Police Subculture and Law Enforcement Ethics


The subject of police subculture has attracted a heated debate for the past few decades whereby opponents view it as a counterproductive concept. Another category of scholars presents it as a beneficial issue that should be embraced in the law enforcement sector. Based on the amount of time spent solving crimes, police officers tend to perceive members of the public as potential criminals. As such, they often resort to seeking support, collaboration, and unity among their fellow officers while disregarding the input of other citizens. This situation has resulted in the “us versus them” frame of mind, which defines police subculture today.

This isolation of the public has various advantages and disadvantages. On the positive side, in addition to being respected by the public, police officers are seen as protectors of society. On the other hand, such seclusion can also lead to some unacceptable values and behaviors by police, including the propagation of corruption. Additionally, because law enforcement agents are charged with resolving serious crime-linked situations, they are the subject of much scrutiny and criticism from the public.

Importantly, many police actions depend on discretion and hence the reason why it is hard to defend them if they contradict societal expectations. Thus, some decisions by police are not viewed as heroic but rather an abuse of power. This paper critically examines the subject of police subculture, including its relevance to law enforcement ethics.

Critical Literature Review

The Concept of Police Subculture

Police subculture refers to a collection of beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes that characterize law enforcement members (Rose & Unnithan, 2015). Maskaly and Donner (2015) argue that the term police subculture receives both positive and negative connotations from various quarters. The above authors contend that both academia and the media often portray police subculture as primarily consisting of disparagement, malice, loyalty to self and colleagues, and the “us versus them” outlook. This view is entrenched in public by television shows that portray police officers as sadists who will stop at nothing to oppress citizens (Maskaly & Donner, 2015).

However, some authors appreciate that police subculture has numerous positive aspects that are often lost within the criticism of law enforcement agencies (Lee, Lim, Moore, & Kim, 2013; Parnby & Buffone, 2013; Watts, Todd, Mulhearn, Medeiros, Mumford, & Connelly, 2017). In particular, Rose and Unnithan (2015) argue that police officers share values that help them to cope with difficult and emotionally disturbing situations. Although their study does not specify such principles, Weitzer (2015) reveals them as supportiveness, compassion, solidarity, considerate, and determination. These two categories of studies agree that the support witnessed among police officers results from the said shared values (Rose & Unnithan, 2015; Weitzer, 2015).

Many debates on the subject of police subculture revolve around how the said phenomenon emerges. Based on Weitzer’s (2015) perspectives, police officers are exposed to the issue of subculture during recruitment and selection following the instructions they receive from veteran members. However, this author also maintains that incoming officers are pushed by personal reasons to joining the police force. As such, their thinking like police officers begins long before they are recruited into various law enforcement departments.

These individuals are drawn to their lines of work by either passion or being subjected to police work at an early age (Weitzer, 2015). A study on law enforcement recruits by Parnby and Buffone (2013) found that police officers’ mindsets form at an early age when they entertained the notion that they may join this industry.

As potential law implementation agents join the selection process, they are greatly exposed to activities, which embolden their earlier perspectives of what police subculture entails. This view leads to Weitzer’s (2015) conclusion that individual personalities still exist within the police subculture because every officer has a different notion of what their roles involve. According to Lee et al. (2013), these distinct personalities are conducive to occupation in policing since they allow individuals to select a niche that is suitable for them within the police subculture.

Conversely, Weitzer (2015) insists that recruits only encounter this phenomenon once they join law enforcement academies. According to him, police subculture tends to impart harmful and destructive perspectives on law implementation agents (Weitzer, 2015). Occasionally, police subculture evolves to match norms that underlie the conventional culture, regardless of whether they are negative or positive.

In exploring the above perspective, Weitzer (2015) offers a historical examination of the police subculture. He observes the way officers in the 1940s acted in overt bias toward African-Americans. The prevailing societal norm at the time was racial discrimination against blacks. Thus, in line with Weitzer’s (2015) perspectives, police subculture could only reflect issues regarding segregation. Even though these assertions are not backed empirically, Weitzer (2015) maintains that it would be logical to conclude that law enforcement officers shared the same level of intolerance exhibited by members of the society.

