This is another challenging blog, and I hope you take it in the way that I intended for it to be taken. It’s critical, but constructive, and that is what the Red Button is all about. How do we make a better future – emphasis on we?
It has a lot to answer for. I’ve posted this before on my Twitter account, and it generated some good conversation. Here it is again, it’s worth a read, and it tells us a lot about the enduring facets of cop culture.
This is an excerpt from an academic text, so if it reads a little jargon-ey, that’s why. What does it really say? It says that police culture is characterised by a set of core cultural characteristics, these being:
- An exaggerated sense of mission – often characterised by the, ‘We are the rough men…’ Speeches.
- Crave work based on crime and exciting incidents/duties.
- Celebrate masculine exploits (see 1).
- Show willingness to use force.
- Engage in ‘informal’ working practices – this means ignoring the rules and doing what is culturally acceptable.
- Continually suspicious and lead socially isolated lives.
- Display defensive solidarity with colleagues.
- Conservative in politics and morality.
- Culture marked by cynicism and pessimism.
- Simple understanding of criminality (goodies and baddies).
- Intolerant towards those that challenge the status quo.
This has been evidenced repeatedly in studies across many decades, with what is called qualitative methodology. This is where the culture is observed and then commented on, or officers are interviewed or take part in focus groups, with the transcripts pored over and studied for themes. These themes have emerged again and again, with very recent research holding fast on them (read book/articles by Bethan Loftus if you have time, they are very insightful).
If anyone were to contest the existence of these characteristics, I would point purposefully to Twitter, where they are repeatedly evidenced ad-infinitum. Again and again, the same themes emerge, characterised by defensive cynicism and aggressive suspicion of anything new.
To be ‘in the club,’ you must trust no one, congratulate masculine use of force, defend anything and everyone even loosely connected with policing, and regard all new things as TJIF (the job is f***ed).
Twitter is of course a window that looks into the heart of police culture, the problem being, that people who are not inside the culture (the public) can also see in and watch these characteristics flourish under anonymous accounts. Now, I need to ask a question about the above characteristics, if you were not inside the culture or had been a part of it, how would they look to you?
Sometimes I step away from the keyboard, and think about what is being typed for all to see. I may think that I am ‘telling it like it is,’ but the reality is that some very ugly characteristics could be being broadcast to the world and not only are they not helping to turn the tide, they are sending the public face of the cops, backwards. Under a relentless tide of media oppression and scrutiny, is aggressive defensiveness going to get us anywhere? I mean… Anywhere?
There are two sets of enduring characteristics that are not on that list up there.
The first is the relentless tenacity of those cops completely disengaged from the organisation they work for, that care deeply for the victims and the public that they serve. These people are an inspiration to me, shouldering the shifts, the heartache, the social isolation, the cynicism and the pessimism around them, and the tough work they are asked to do, because they want to help people. These people are heroic, and I don’t mean in the ‘we are the rough men…’ sense, I mean in the ‘showing up to work with a smile on their face ready to face the next set of challenges,’ sense. And those challenges don’t come from outside exclusively either, the culture above has sometimes resulted in a selection of leaders that embody all of those things. (Definitely not all leaders by the way, just some.) Would you want to follow a relentlessly suspicious and pessimistic leader, who is hugely defensive in the face of criticism and values only macho and exciting parts of the job?
The second characteristic not on the list belong to those that fight that culture. I can think of two great bloggers in the Twittersphere, these being MentalHealthCop and NathanConstable. Insp Michael Brown is currently influencing the role of mental health in policing across many sectors. He is advising other professions on the role of the police, whilst offering education and challenge to current practitioners in policing. I’ve used his blogs practically, and I mean pointed serving doctors at them whilst engaged in a spirited debate and who has responsibility for what. I find that inspirational, and Insp Brown is doing it all because he cares. Nathan (I have met Nathan too) describes himself as a ‘positive agitator’ in his bio. He’s knowledgeable, he cares, and he is passionate about finding a better way. There’s a good role model for social media; someone who challenges constructively and is not afraid to learn. Other pioneers like SgtTcs and ConstableChaos also inspire, by being people, and having a real interest in just engaging with the public positively.
If we pressed the Red Button, and social media and culture was gone, how would we rebuild it? Would we want a landscape filled with negativity and defensiveness, or would we want somewhere that generated support and looked at new things with a critical – but constructive, eye?
I know police officers who see Twitter as a passive place to learn. They log in, roam around some timelines a little, maybe click the odd link, and then leave. When I ask them why they don’t tweet, the answer is almost always the same, ‘It’s a pretty hostile place and being positive can be risky, I don’t want the hassle.’ I suspect the hassle comes from two places, cop culture on Twitter, and management enforcing strict control limits on social media. Both of these issues are destructive. They stifle debate, creativity, interaction, and they also erode trust (see ‘suspicious’ and ‘pessimistic’ characteristics above). I’m just going to add here (after comments from @Julieanneda who is great and should be followed by everyone) that using Twitter to reach out and for catharsis is goddamn important, and it may have really helped some. Being negative and complaining about bad experiences can result in great good, it’s the dragging down of others that defines the real issue.
The problem, is that passivity won’t solve the problem, and there is no Red Button.
If we want change for the better, anonymous, negative, defensive Twitter accounts are not the best vantage point from which to demand it. In fact, I would go as far as to say that they may be hugely counter-productive and although it may be cathartic, they may do more to reinforce the negative aspects of our culture than they do to help anybody. If that’s your bag, cool, but stifling debate with relentless ad hominem attacks and negativity only ruins the experience for others.
Change – and big change at that, is here to stay for several years. If we are to survive it, and help keep people safe, we can shout about how bad the change is and how we have got no money, or we can control the controllables and do the best we can, with what we have. The best isn’t what we already have, and I think we can all agree on that. We are operating on a policing model that has been in place for decades as the world has changed around us. Would it be nice to have more money? Yes, it would, but we haven’t, and the time for mourning is past.
The future of the cops needs culture to change, away from command and control and compliance and punishment and blame… To somewhere more open, where ideas and new approaches can be discussed with a critical – but positive – dialogue. Being positive is a choice, and no matter how bad things may be, everyone has the choice to see issues and challenges as an opportunity to get something decent, or lay back and just criticise relentlessly.
It takes courage to stand up and fight back constructively. It takes courage to look for the light in the bleakest of landscapes. It takes courage to avoid the desire to just bitch and let the bad stuff happen. Those aspects of culture not in that passage above are the ones we need, and I implore you, if you are reading this and you want things to be better, start tweeting, start messaging, start talking, start emailing and find out how you can help and challenge constructively, because that’s how you actually change things.
The world was never changed from an arm chair, and I’m not going to sit by and watch these cuts do huge damage, without having some say in how we protect the most vulnerable and our cops in the process.
You can have a say too, and Twitter is only one way of doing that.
Being involved in positive change is a choice. Make it.