Police subculture reconsidered

Author: Herbert, Steve Source: Criminology v36n2 (May 1998): 343-369 ISSN: 0011-1384 Number: 03798788 Copyright: Copyright American Society of Criminology 1998


Most comprehensive discussions of the police acknowledge the inability of legal and bureaucratic regulations to determine officer behavior. Attention is turned instead toward the informal norms developed within the police subculture. These discussions, however, tend to overstress the chasm between the formal and informal. They also provide inadequate tools for understanding differentiation, conflict, and change within police departments. I address these shortcomings here by mobilizing a particular conceptualization of the term "normative order"-as a set of rules and practices oriented around a central value. Six such orders are crucial to policing: law, bureaucratic control, adventure/machismo, safety, competence, and morality. I illustrate the importance of each by drawing upon ethnographic observations of the Los Angeles Police Department, and explain how my conceputalization offers a comprehensive yet flexible means to understand the social world of policing.

Most comprehensive discussions of the police include some mention of subculture. The police are typically viewed as a distinct subgroup with a particular ethos that strongly influences their daily practices. Several authors emphasize the prevailing sense of rupture that officers believe exists between them and the general public, a "we/they" mentality that courses through the police's social world (Kappeler et al., 1994; Niederhoffer, 1967; Skolnick, 1966; Westley, 1970). Some authors stress the inability of formal laws and regulations to adequately control police behavior, and they argue that less formal customs are determinative of police action (Bittner, 1967; Brown, 1981; Reiner, 1992; Reuss-Ianni, 1983; Rubinstein, 1973). In sum, the police are typically described as a social group, differentiated from the general public, whose behavior is more significantly structured by informal norms than by formal rules.

There is some consistency in these discussions about those factors most central to police subculture. As mentioned, police officers are described as seeing themselves as distinct from the general population. This, it is argued, frequently breeds mistrust and suspicion of the public (Banton, 1964; Cain, 1973; Graef, 1989; Westley, 1970). This is manifest, in part, in the tendency of officers to cover up each other's mistakes, to develop a united front against outside interest in their potential misdeeds (Chevigny, 1995; Shearing, 1981; Westley, 1970). The police world is further characterized as extremely masculine (Fielding, 1994; Reiner, 1992), so much so that women's acceptance into the group is resisted (Heidensohn, 1992). Concern about danger is also central; cops talk regularly about the possibilities of harm and structure their practices to ensure their well-being (Kappeler et al., 1994; Skolnick, 1966). The social order of the police, then, is usually regarded as ins! ular, suspicious, masculine, and focused on risk.1

These discussions of police subculture clearly illuminate the daily practices of officers; they help to explain how police discretion is exercised on the streets. There are, however, two principal shortcomings of most accounts of police subculture. First, they typically make a sharp distinction between formal and informal, between the legal and bureaucratic regulations that ostensibly dictate police behaviors and the less formal ethos of the subculture. It is questionable, however, whether this distinction is actually so sharp in daily practice. Formal regulations are not perhaps as impotent as some police commentators have suggested and thus should not necessarily be considered less significant than informal customs. Further, the formal and the informal commingle in ways that merit investigation. Legal and bureaucratic rules do partially determine police activity, but officers are able to interpret these rules in particular ways. One needs, therefore, a way to examine how ! formally constructed rules become real in the daily practices of officers.

Second, these discussions commonly treat police subculture as if it were a more-or-less cohesive whole. Cops are constituted as a distinct social group, a coherent "we" in contrast to the "they" of the broader public. To the extent that differentiation is said to exist within the police world, it is described in one of two ways. One is the two cultures approach (ReussIanni 1983), which posits a distinction between "management cops" and "street cops." The former are characterized by their allegiance to formal bureaucratic structures and rigid lines of authority and decision making, while the latter treasure the latitude given street-smart cops to intelligently improvise responses to events based upon their unique characteristics. This is an important distinction; it helps to explicate the various tensions that flare between supervisors and patrol officers. However, this approach perhaps overstresses the distinction between the two grou! ps and thus ignores the commonalities between them. It is perhaps less the case that the two cultures are radically distinct, but rather that different aspects of the overall social world of the police are given different inflections depending on one's rank. The two cultures approach also fails to provide an adequately structured account of how the two groups differ.

The other means of discussing police differentiation is to list varying types of officers (e.g., Brown, 1981; Muir, 1977; Reiner, 1978). These approaches are not strictly analogous, but are broadly similar (Reiner, 1992). They describe different sorts of officers based upon their dominant attitudes toward the public and toward police work; cops are more or less connected to the public, and they are more or less committed to embracing the ethos of danger, adventure, and the possible use of coercive force. The problem here is that these categories are too psychologistic and too restrictive. They are clearly social categories, but they describe individual officers who appear to slot themselves into one group or another based upon their preexisting psychology. There is less of a sense, therefore, of how group pressures and socialization practices shape which perspective an individual adopts. These categorizations can also be too rigid. Officers may not clearly occupy any one ca! tegory, and they may shift their perspective with some frequency. These categorizations, then, may fail to enable the analyst enough flexibility to capture shifts in officers' orientations.

The challenge for an analysis of police subculture is thus to capture the formal and informal groupwide dynamics that constitute the police as a distinct group while also providing a means to adequately capture internal variations. Recent developments in the sociology of culture point the way to a more satisfactory approach toward police subculture.


Two significant contributions emerge from recent discussions in the sociology of culture. One is the treatment of culture as a variegated and complex entity (Archer, 1988; Gamson, 1992; Hannerz, 1992; Sewell, 1992; Swidler, 1986). No longer viewed as a cohesive superorganic, culture is rightly seen, in Sewell's words (1992:16), as "multiple, fractured and contingent," consisting of a variety of schemas of different scope and power. Swidler treats culture as a "tool kit," a collection of stories, rituals, and world views employed by human agents in different ways in different times and places. For his part, Gamson elucidates the variety of "frames" through which agents view particular social issues. In all of these accounts, culture is significant in shaping people's world views and actions, but also consists of a wide variety of often incomplete and sometimes contradictory resources upon which actors draw.