This view is significant today in the wake of increased clashes between police officers and minority groups. According to Weitzer (2015), tribal profiling appears to be a part of the police subculture today. Through interviews with police officers, this author establishes that despite critics seeing some actions as racially motivated, law enforcement agents interpret them as sound and legitimate criminal profiling (Maskaly & Donner, 2015). Thus, stereotyping against minorities is part of the police subculture, either collectively or at a personal level. Consequently, Maskaly and Donner (2015) uphold the perception that minorities have less confidence in law enforcement officers compared to their white counterparts.

Crank (2014) explains how a police subculture emerges. He argues that officers spend every day interacting with a usually hostile public. Here, they encounter frequent scenarios involving death. Despite these realities, police officers are consistently made aware of their role to protect the public. The result is that they look to their colleagues for support and collaboration while at the same time distancing themselves from everyone else outside their department (Crank, 2014).

Traits such as strength and self-determination are emphasized. As such, law enforcement agents are encouraged to act as invincible people. They often have to deal with the inherent need for not showing weakness and fear even in dangerous situations. Unfortunately, Rose and Unnithan (2015) introduce an ethical issue to be examined in the succeeding section. These authors emphasize the need for viewing police officers as human beings who are subject to trauma, pain, and weaknesses.

Some departments do not offer adequate support to their law enforcement agents, meaning that those battling mental disorders may remain unattended. This situation informs Crank’s (2014) views that values and attitudes that form police subculture are passed onto recruits in the line of duty whereby the field-training officers (FTOs) insist they should ignore what was taught at police academies. This way, proper values such as humility, compassion, and caring are immediately replaced with pessimism, prejudice, and unresponsiveness (Crank, 2014).

Perverse humor is often deployed as a tool for mocking colleagues who demonstrate emotional attributes often regarded as inferior. An example would be where a new officer, being hysterical after experiencing an incident of violent child abuse, is told by a colleague to stop being a coward.

From the above discussion, all authors offer valid arguments regarding what police subculture entails. Undoubtedly, this concept encompasses both positive and negative attributes. However, it is crucial to factor in the immense stress that officers undergo when performing their duties. In many cases, they have to make split-second decisions that are then subjected to public criticisms based on their outcomes (Parnaby & Buffone, 2013).

In this regard, the perspective by Weitzer (2015) offers an outstanding discussion regarding police subculture. Firstly, it recognizes it as being necessary for the survival of officers. Aspects such as courage, loyalty, and collaboration enable officers to tackle dangerous situations. Unfortunately, the same subculture may entertain harmful practices, including racial profiling and the lack of empathy. In addition, it may create an artificial separation between officers and members of the public.

However, Weizer’s (2015) and Parnby and Buffone’s (2013) perspective that recruits only first interact with police culture at the recruitment stage is refutable. As demonstrated by Weizer (2015), societal opinions regarding what police work entails often have a tremendous influence on law enforcement agents’ values and behaviors. Consequently, it is imperative to critically analyze the relevance of police subculture in shaping law enforcers’ ethics by exploring, comparing, and contrast the views of various authors.

The Relevance of Police Subculture to Police Ethics

Parnaby and Buffone (2013) identify a recruit’s induction as a critical moment, which shapes their attitude to reflect the ideal organizational environment. As such, they insist that police subculture, being a profound phenomenon at the law enforcement academy, helps in transforming recruits from being civilians to police officers. Activities such as parades and drills, marching, and storytelling impart certain expectations in them, thus influencing their future actions.

Particularly, according to Rose and Unnithan (2015), storytelling comprises a valuable and effective tool for passing expectations on ethical conduct to newly hired officers. Police ethics is often believed to incorporate behaviors such as allegiance, integrity, and courage. According to Resnik (2015), ethics in its most simplified definition means engaging in what is permissible by law. As such, the public is often given the freedom to measure officers’ actions against social standards of what is considered right or wrong.

Therefore, expounding on Resnik’s (2015) viewpoints, Parnaby and Buffone (2013) present the public perception of law enforcement as critical because it is the ultimate measure of these people’s ethical behaviors. Consequently, studies have indicated that police officers’ trust differs considerably across ethnicities, perhaps because of the nature of interactions among them and members of the society. For instance, research by Maskaly and Donner (2015) showed that while only 25 percent of African-Americans viewed law enforcement agents as honest, 44% of whites had voted in favor of their integrity.

