Changing Police Subculture

Article excerpt

No societal institution so critically links citizens to government like policing. This arm of government defends against anarchy and preserves the rules of law and due process in a democratic society. Policing as an institution reflects the health and viability of its social fabric. An organized, well-run, ethically just, and evenhanded police department tenaciously committed to excellence and the people it serves contributes significantly to a city well represented by its government.

Policing inherently otters law enforcement personnel the opportunity to either represent or misrepresent those values and ethics of democratic government. How society perceives law enforcement's performance serves as a barometer for a community's sense of peace and well-being.

When political turmoil, poverty, crime, and social injustice lead to civil unrest that challenges the very pillars of democracy, society asks the police to intervene to restore order, protect lives, and safeguard property. No other profession requires its employees to make complex legal and moral decisions that impact the lives of others quite like policing. Officers must chase criminals; expose themselves repeatedly to danger; and show compassion, kindness, courtesy, and respect to citizens. Yet, at the same time, they must possess the capacity to lawfully take someone's life under the most stressful conditions, often in a split-second decision. For these reasons and many more, policing is a special profession.

As a result of the difficult and often dangerous duties that police work involves, the occupational stress that officers face is cumulatively debilitating and consuming. Yet, sometimes, law enforcement agencies offer only limited resources to help officers deal with this trauma. Worse still, these organizations typically exhibit a firmly engrained policing subculture that dismisses the need for such assistance. An agency always should consider personnel its most valuable resource; as such, officers deserve all the support and assistance the agency can give them to maintain their health and wellness.

As police officers and their unions negotiate with governments for wages, benefits, and working conditions, both sides must cooperate and collaborate to effectively manage with diminished financial means this precious human resource. Both sides need to focus on their common values and mutual concerns, and those should include more than just officers' survival--they should extend to wellness.

Generally, police officers in the United States are well trained; in most instances, they receive the best training in the world, especially for tactical and operational skills. However, many law enforcement organizations struggle to understand fully how trauma and stress impact human beings, and, therefore, they fail to train their officers in this area.

Greater attention must be paid to the various causes and impacts of occupational stress and mental anguish among officers, as well as how these relate to the law enforcement subculture. Once agency leaders understand and acknowledge this subculture and its repercussions, they can implement strategies to change it, thereby improving the health and vitality of their workforce.


Law enforcement's common but dangerous subculture poses one of the most significant risks to the health and wellness of its personnel. This subculture leads officers to feel that they need to act as though they can handle anything; it emphasizes individual strength and independence, which encourages personnel to maintain a facade of invincibility.(1) Out of fear that they will appear weak, police officers generally do not encourage each other to talk about their problems. They may cry at the funerals of their fallen warriors, but they usually avoid talking about their deepest wounds or fears. Law enforcement personnel represent the "good guys," yet many officers seem to forget or ignore their own humanity. …