The second advance-a robust sense of human agency-is related to the first. In these accounts, human actors are not "cultural dopes" (Garfinkel, 1967) who unconsciously enact internalized cultural dispositions, but instead are active agents, deploying cultural schemas and resources in improvised responses to uncertain and unfolding situations. For Sewell, human agents are continually transposing cultural schemas from one event to the next, creatively adapting past practices and understandings to new arenas. Swidler's metaphor of a tool kit implies an active carpenter, who uses the requisite cultural resources to construct particular "strategies of action." Different individuals, of course, possess different amounts and types of cultural resources (Gamson, 1992; Sasson, 1995), but they continue to work actively to make sense of the world as they move from situation to situation.

Culture is thus commonly seen as a grab bag of assorted schemas, tools, and frames, which are reflexively adapted by active agents to new and uncertain scenarios. This more complicated and contingent view of culture is a welcome advance. However, there are two ways in which this work remains underdeveloped. The first is that it does not yet provide adequate analytic tools to develop understandings of particular cultural groups. The terms employed by Sewell (schema) and Swidler (tool kit) are both somewhat imprecise and overly broad. Sewell (1992:8) describes culture as consisting of "intersubjectively available procedures or schemas capable of being actualized or put into practice in a range of different circumstances." Swidler,s tool kit consists of "symbols, stories, rituals and world-views, which people may use in varying configurations to solve different kinds of problems" (1986:273). Gamson's term (frame) is mobilized to understand different respons! es to particular social issues, not the daily actions of members of a discernible social group. If one's task is to illuminate the daily practices of a particular social group, one might profit from a more precise analytic concept.

A second concern with the new cultural sociology is its neglect or even outright rejection of a normative component. Sewell's schemas, for example, are overtly cognitive. Swidler explicitly writes against the centrality of values in previous discussions of culture, arguing that end values do not shape the contours of action. The proposed links between values and behavior, she asserts, do not materialize in empirical studies. She therefore suggests that culture is important in shaping how action is organized, not its ultimate ends. Her approach, Wuthnow and Witten (1988) argue, is an example of an emerging "external" view of culture, one that focuses on such products of cultural work as art, books, rituals and speech, and the human agency that produces them. This they contrast with an earlier "internal" view of culture, championed by Weber and Parsons, which emphasized the inculcation of values and their implicit and unconscious influence on daily life. T! o study culture from this perspective meant uncovering the socialized values that oriented action toward particular meaningful ends.

It is important to endorse the sense of agency captured by the "external" view of culture; actors are not best described as "cultural dopes." However, the eschewal of values seems overstated. Action is often goal directed, and those goals are often designed to fulfill values. Indeed, as Swidler herself acknowledges (1986:281), "as certain cultural resources. . . become more fully invested with meaning, they anchor the strategies of action people have developed." Such meanings are frequently made cogent because they exemplify or amplify shared values.2 Further, some of these valued meanings may in fact be largely unconscious and internalized. The recent emphasis on agency may obscure the commonplace occurrence of actors following unstated norms. As Ortner (1994:394) puts it, "Either because practice theorists wish to emphasize the activeness and intentionality of action, or because of a growing interest in change as against reproduction, or! both, the degree to which actors really do simply enact norms . . . may be unduly undervalued."


The goal, then, is to incorporate the complexity of culture and the reflexivity of cultural actors into one's analysis without sacrificing analytic sharpness or a necessary openness to often internalized norms and values. I propose mobilizing a particular analytic concept-normative order-to accomplish these ends. I define normative order in a particular and idiosyncratic way, as a set of generalized rules and common practices oriented around a common value. Given social worlds consist of varied collections of such orders, which together provide guidelines and justifications for actions of members of the group. For example, as I elaborate below, the subculture of policing is best understood as a collection of six primary normative orders-law, bureaucratic control, adventure/machismo, safety, competence, and morality. Each of these orders provides officers ways of understanding, enacting, and valuing situations.

The term normative order is commonly associated with Parsons, who used the term to capture the importance of internalized values for structuring individual behavior (Parsons, 1937, 1951). As suggested earlier, social cohesion, for Parsons, resulted from the acculturation of a consistent set of values across a population. Borrowing from Freud, Parsons argued that the internalization of values was an essential part of individual human development, and was "the core phenomenon at the base of social order" (1951:42). Because these values were shared by members of a social group, social stability resulted.

Parsons's formulation has been criticized in two significant ways. One critique, noted earlier, has come from ethnomethodologists, who argue that Parsons reduces the human actor to a "cultural dope" whose behavior is determined for her by prior conditioning (DiMaggio and Powell, 1991; Garfinkel, 1967; Heritage, 1984). There is thus an inadequate accounting for how individuals reflexively and cognitively construct and apply rules for social interaction. Ethnomethodoligists wish to give more prominent analytic play to the actor's ability to act as a cognitive agent, to read and react to social situations in a series of structured improvisations. This sense of agency, they argue, is lost in Parsons's work (DiMaggio and Powell, 1991; Heritage, 1984).

The second key critique of Parsons concerns his emphasis on consensus instead of conflict (Coser, 1956; Dahrendorf, 1959; Gouldner, 1970; Rex, 1961; Seidman, 1994). According to this argument, Parsons's emphasis on common sets of values obscures the ways in which social groups are internally differentiated. There is some debate about the extent to which Parsons neglected conflict (Alexander, 1987), but there is an overbearing tilt toward cohesion and away from fragmentation (Seidman, 1994). The most obvious fragmentations occur along the lines of race, class, and gender. Given that these divisions determine one's life opportunities, they should not be obscured in social analysis. Conflict, however, occurs along numerous other dimensions as well. In police departments, for example, conflict occurs quite regularly between officers who differ on how an incident should be handled. As researchers, our analytic tools need to be sufficiently flexible to enable us to understand the! variety of ways in which conflict is engendered.