Lee et al. (2013) argue that the level of accountability by officers automatically dictates their conduct. Police who believe they will be held accountable for their actions are likely to rethink their deeds and decisions before undertaking them. For instance, corruption differs in levels across police departments depending on the prevailing subculture in each unit. Therefore, concurring with perspectives by Lee et al. (2013), a department where supervisors protect officers from prosecution for acts, including falsifying charges, promotes such behaviors. Other actions that seem to be part of the police subculture consist of implanting evidence, beating suspects who attempt to run, and interfering with body-worn cameras (BWCs).

Additionally, Lee et al. (2013) maintain that such practices are passed down via socialization, which primarily helps to maintain the subculture under investigation. In this context, socialization refers to the process by which recruits are paired with experienced police officers who then pass onto them both positive and negative qualities. Similarly, Maskaly and Donner (2015) maintain that the impact of socialization is tremendous to the extent that it can erase the positive knowledge gained at the police academy and instead introduce recruits to evil aspects of the police subculture.

Watts et al. (2017) introduce the aspect of relativism where actions seen as unethical by critics can be positive within the police subculture. They give two examples, namely, loyalty and solidarity. These two qualities can have negative and positive aspects. Therefore, confusion may arise regarding what ethical and/or unethical loyalty entails. For example, a study by Bayley (2015) indicated that most stories told to recruits do not illegalize activities such as excessive force and lying in court. Further, tactics, particularly the use of trickery and lies to obtain confessions from suspects, are not necessarily seen as evil within the police subculture.

On the other hand, moral absolutism is the belief that morality is a constant that cannot be negotiated on a case-by-case basis (Bayley, 2015). In this context, police officers who subscribe to this ethical theory would reject lying, regardless of the circumstances at hand. However, based on views by Watts et al. (2017), following the high standards by the public holds police officers, it does not acknowledge the use of such unconventional practices even for the greater good. Thus, what society holds as ethical conduct may not be viewed as appropriate by law enforcement agencies in their pursuit of social order. Consequently, Lee et al. (2013) propose that more studies should be carried out to delineate the grey area, namely, police operations, in relation to ethics.

Weitzer (2015) appreciates that police interact with numerous unpredictable individuals and situations. However, he insists that such officers can choose to remain honest, ethical, and fair at personal levels no matter the event at hand. In particular, law enforcement integrity, as opposed to external occurrences, should inform their conduct at all times (Weitzer, 2015). Jefferson (2014) also holds this view by relying on the slippery slope theory of ethics to explain police misconduct. According to this theory, there is a deliberate transformation of moral civilians into unethical police officers. Issues that begin as minor breaches soon become blatant disregard of the law (Jefferson, 2014).

Eventually, they evolve into systemic corruption. However, opponents of the slippery slope theory, such as Bayley (2015), argue that it is simplistic in its assumption that immoral behavior can only become worse. In other words, this school of thought ignores the possibility that police who act unethically may regret and decide to change. In this regard, opponents of the slippery slope theory reject abolitionism in its entirety because they feel it is impracticable at best.


Police officers are always under constant scrutiny and criticism by the public because of the nature of their work. On the other hand, they tend to view the public as untrustworthy, thus worsening the rift between these two sides. This paper has examined various perspectives of police subculture and its influence on police ethics. It has been established that some practices, which are considered normal by police, deviate significantly from society’s ethical expectations. Further, it has emerged that racial tensions extend to the policing scene to the extent that minorities have minimal trust in law enforcement agents compared to whites.

This discovery supports the notion that the wider society largely influences police subculture. As such, prevailing norms in mainstream society are likely to penetrate the police subculture. Recruitment and subsequent socialization processes play a key role in shaping the behavior of young police officers. As they continue to work in their departments, they become more like their seniors, as opposed to civilians. Unsurprisingly, proponents of the slippery slope theory maintain that officers who begin by committing seemingly small mistakes will eventually engage in severe misconduct.


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Weitzer, R. (2015). American policing under fire: Misconduct and reform. Society, 52(5), 475-480.

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