where organizations go wrong. First, he subscribes to the “bad barrel” theory, not the “bad apple theory.”

Policing agencies rightly spend much time looking at the backgrounds of their potential employees, but even good people placed in bad situations can do wrong, especially when such actions go unpunished or are accepted. Darley says that when organizations fail to adequately address ethical violations, others are more likely to perform the same actions.

What is tolerated is repeated, a process he describes as “entrainment.” Before long, an ethical organization can turn into a corrupt one.

Too much rigidity and too little humanity. Professor Rosemary O’Leary reminded readers of her 2006 book The Ethics of Dissent that rule-driven organizations can tend to make employees “go around the rules.” While most police organizations are hierarchal, there must be opportunities for employees to make and learn from mistakes, to explore alternative ideas for handling difficult situations, and to offer creative solutions to problems.

Getting officer feedback is essential. Law enforcement organizations where rules are perceived as unfair or prejudicial to a certain class of employees and those where rules are not justified or explained can also lead to rule bending and, ultimately, to rule breaking.

Lack of training. Training for officers often fails to address discretionary decision making, focusing more on hard skills like legal procedure, shooting guns, self-defense, and driving. The recent, large number of police shootings of unarmed victims provides an indication of the haste with which some officers draw their weapons.

Some law enforcement agencies are now using videos with changing scenarios that let officers practice discretionary action, after which they and their supervisors can critique decisions. “Ethical practice is not simply a matter of knowing and following a set of rules,” explain authors Terrance Johnson and Raymond Cox in a 2004 article published in Public Integrity. “It also requires the use of discretion and making split-second judgments.”

“Rules are not enough in such situations,” the authors write. “What should be taught is a “framework for decision making that fosters ethical decisions….”

Organizations in which the end justifies the means. In 1995 in a book chapter in The Legacy of Anomie Theory, author Deborah Cohen explains that unethical and criminal behavior is the natural outcome of a society in which “the end justifies the means.” When organizational goals are unattainable or when performance expectations are unrealistic, employees may interpret those demands as an excuse for rule bending or breaking.

Organizational wrongdoing is often the result of a misplaced emphasis on performance measurement in lieu of the core mission of the agency. Police departments that set quotas and have competitions for arrests, convictions, or traffic stops, may, in the eyes of employees, be effectively sanctioning rule breaking to achieve goals.

Absence of leadership focus and insistence on ethical behaviors. Author Tim Hallett wrote in Sociological Theory in 2003 that leaders have the power to “define the situation.” Defining the culture does not happen overnight, but a focus on ethical actions and public service must come from the top and be consistent.

Empowering employees, providing consistent supervision and discipline, and supporting employees through mentorship are key actions for organizations that desire to build an ethical culture. When managers complain about the cost or time away from work for ethics training, so will the employees. When leaders tacitly accept or ignore even covert prejudice, such attitudes may spread. Johnson and Cox explain that “[t]he culture of being above the law ends only when leaders enforce rules against corrupt behavior and then recognize right behavior.”

When the workforce does not mirror the citizenry. A well-established principle in public management is that the bureaucracy should, relatively speaking, look much like the public it serves where gender and race are concerned. The theory holds that inclusion of minority groups should help ensure that their ideas, feelings, issues, and concerns are recognized in government.

There is an old saw that says that people tend to hire people who look like themselves. It’s easy for local governments to get into the trap of hiring someone recommended by or related to a fellow employee or depending for recruitment on the same tired methods, thereby limiting the field of candidates.

Broad recruitment efforts with an emphasis on a diverse workforce that is similar to the constituency served can help avoid problems like those in Ferguson, Missouri, but only if the workforce is given the opportunity to share its opinions and concerns.

“Us-vs.-them” mentality. Widespread corruption in some police departments is, according to Johnson and Cox, due in part to training that creates an us-vs.-them mentality that is deeply inculcated into the organizational culture from academy through service.

The spate of well-publicized police brutality and misuse-of-force allegations and convictions has exacerbated this us-vs.-them feeling in the law enforcement community. When the public responds and police departments go on the defensive, they are more likely to shift into “protect our own” mode, which can further erode an ethical culture.

Johnson and Cox believe that leaders can change the culture by integrating the organization’s ethical vision and goals into training, especially training in decision-making. They write: “As long as police see controlling the ‘enemy’ as the first priority, the ideals of serving the community, of saving the weak from those who would use intimidation, and of the badge as an image of public confidence will not be adopted.”

Negative outward symbols of the organizational culture. The militarization of many U.S. police departments has served as a symbol to some residents that the police have ultimate power and control. Part of this culture change has been driven by reductions in military force, leading to more surplus equipment, but in part, symbolic changes in dress and demeanor of officers have been driven internally and copied across communities.

“Imagery is important,” writes Radley Balko in a May 18, 2015, Washington Post story. “It’s an indication of how the police see themselves, how they see the community they serve, and how they perceive their relationship with that community. And all of that in turn affects how the community views the police.”

Regaining footing as public servants can start with a shift toward becoming a part of the community, not just community enforcers.

Changing the Culture

Baltimore, Maryland, spent $5.7 million in police misconduct lawsuits and related costs between 2011 and September 2014. Though one might assume that the department had been properly chastened and reformed, the death of Baltimore resident Freddie Gray led in 2015 to a $6.4 million settlement with Gray’s family.

Departments routinely credit this type of problem to a few rogue cops or to a situation that got out of control. The officers who chained Freddie Gray in the back of the police van were doing what other cops in Baltimore had done without critique. That sort of ingrained culture is hard to change, but it is possible, and cultural change is essential for long-lasting transformation.

As law Professor Barbara Armacost put it in a 2003 George Washington Law Review article: “Real reform requires police organizations to accept collective responsibility, not only for heroism, but for police brutality and corruption as well.”

James Q. Wilson’s and George Kelling’s “Broken Windows Theory,” which suggests that strictly controlling minor disorders and vandalism can reduce more serious crime, has fallen out of favor as an overly aggressive model that has resulted in some of the disconnect between police departments and those they serve. But author Kelling still has good advice for departments to help them evolve into highly ethical organizations:

“Emphasize police adherence to a process (application of knowledge, skills, and values), rather than any predictable outcome, because outcomes of police interventions are often wildly unpredictable regardless of officers’ skills, intent, and values.

“Establish accountability standards that identify competent and excellent performance, violations of organizational rules, and incompetent or uncaring work, including performance within organizational rules.”

Policing is not easy. Officers come out of their academies with a high degree of discretionary power while experiencing high stress to get it right in situations they have never before experienced. Compound this highly charged atmosphere with an altered public perception of police in their communities, and departments are likely to grow more insular. There is the potential for the “Blue Wall of Silence” to become a fortress of silence.

Local government managers have an opportunity to create and support change in police departments out of touch with their communities, changes that will ultimately benefit communities that no longer trust the police. It’s time to get this right, but that means a frank assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the culture.



A future article in PM will address the manager’s role in helping steer the organizational culture of their local governments’ police departments.

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