My definition of normative order-as a set of rules and practices centered around a primary value-represents an effort to build on Parsons's work while also paying heed to critiques of it. I include rules in my definition to acknowledge the cognitive aspects of human action. For example, the members of the social group studied here, police officers, work very regularly to define situations based upon what the law proscribes or what considerations of safety suggest; they apply rules to situations in a reflexive manner. At the same time, these rules are given meaning by the value they uphold. Normative pulls on human action, as Parsons stressed, should therefore be given their proper due. Police officers are more likely to handle a dangerous call if they know that they will later be recognized as adventurous and brave by their peers.3

There are, however, several normative orders that structure social life. By opening analysis to the full variety of these orders, one provides a possibility for understanding conflict within an organization like a police department. These orders often cohere. For example, I witnessed an officer arrest a man for bruising his wife. The arrest was actually required by law, but the officer invoked morality as well when he told the protesting wife that the arrest "was the right thing to do." On other occasions, however, orders can conflict. What an officer defines as "the right thing to do" may, in fact, violate legal rules. In these situations, officers must choose which order to use in defining the situation, and their decisions might differ from those of other officers. Organizational conflict is the inevitable result.

Note that I do not confine "rules" simply to those formally encoded in legal or bureaucratic dictums. Rules are just as often informally developed within particular social groups. It is a rule, for example, that rookie police officers sit at the front of the room during roll calls; this is not a rule that is formally inscribed in any police documents, but those who violate it are quite loudly punished through ridicule by senior officers. Note also that rules are not treated simply, as some ethnomethodoligists prefer, as resources to justify and make sense of behavior after it has occurred (Hilbert, 1981; Imershein and Simons, 1976; Shearing and Ericson, 1991; Wieder, 1974). In this view, rules are best seen as resources discursively used to accomplish order, not to actually create order in the first place by directing behavior. Rules may in fact be often used as ethnomethodologists suggest, but it is also the case that police behavior is typically goal directed (B! ayley and Bittner, 1984) and hence officers use often quite specific rules to achieve overtly defined ends.4 It is hard to understand police training in any other way. On the other hand, ethnomethodologists are correct to remind us that behavior is far more complicated than a simple enaction of stated rules. Rules are incomplete, contradictory, and unable to predict all future scenarios. Their invocation will thus depend on a particular context (Wieder, 1970) and will always involve the reflexive work of active agents working to match prior understandings with current realities.

My use of the concept normative order thus escapes the main critiques of Parsons's approach. It includes rules in its definition as a way of highlighting the cognitive and reflexive activities of human agents in defining situations, and it opens an analytic window onto social conflict by elaborating a variety of orders and their potential contradictory tendencies. This analytic orientation to a cultural world like that constructed by police officers possesses some resemblances to Bourdieu's use of the term habitus-a set of internalized dispositions that mediates between social structure and human action. For Bourdieu, the habitus consists of principles "which generate and organize practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them" (1990:53). The habitus thus interpellates between structure and agency in daily pract! ice.

Bourdieu's analysis is insightful and has been used to help illuminate police daily practice (Chan, 1997; Manning, 1994). However, there are two principal shortcomings with this approach. The first is its vagueness. It is hard to know precisely what constitutes a disposition or principle of mediation. The notion of habitus has a strong intuitive appeal, but it is not clear just how one would go about denoting and describing its contours. The second shortcoming is the seeming coherence and stability of each habitus (Sewell, 1992). There is little sense of contradiction among different sets of principles and thus of internal conflict within a given habitus. The concept of normative order is superior in both regards, because each order can be located more precisely, and because the conflict between different orders can be woven into the analysis.

The challenge for an analysis of police subculture is thus to capture the formal and informal groupwide dynamics that constitute the police as a distinct group while also providing a means to adequately capture internal variations. An approach that mobilizes the concept of "normative order" seems a promising avenue to pursue. As I demonstrate below, this approach has several advantages. One is that it brings formal and informal mechanisms together in the analysis and treats each as important in structuring the daily lives of officers. Another is that it provides a structured means of understanding conflict within police organizations, both between and within ranks. Officers are differentially captured by the various normative orders. This leads officers to define situations differently and, hence, to dispute how best to resolve them. Finally, this approach enables a capacity to understand change both for an organization and for individual officers. Departments may! shift in terms of which normative orders are dominant, and individual officers may shift in terms of which orders they mobilize most often to define their work and the various incidents they handle.

I rely on fieldwork conducted in one patrol division of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) for illustrations of the role of each normative order in the social world of the police (see Herbert, 1997). The fieldwork, which took place in 1993-1994, principally involved ride-alongs with sergeants, who work as supervisors of patrol officers, and with senior lead officers, who work to maintain police-community relations and who monitor areas of ongoing concern, such as street corners where drugs are sold or houses where gang members are suspected to gather. I also observed specialized units that focus on vice, narcotics, and gangs, accompanied two footbeat units and two helicopter units on tours of duty, and observed radio dispatchers on four occasions. I carried a small spiral notebook and used it to mark short references to events and conversations. These were transformed into more detailed field notes, the analysis of which revealed how the six normative orders structure! the world police officers construct. The field notes are also the source of the vignettes dispersed throughout the text.


As suggested earlier, six normative orders shape the social world of the police-the law, bureaucratic control, adventure/machismo, safety, competence, and morality. Each of these orders both enables and constrains officers. The law, for example, enables officers to exercise coercive force in ways ordinary citizens cannot. It can also serve as a resource to justify a variety of action officers wish to undertake (Bittner, 1967). But it also constrains officers by limiting their legally defined reach and range of tactics (see also Black, 1980; Mastrofski et al., 1995). Each of these orders is also at times internally inconsistent. One set of bureaucratic rules may conflict with another such that their reconciliation is impossible. Or the normative order of competence may be defined differently. Some officers define competence as collecting large numbers of arrests, others as the successful resolution of a neighborhood dispute in which no arrests are made. Competence may also v! ary from one department to another, given each's particular history or political orientation. As a result, conflict can sometimes emerge not only between one order versus another, but also from within a single order.

