Police culture is at the heart of a controversy that is rocking the world. What does it take to transform it?
On 16 July this year, the family of George Floyd filed a civil lawsuit against the City of Minneapolis and the four police officers who were charged in his death. Floyd was killed on 25 May when police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes. In those minutes he cried for his dead mother and shouted, “I can’t breathe!”. The lawsuit alleges that the officers violated Floyd’s human rights when they restrained him, and that the City of Minneapolis allowed a culture of excessive force, racism and impunity to flourish in its police department.
Announcing the litigation in a press conference, Floyd family lawyer Ben Crump summed up the allegations. “It was not just the knee of officer Derek Chauvin on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds,” he stated. “It was the knee of the entire Minneapolis Police Department on the neck of George Floyd that killed him.”
Floyd’s death intensified the Black Lives Matter movement across the globe and has strengthened calls for major reform of police departments, including the unwarranted use of force, which, in its most extreme cases, has been likened to that of the military.
However, a significant obstacle to reform lies at the very heart of certain police behaviour – organisational culture.
Enforcing cultural change
Culture is crucial to every organisation. It sets norms, values and taboos. It shapes people’s behaviour. In the most extreme scenarios – which occur more often in certain occupations, such as policing – it can save or cost lives. But police organisational culture is notable for its enduring resistance to change.
“When there is an organisation with a strong identity like police, it can make culture hard to shift,” says Dr Amanda Biggs, lecturer in the department of employment relations and human resources at Griffith University and co-author of a recent study into contemporary police organisational culture.
Biggs’ study identifies five dominant police culture characteristics: the police family; control; ‘us versus them’; masculinity; and subcultural difference, which can be shaped by factors such as geographical location.
“The characteristics of an organisation like the police have been around for so long. “People tend to stay in that occupation for their whole career, they are promoted through the ranks of leadership. And the service that police provide to the community has not really changed a lot.”
Cultural characteristics outlined in Biggs’ research pervade organisations beyond policing, but some of them can be particularly problematic for law enforcement.
Masculinity is one of them, says Kristen Hilton, Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights commissioner. Hilton led an independent review into sex discrimination and sexual harassment, including predatory behaviour, within Victoria Police. The review, which began in 2014, documented what Hilton describes as a “climate of gender-based hostility where there was a high tolerance for everyday sexism”.
“At the outset, one of the critical questions that underpinned the independent review was, ‘How can Victoria Police effectively respond to family and gendered violence if the organisation itself is not a safe place for women to come to work?’” says Hilton.
Police as warriors
The ‘us versus them’ trait identified in Biggs’ research has been in the spotlight this year when recent police responses to Black Lives Matter protests in parts of the US demonstrated an alarming warlike trait. Officers in many cities were armed with surplus military equipment from the nation’s Department of Defense.
Edward Lawson, an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina, has studied the link between police militarisation and the use of lethal force. In a recent paper published in Political Research Quarterly journal, he points to the militaristic rhetoric of law enforcement, such as ‘war on drugs’, ‘war on crime’ and ‘war on terror’, which has been commonplace in the US since the second half of the 20th century.
“When you become a police officer, you go through a police training academy that starts downloading the organisational culture into your mind,” says Lawson. “Then you go out for field training and you ride with a veteran police officer who is there to show you how they do things in the street. There’s very much an idea of ‘us versus everyone else’. It’s this notion of a thin blue line where you don’t know if a civilian walking the street next to you has a gun and is going to try to kill you.”
Lawson’s interest in police culture began during protests over the death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man, who was fatally shot by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, on 9 August 2014.
“You had police officers in camo gear and body armour driving around in military vehicles with grenade launchers and [tear] gas,” says Lawson.
To measure the link between police militarisation and lethal force, his study drew on data about police receipt of military equipment and a database of suspect deaths across the US, between 2014 and 2016.
His findings supported his hypothesis that as militarisation increases, so too does the number of suspect deaths.
A model for change
A deeply entrenched culture can be difficult to shift but it’s not impossible. Cultural change initiatives, such as that of Camden Police Department in New Jersey, provide valuable lessons. Camden was once ranked among the most dangerous cities in the US.
In 2012, it had the country’s fifth highest homicide rate with around 87 murders per 100,000 residents. That year, the city disbanded its police force and converted it to the Camden Metro Division of the Camden County Police Department. The disbandment allowed Camden to circumvent the police union, introduce new policies and require officers to reapply for their jobs following new training and psychological evaluations.
The department’s data shows that violent crime in the city has decreased 42 per cent since 2012.
In an article published in Bloomberg’s CityLab this year, Camden chief of police J. Scott Thomson said that for the neighbourhood to “look and feel the way everyone wanted it to, it wasn’t going to be achieved by having a police officer with a helmet and a shotgun standing on a corner”.
Camden’s community policing techniques include training to use handguns and handcuffs as tools of last resort. Thomson wants his officers “to identify more with being in the Peace Corps than being in the Special Forces”.
A local example of radical change could be the way Victoria police addressed gender equality within its force.
Case study: Victoria police and gender equality
When the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission was engaged by Victoria Police to review sex discrimination and sexual harassment within its organisation, Hilton says women had to carefully manage the way they conducted themselves at work to fit into the dominant masculine culture.
“My team and I spent thousands of hours in conversation with women who had been sidelined, denigrated and disrespected in the workplace,” she says. “They had been denied promotions and access to development training. They had been subjected to sexist jokes, humiliation and, at times, physical assault.”
Gendered violence is one of the most pressing issues facing our community – it accounts for 40-60 per cent of Victoria Police call outs on any given day. Victoria Police has undertaken substantial work to improve its culture of gender equality and to address workplace harm.
“A woman joining Victoria Police today will find a very different workplace to the one she might have encountered previously. She’ll be paid more equitably. She’ll have better access to jobs and promotions. She’ll have more options for flexible work, as will her male colleagues. And she’ll have peers who are better educated about sex discrimination and sexual harassment – and the serious impacts these things have on both individuals and the organisation itself.
“It’s important to note that this type of transformative change takes time – the systemic and cultural issues we identified in 2014 have developed over the 167 years of Victoria Police’s operations, and it will take ongoing work and sustained commitment to embed gender equality in every part of Victoria Police.”
Shifting police culture
The transformation of Camden’s police force has drawn criticism from activist groups who point to issues such as racial disparity. While almost 80 per cent of Camden’s residents are Black or of Latin American heritage, about 46 per cent of the police are White and most don’t live in Camden.
However, Camden’s cultural change initiative remains a valuable case study for other police departments. Minneapolis Police is just one of them.
Less than a month after the death of George Floyd, Minneapolis City Council unanimously voted to disband its police department and replace it with a community-led model.
“It’s well enough to blame the military equipment for the police militarisation, but I think it’s an easy way out,” says Lawson.
“I really don’t think police should be getting their hands on this equipment, especially with as little oversight as there is over that equipment once they get it. What we really need to focus on is police culture and police training.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2020 edition of HRM magazine.
To facilitate positive cultural changes workplaces need to address any misconduct. AHRI’s Investigating Workplace Misconduct short course will give you the tools to tackle this issue.