It is also worth noting that the boundaries between different normative orders are often quite permeable. It is difficult to discern, for example, whether a given use of force by a police officer is best explained as arising from adventure/machismo, safety, or morality. The complex interactions between the central normative orders do not, however, diminish the importance for each structuring the social world of police officers. The following analysis of each order makes this clear.


The law is typically underplayed as a determinant of police behavior. Given that the law is ambiguous, sometimes contradictory, and difficult to apply to complicated social situations, it can rarely be invoked unproblematically. Further, officers are rarely supervised, so they are able to respond to unique situations with unique solutions; they are, in Manning's words, "situationally rational" (1980). To this end, the law may often be invoked, but merely to accomplish whatever goal officers deem necessary. Law is thus often viewed not as a determinant of police behavior, but as a resource for them to achieve some larger purpose, often described as "peacekeeping" (Banton, 1964; Bittner, 1967) or "order maintenance" (Wilson, 1968).

This is another way of saying that police officers possess tremendous discretion to ignore, stretch, or only provisionally apply the law. This line of thought thus encourages an emphasis on police subculture as a more powerful influence on police action.

While an emphasis on police subculture is surely warranted, it should not come at the expense of an appropriate appreciation for how the law fundamentally structures police action. After all, basic police responsibilities and powers are defined by the law (Grimshaw and Jefferson, 1987). Further, the division between law enforcement and order maintenance is often overdrawn; order is often defined in legal terms, and its maintenance is impossible without the legally proscribed powers officers possess.

Further, the law is a principal means by which officers regularly reach a definition of a situation. It is not always that officers choose a course of action and use the law to justify it, but that they use the law in the first instance to decide whether and how to respond.

A sergeant is summoned to an apartment building by a group of patrol officers. A woman is charging her husband with domestic abuse. Because the officers are choosing to take no action, she is now threatening a lawsuit. This threat captures the sergeant's attention and he responds.

He arrives to discover one officer guarding an obviously intoxicated man sitting on the front steps of the building; the man is the husband in question. The other officers are inside with the woman. They are refusing to arrest the man because there is no evidence of physical abuse-the woman sports no cuts or bruises despite her claims that he hit her, the apartment is in good order even though she said he went on a rampage. The sergeant interviews the woman, and then calls a group huddle in front of the building.

A discussion ensues about what, if any, law can be invoked. The sergeant agrees that a domestic abuse charge is not warranted. They briefly discuss arresting the man for drunkenness in public, but they acknowledge that he is outside only because they ordered him there. The discussion over, the sergeant informs the woman that she will have to obtain a restraining order for them to have legal power to arrest her husband. She is dissatisfied, but the officers leave the scene.

Here, the officers actively work to define the situation in terms of the legal code; they attempt to match what they observe with definitions of illegal conduct. Absent such a match, they choose to take no action. The law thus works in this and many other situations as a prism through which officers view an event for evidence of wrongdoing, and base their response accordingly. It therefore remains important to analyze how the law fundamentally informs police practice, both by defining officers' powers and responsibilities and by shaping how they interpret and react to events. This is not to say that the law is everywhere and always determinant of police practice, but that it remains a basal aspect of the police's social world regardless of the prevalence of discretion.

The law also exists as a fundamental value for police officers. It serves not only as a powerful cloak of legitimacy for the organization as a whole (Manning, 1977), but also as a regular source of justification for daily police actions. Officers invoke not just the bare dictums of the legal code in their actions, but the broader value of preserving a legally defined social order. This provides a powerful normative pull on officers.

The law can thus be considered a normative order for police officers, a set of rules and practices oriented around a principal value. It shapes their daily practices in quite basic ways, and to a certain extent, it regulates their behavior by determining how they can and cannot act. It may well be the case that officers sometimes run roughshod over legal restrictions on such activities as searches and seizures (Chambliss, 1994; McBarnet, 1979), but this does not mean that such restrictions are unimportant in shaping police behavior. Any comprehensive analysis of the social world of the police cannot ignore how officers use legal rules to define situations and to determine their reaction.


Bureaucratic regulations constitute another more formalized set of guidelines for police behavior. These exist to provide structure to the organization and to provide upper-level management a means to control the behavior of those beneath them (Brown, 1981). Such regulations also serve to decrease the sense of uncertainty that is a characteristic of police life (Manning, 1989). As important as these regulations may be for structuring police departments, they are often downplayed in analysis of police behavior. Again, officers handle messy and ill-defined incidents with little direct supervision. They are thus typically able to exercise discretion as they best see fit, and they commonly value the accumulated wisdom that comes with street savvy, not the stodgy rules promulgated by management cops (Bittner, 1967; Reuss-Ianni, 1983). This understandable emphasis on discretion, however, should not preclude a proper analytic opening to the basic structure the bureaucracy creates ! for the police. Bureaucratic stipulations principally define the social and spatial world of concern for officers-they determine the type and location of incidents for which officers will assume responsibility. They further determine the range of tactics the officers are likely to employ. Situations and responses are significantly defined based upon an officer's position on the bureaucratic flowchart.

For example, groups of Latino day workers regularly stand on Los Angeles street corners in hopes that a contractor will come by looking for people to hire. A senior lead officer (SLO) with whom I rode rousted such men, who gathered on one particular corner in the area for which he was responsible. A patrol sergeant, however, passed the men with barely more than a glance. The SLO defines the men as a problem because of his bureaucratically defined responsibilities-he must respond to the complaints of residents of the area, many of whom dislike the day laborers. The sergeant's job is to supervise patrol officers, and thus he moves from priorty call to priority call to oversee the patrol response. A group of day laborers does not represent, to the sergeant, a situation worthy of his attention. Thus, although each man possesses the same legally defined coercive powers, each defines the same situation differently based upon his job description.

This is true of officers across the organization. Vice officers define a unique set of social situations as important, as do narcotics officers, gang officers, and so on. Each group also develops a particular set of tactics to accomplish its purposes. Narcotics officers, for example, regularly engage in undercover buy-bust operations to attempt to stem the extent of streetlevel drug sales. Gang officers, by contrast, rely on general surveillance of individuals and locations defined as central to gang activity.

These variations within the organization stretch across both horizontal and vertical dimensions-responsibilities differ within and between ranks. Officers of the same rank address different tasks based upon their particular bureaucratic assignment; a sergeant in patrol has a job description dissimilar from a sergeant in vice. Responsibilities also vary vertically between ranks. As an officer rises in the bureaucratic hierarchy, the numbers and geographic expanse of responsibilities increase; higher-ranking officers are accountable for a larger number of incidents across a wider geographic swath.

These organizationally defined job descriptions work to focus how officers define the type and location of situations that demand their attention. They thus help to determine just which officer will assume what responsibility when several converge on the same incident. The key issue is often who "owns the scene," who possesses the authority to determine the overall police response. Typically, the first officers at the scene possess ownership, but they can be countermanded by higher-ranking officers. Still, sergeants are expected to intercede infrequently and will lose the respect and loyalty of patrol officers if they are perceived as overly meddlesome. Thus, the interaction of officers of different ranks and responsibilities is frequently fraught with tension and can create interorganizational conflict. Patrol officers, for example, regularly complained about the attitude of officers in the gang unit. The latter group was organized at a different bureaucratic lev! el and gathered at a different station. The gang unit was seen as elitist by the patrol officers. Given their exalted bureaucratic status, gang officers only rarely exchanged information with those consigned to the mundane world of patrol. This not only led to tension between the units, but also to a reduced capacity of the organization to deal comprehensively with gang-related activities.

The bureaucratic structure of an organization like the LAPD is designed to provide coherence and control. Management-level officers work regularly to commit officers to the values of cohesion and compliance through both moral suasion and the application of sanctions. The structure also works to define for officers the nature and extent of the situations for which they assume responsibility, although tensions sometimes flare when different officers and units interact at the scene. These tensions are sometimes a consequence of the fact that officers' definitions of situations are contingent upon other normative orders, one of which is adventure/ machismo.


There are two contrasting labels LAPD officers sometimes apply to one another. One is "hardcharger," a term used to describe an aggressive officer willing to rush into dangerous situations, one who seeks the adrenaline high that accompanies handling a potentially hazardous call. Hardchargers volunteer to handle incidents that represent a potential threat to the well-being of themselves or others. They also enjoy vehicle pursuits for the excitement that accompanies them, and they frequently seek out dangerous suspects like gang members. In short, hardchargers are police warriors and exemplify such typically masculine characteristics as courage and strength.

By contrast, LAPD officers are sometimes derided as "station queens." Such officers are described as wary of danger. They seek instead the refuge of the inside to avoid the hazards of the streets. The term "queen" clearly feminizes such officers-they do not possess sufficient strength to pass muster in accordance with the adventure/machismo normative order.

This normative order is expressed quite regularly in the LAPD and other police departments (Fielding, 1994; Heidensohn, 1992; Reiner, 1992). Officers engage in long conversations at the conclusion of any thrilling or dangerous call. Vehicle and foot pursuits, for example, are recounted often. The narrators of such stories frequently become animated as they discuss the various twists and turns of the chase, evincing their enjoyment of the thrill of the hunt. Officers also discuss encounters with gang suspects in dangerous parts of the patrol division. Indeed, many officers enjoy regaling listeners with story after story of various precarious situations they handled during their careers. The subtext of such stories is clear: Policing is a risky endeavor not for the fainthearted.

This ideology is also manifest in officers' attitudes toward death. I once accompanied a sergeant to an apartment where a young man had killed himself with a shot to the head. The sergeant insisted that I accompany him inside to witness the scene. I followed, but found myself unable to remain for long. Later, I endured a prolonged ribbing from several officers for my queasiness. I received a similar treatment at a call involving the victim of a drug overdose, whose body was discovered several days after the death. I refused an invitation to enter the apartment building to observe the investigation of the scene, which led to joking among the officers involved. In each case, I was not so subtly reminded that I did not possess the requisite moxie for police work.

To adhere to the standards of the adventure/machismo normative order, then, officers must demonstrate their courage and bravery by willingly placing themselves in potentially dangerous or otherwise uncomfortable situations. Such officers hunt aggressively for threatening suspects and actively seek out possible stolen cars in hopes that a vehicle pursuit might result. They have a coldhearted view of death. Indeed, some officers seem to embrace an aggressive, almost militaristic attitude toward their work. Some officers are described as "ghetto gunfighters," as victims of the "John Wayne syndrome." This sort of aggressiveness has long been associated with the LAPD (Fogelson, 1971; Turner, 1968), particularly in terms of its policing of neighborhoods dominated by minorities (Appier, 1990; Davis, 1990; Escobar, 1993). Despite the increased rhetoric of community policing, and the ostensibly "softer" policing it implies, the adventure/machismo normat! ive order remains an integral part of the police subculture in Los Angeles and other communities.


Officers thus encourage each other to summon the necessary bravery to handle potentially perilous calls. They also encourage each other to ensure the preservation of their own life and the lives of others. Indeed, the normative order of safety is invoked with impressive frequency. Roll calls regularly end with the admonition "stay safe out there." Officers express satisfaction when a tour of duty ends without mishap. More extremely, officers sometimes invoke the saying, "It is better to be judged by twelve than carried by six," that is, better to risk breaking the law than to endanger your life.

Considerations of safety strongly condition how officers define and approach situations. Officers are usually careful to acquire all possible information about an incident before they approach, especially if the call is possibly hazardous. They are understandably interested in knowing whether any of those involved are armed and, if so, what they look like and where they are located. If more than one patrol car responds, officers typically coordinate their approaches. Officers are often careful to park their cars so that armed suspects are not alerted that the police have arrived. They also try to avoid being detected by ducking beneath windows of buildings as they approach. In the LAPD, officers are especially wary of avoiding situations in which hostages might be taken and thus attempt to retain the element of surprise.

Considerations of safety also explain the frequent reliance of LAPD officers on the oversight capacity of helicopters. "Air units" have the capacity to respond to calls quickly and to provide an expansive overview of a given situation. Helicopter observers help ensure officer safety on vehicle pursuits by providing the chasing patrol officers with information about cross traffic at each approaching intersection. They can inform officers on foot pursuit if the suspect has taken cover for a potential attack. They can also work to coordinate the approaches to scenes by multiple patrol cars to ensure that all potential avenues of escape are sealed.

The normative order of safety, organized around the value of preserving officers' lives, thus shapes how officers define and respond to situations. Incidents are considered especially dangerous depending upon their geographic location. The LAPD officers make a distinction between "propolice" and "anti-police" areas. The former contain residents who are supportive of the police and unlikely to pose any threat. The latter house those who resist police authority, sometimes with violence. It is not difficult to ascertain when officers enter what they consider an "anti-police" area: They release their seat belts to afford themselves maximum mobility; they roll down their windows to increase their ability to hear; they unlatch their shotguns; and they inform the dispatcher of their location to ensure that other officers can respond to the precise spot should the situation, in police terms, "go sideways." Considerations of safety, in other w! ords, lead officers to define particular areas as laden with danger, and they respond accordingly.

The nature of the LAPD's response to safety concerns received considerable attention from the so-called Christopher Commission. The commission, headed by Warren Christopher, then a prominent Los Angeles attorney, was established after the Rodney King beating to examine the LAPD's pattern of use of force. In its report (Independent Commission, 1991), the commission suggested that the normative order of safety produced deleterious effects; officers were overly fearful and thus overly suspicious of any who posed even a remote threat. A brusque policing style had emerged that imperiled police-community relations, particularly in minority communities. Not surprisingly, such communities are those likely to be labeled "anti-police" and, hence, to be policed with the unnuanced hand of officers primarily concerned with preserving their lives.5 The normative order of safety, then, not only importantly structures the social world of the police, but helps explain the prevalen! ce of police-community tensions in cities such as Los Angeles.


The normative order of competence is perhaps the least well-defined of the six most crucial to the social order of policing. In short, considerations of competence work to provide officers with a sense of what constitutes doing a good job, what outcomes will provide them with approbation from their peers. Competence also consists of ensuring that officers pull their own weight, that they do not need unnecessary assistance from others in managing their basic workload. This means assuming effective control over whatever area or set of problems for which they assume responsibility. The SLOs, for example, are judged, in part, by how much graffiti exists in their area. When other officers drive through a graffiti-laden area, they regularly bemoan the ineffective actions of the SLO in question. Patrol divisions are judged within the department for how well they handle the calls that emanate from within their geographic areas. If they cannot handle those calls, officers from outsi! de divisions must be summoned. This is referred to as "dropping calls," an outcome to be avoided.

A dispatcher is frustrated by her inability to get a patrol officer team to respond to an urgent domestic abuse call. All of the division's patrol cars are occupied, and none has responded to a general call issued in hopes that a patrol team will drop what it is doing to handle this highpriority situation. The dispatcher decides to "fake them out." She comes back on the radio and appears to assign the call to a patrol car from an outside division. However, she is not in fact speaking on the other division's frequency. Her subterfuge works: Within seconds, an officer comes onto the radio, accepts the assignment, and calls off the phantom outside unit.

A strong sense of pulling one's weight, of competently fulfilling one's responsibilities, thus shapes police culture (Van Maanen, 1974). Just how competence is defined, however, varies considerably from department to department. In Los Angeles, department managers historically emphasized felony arrests as a mark of excellent policing. This practice is undergoing reappraisal in the era of community policing. Today, supervisors are being encouraged to evaluate officers more upon their style of interacting with citizens and less upon their ability to pursue dangerous felons aggressively. Indeed, departments differ more generally on the extent to which they emphasize law enforcement versus the general provision of services (Wilson, 1968). Just how competence will be defined within an organization varies accordingly.

Still, police officers yearn to handle their responsibilities well. In dealing with citizens, this often means ensuring that their authority is respected. They expect to see their commands followed, to see their prescribed resolution of a situation result. Resistance to police authority is thus anathema to officers and spurs a sometimes violent response. Uses of force, for example, frequently occur at the end of pursuits (Chevigny, 1969; Skolnick and Fyfe, 1993); suspects receive a "payback" for defying police commands.6 Similarly, officers are likely to patrol with some intensity those areas where police authority is resisted. In the patrol division where the fieldwork occurred, an officer was seriously wounded by gunfire in a neighborhood already reviled by his peers. Patrol units made a practice in ensuing weeks of spending considerable time in the area looking for any pretense to make arrests. This action was defended as a means of "putting the heat on&qu! ot; to convince someone to reveal the identity of the assailant, but also served to reestablish a sense of police control over an unruly space. The normative order of competence demands an ongoing sense of police capability to hold effective sway over the streets.


The pursuit of police hegemony also works to bolster a potent sense of moral good to which officers frequently aspire. Police work is not only defined by officers as an opportunity to uphold the law or to demonstrate bravery, but as part of a wider struggle between good and evil. The term bad guy is used with striking ubiquity in police discourse, supplemented by such other terms as knucklehead, idiot, terrorist, and asshole (see also Van Maanen, 1978). One term officers often use, predator, vividly conveys a sense of evil devouring the good; like some unwanted carnivore, these vile individuals prey upon the unsuspecting and vulnerable. Such sharp boundaries between good and evil, between pure and polluted, are central to the construction of moralities (Douglas, 1966,1973). In this case, the boundary works not only to denigrate the bad, but also to glorify the police as valiant defenders of the good. Officers thus construct themselves as more than mere enforcers of laws; th! ey are warriors in the age-old battle between right and wrong.

Certain individuals are not just criminals, but invidious threats to a larger moral order. Such definitions extend to locations as well. Some areas are described as "dirty," stained with the impurities of nefarious activities. Relatedly, officers encourage each other to "clean up" such areas, to remove those toxic individuals who pollute otherwise peaceable neighborhoods. Jailing is thus seen in moralistic terms; more than just a legal act, it is an expulsion of a cancerous agent.

This moralistic stance extends to officers' rationalization of the possibility that they will lose their lives in the line of duty. An officer was discussing a hypothetical scenario in which he might have to use his pistol to wound an armed suspect. He recognizes that the use of his gun opens him up to the possibility that return fire will kill him. He says, however, "I'm the police," a three-word acceptance that such risks accrue to the job and to the larger police mission of ensuring peace.

One can easily raise concerns about the normative order of morality. On the one hand, officers' motivations to ensure peace and to assume a position of possible sacrifice are laudable. On the other, the abrupt categorization of citizens as abhorrent predators creates the possibility that they will be policed with an unsophisticated hand. Viewed as irrational terrorists, suspects may well be denied the full respect legal rules accord them. Such a construction lay at the center of the defense's strategy in the case of the officers involved in the Rodney King beating. In that case, the officers' attorneys worked to construct King as an animalistic threat, as a PCP-crazed ex-con with enough superhuman strength to overcome police resistance. With King framed thusly, his violent subjugation was putatively justified.

Although the King case represents an extreme use of police force, it also illustrates the potential downside of an overwrought police morality. Cast in terms of an overarching battle between good and evil, police work can be stripped of the unavoidable ambiguities that invariably inhere in the various situations officers handle. Officers therefore police not with the subtle touch of a professional (Muir, 1977) but with the rigid hand of a committed, moralistic warrior.


Six normative orders-law, bureaucratic control, adventure/machismo, safety, competence, and morality-thus fundamentally structure the social world of the police. They provide different sets of rules and practices that officers use to define situations and to determine their response. They also imbue police work with meaning, as an opportunity, for example, to uphold the legal order, to demonstrate courage, to preserve the good in the face of unflinching evil. These normative orders structure the world view of the police and infuse it with emotive significance.

The normative order approach to police subculture advocated here improves upon previous work by enabling an opportunity to incorporate formal as well as informal elements in the analysis. Although the law and bureaucratic regulations are constructed through more formal procedures, they become real in the daily lives of officers through the same processes as more informal orders. As a result, analysis of daily police practices should treat the formal and informal in like manner, as sets of rules and practices that provide meaning to police work.

The existence of these six normative orders are understandable given the occupational mandate handed to officers. The importance of the law is obvious, given that the police obtain their basic set of powers and obligations through legal dictates. Bureaucratic control is significant in any large organization where management seeks to structure and regulate the work of subordinates. Adventure/machismo and safety arise from the possibility of unpredictable danger that lurks constantly in the consciousness of most officers. Concerns of competence are hardly unique to police officers, but still crucially shape how officers view their work. And the potent sense of morality officers evince grows from the fact that they must act swiftly in ambiguous circumstances, often with recourse to coercive force. As a result, a strong sense that policing is ultimately an immanently good enterprise helps to salve any cognitive turbulence that might result if officers excessively second-guessed! questionable decisions made under stressful circumstances (see Herbert, 1996).

Given that officers possess a unique mandate, the normative orders most crucial to their subculture will differentiate them from other groups. Granted, other social groups are structured by some of these concernsindeed, all large organizations are structured by bureaucratic control and competence-but none express these six orders in the prominent way that police officers do. And given that the police mandate is largely invariant from place to place (Skolnick and Fyfe, 1993), one can expect that these six orders will structure the subcultural world of officers across departments.7

An approach that mobilizes the concept of normative order has the further benefit of opening an analytic window onto the processes of conflict in police and other organizations. These orders often cohere, but they also typically conflict. In one case, an LAPD officer was engaged in a vehicle pursuit of a possible felony suspect, but was ordered to cease the chase by his watch commander, a lieutenant. The officer continued the chase, and eventually captured the suspect. In this instance, normative orders conflicted. The officer was interested in enforcing the law, proving his masculine mettle, and removing a "bad guy" from the streets. His actions, however, violated the bureaucratic chain of command and represented a safety threat not only to the officer but to any citizen who happened to be on the streets during the pursuit. In this and other situations, normative orders become contradictory and generate interorganizational conflict.

Just how these conflicts are resolved depends in large part on the specific organizational culture (see Ouchi and Wilkins, 1985; Ritti, 1994) within a particular department. Not all police departments are the same in this respect. In the LAPD, for example, aggressiveness and officer safety have long been dominant cultural elements (Chevigny, 1995; Independent Commission, 1991). Other departments may downplay truculence and trumpet a less confrontational, service-oriented policing style (Wilson, 1968). The comparative value of each normative order and the precise manner in which each is defined in daily practice thus differs from department to department. The comparative value of normative orders can also vary from patrol division to patrol division within a given police department. For example, the Rampart patrol division in Los Angeles is referred to colloquially as the "Rampage" division, a testament to the manner in which adventure/machismo is valued there.

A given organization's culture depends on a variety of factors, ranging from the mandates emphasized by its leadership (Sackmann, 1991; Schein, 1985) to, in the case of the police, the larger political structure that may help shape officer priorities (Chan, 1997; Wilson, 1968). Los Angeles's reputation as an "ass-kicking" department can be traced to the emphasis placed on aggressive patrolling handed down by a number of chiefs (Domanick, 1994), including most recently Darryl Gates. Such an approach is justified still today by many officers because the city has so underfunded the department that the ratio of officers to citizens is fairly low by large city standards (Pate and Hamilton, 1991). As a result, officers state a need to respond strongly when they do arrive, to ostensibly provide a more palpable police presence.

A department's organizational culture also shapes the possibility of reform. In Los Angeles, for example, current efforts to orient the department toward a more open, community-oriented policing style are facing recalcitrance from the rank and file. The LAPD has historically been shielded from extensive community oversight, and thus it has been able to perpetuate a particular patrol style despite external concern. The LAPD is hardly unique in this respect: Observers of community policing regularly cite police subculture as the single biggest impediment to implementing reforms (Greene et al., 1994; Sadd and Grinc, 1994; Sparrow et al., 1990). Whether this reform effort succeeds will largely depend on an internal political struggle to redefine police work around a different balance between normative orders. In the case of Los Angeles, it will require the diminution of the normative orders of adventure/machismo and safety, because these have helped breed the aggressive tactics! that inflame policecommunity tensions. Reform will also require that some normative orders be redefined. Bureaucratic control, for example, will have to be restructured such that officers at the lower ranks are given more leeway to construct unique strategies for the unique situations extant in given communities (Kelling and Coles, 1996). Competence will have to be redefined away from the aggressive pursuit of felony arrests and toward the preservation of positive police-community relations. And the potent sense of moral worth that can now only be achieved by capturing a particularly vile suspect will have to be rivaled by the satisfaction that might come from working closely with a neighborhood to solve a problem identified by its residents. In fact, to the extent that the community is more involved is defining what is and is not acceptable to policing, the chance for organizational change is significantly increased (Chan, 1997).

In short, police organizations are sites of ongoing political struggles over how to define and trumpet different normative orders, struggles that fundamentally shape the daily practices of officers, the overall orientations of departments, and the state of police-community relations. Analysts who wish to understand, and potentially change, police organizations would do well to unearth the structuring influences of the six central normative orders and the nature of their interaction in the daily worlds of officers. Reformers need to understand just how each order is defined within a given department, and to discover which orders are most dominant in officer decision making. Such a solid understanding of the police's subcultural world would make clear just where change is most necessary and how it might be best accomplished.

The specific analysis here of the police is also meant as a contribution to a wider sociological discussion of the nature of culture. This broader discussion has highlighted the complexity of culture and the activity of agents who deploy cultural resources in a set of structured improvisations. My analytic deployment of normative order accepts this view of culture and agency, but also provides a more specific tool to comprehend actual social groups and to incorporate the significance of values. It thus, in Wuthnow and Witten's (1988) terms, provides a means to link "internal" and "external" views of culture. Agents regularly enact internalized rules and values, but they consciously adapt and transform them in the process of defining and engaging ongoing situations. Subcultural groups such as the police can be fruitfully analyzed by determining which normative orders shape their daily practices. Indeed, many of the normative orders common to police organi! zations, such as bureaucratic control, competence, and morality, are found in other social groups. However, the precise collection of dominant orders will be unique to a given group; indeed, that collection of normative orders will be the source of the group's uniqueness. To unearth the specific contours of a given cultural group, then, analysts would do well to discern the myriad ways in which various normative orders constitute the general rules, common practices, and central values that determine that group's social world.


1. Not all students of the police characterize officers as quite this brutish. Bittner (1967), for example, stresses the craft-like nature of police work, the subtle ways in which intelligent officers manage complex social situations toward peaceful ends. Muir (1977) also describes a quite sophisticated "professional" officer, one able to be emotionally detached from the populace but yet still connected morally enough to police with a nuanced touch.


2. An example from the fieldwork illustrates the influential role of values in shaping police behavior. One night, a dispatcher was monitoring the movements of an officer engaged in a foot pursuit. The dispatcher was particularly concerned to learn the precise location of the officer so that she could best direct assistance to him. In their eagerness to provide that assistance, several officers radioed in their intent to respond to the call. This, however, served to clog the radio transmission and prevent the dispatcher from communicating with the office in pursuit. She came on the radio and pronouncedly said, "For officer safety, I need to hear only from the pursuing officer." By invoking the cherished value of safety, the dispatcher was able to silence the overeager officers and obtain the desired information.


3. The importance of including values in discussions of police subculture is made obvious by Shearing and Ericson (1991), who adopt an ethnomethodological approach. They argue for culture as "figurative action" and focus particularly on police stories as providing a "sensibility" that structures how officers respond to situations. However, they provide no mechanism for determining which police stories are the ones that are told repeatedly; officers handle innumerable calls through a career, only a few of which become part of repeated lore. It seems likely that values play a significant role here; stories are selected that serve to reinforce those normative elements most central to the police's social world.

4. Even Shearing and Ericson (1991) note that the ethnomethodological approach to rules often leads to an impoverished theory of human action. As they suggest, "this sort of analysis ultimately leaves unanswered the question of just how people go about making and building particular courses of action from moment to moment" (1991:486).


5. Here, the normative order of safety blends imperceptibly into adventure/machismo; each helps to motivate aggressive policing.


6. The Christopher Commission report quotes the LAPD dispatcher who radioed for an ambulance for the battered Rodney King as saying: "They should know better than to run, they are going to pay a price when they do that" (Independent Commission, 1991:14).


7. The presence of these six dominant normative orders thus emerges from the work itself. Their felt significance to officers is reinforced both while on the job and also while recounting events during off-duty hours.




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Author Affiliation:


Indiana University

Author Affiliation:

Steve Herbert is Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Geography at Indiana University, Bloomington. His research interests include police organization, the geography of law and law enforcement, and police-community relations.

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