American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
July/August 2020

Police, Culture, and Inequality

Michael Sierra-Arévalo, Assistant Professor of Sociology, The University of Texas at Austin

Michael Sierra-Arévalo

Michael Sierra-Arévalo

For many, the past summer of protests and police violence seems unprecedented. But even though the scale of these protests marks them as the largest in U.S. history, the police culture that animates the racism, police brutality, and inequality that spawned them is anything but new.

Police culture is the thread that connects and perpetuates these persistent social problems. After the “long hot summer” of 1967, the Kerner Commission’s report on the causes of urban riots across the country highlighted the widespread “philosophy” of aggressive patrol tactics linked to “excessive and unjustified use of force.” 

In 1991, the Christopher Commission determined that the LAPD fostered a culture that emphasized “the use of force to control a situation and a disdain for a more patient, less aggressive approach.” It also noted a “siege mentality” among officers that encouraged “confrontational attitudes of hostility and disrespect”. 

Most recently, President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing received testimony that police culture expects that officers “never back down from a confrontation,” a symptom of what some have termed a “warrior” culture. The Task Force also made clear that culture is a persistent barrier to police reform, citing the old adage, “Organizational culture eats policy for lunch.”

The problem of police culture beats steadily through our long history of police violence and the damage it does to the fabric of social life. But as with culture in other institutions and organizations, it did not arise by chance. Instead, the contours of modern police culture are perpetuated through particular arrangements of police socialization and practice that center on danger and death--what I term “perilous policing.” As my ethnographic research across three urban police departments between 2014 and 2019 shows, these arrangements are anything but accidental. 

Perilous Pedagogy

The primary lesson of the police academy is survival. The world, academy recruits are taught, is a dangerous, deadly place. In order to return to their families, they must constantly be on guard for violence. To ensure “officer safety,” recruits learn to understand every interaction with the public as a potential catastrophe, and that they must be ready and willing to use force in order to keep themselves and fellow officers alive. 

Graphic training videos are one way that academy instructors impart these life-or-death stakes to their recruits. Today, the Internet and social media platforms provide an ocean of videos showing interactions with the public that have “gone bad.” Besides YouTube, police-centric Facebook pages and websites like PoliceOneOfficer, and Law Enforcement Today are replete with news content and videos that academy instructors can draw on to teach recruits the life-or-death stakes of police work. 

One video [WARNING: GRAPHIC], in particular, was remembered by multiple officers and is shown in academy classes across the country. The dashcam video of the 1998 murder of Deputy Kyle Dinkheller is still shown nearly 30 years later, in departments that are thousands of miles away from the lonely road in rural Georgia where Dinkheller was shot and killed during a routine traffic stop. 

While on patrol in Elmont, Officer Michaelson explained to me that this video and others like it show that any seemingly routine interaction can snap to lethal violence, and that everyone is a potential assailant. Training videos, he explained, are designed to teach recruits to “not let your guard down…to show us how bad things can go, and how quickly things can happen. Not to underestimate people just because they look a certain way or are a certain age.” 

Recruits also learn the perils of their chosen profession through real-world training exercises. Officer Diggler, an academy instructor in the southwestern city of Sunshine, told me about one exercise that is part of a broader curriculum designed to teach recruits that, “Everybody wants to murder you.” 

In the training exercise, he explained, recruits undertake a simple traffic stop. The twist is that there is a simulation firearm in the vehicle in plain view. “If the trainee doesn’t see the gun,” Diggler explained, “you kill the cop.” He went on, “If he doesn’t see the gun, when he walks back to his car you get out and you fucking murder him.” 

Taken together, virtual and real-world training engrain in recruits that no call for service is safe, and no person is above suspicion. If they hope to stay alive, they must approach every interaction with the understanding that, at any moment, they may encounter lethal violence. 

Perilous Practice 

Police culture has real-world consequences. On patrol, officers embody police culture in day-to-day behaviors intended to ensure they survive their shift. Following an uneventful traffic stop outside a McDonald’s in West River, a mid-sized city on the west coast, one officer explained that he uses a particular “POI” (position of interrogation) when speaking to anyone on patrol. 

This position is akin to a relaxed boxing stance: officers stand with their feet bladed, one slightly in front of the other, and their hands held up near their chest. This stance allows officers to, in a split second, transition from talking or writing notes to blocking, pushing, or punching. Because their feet are staggered, they are better able to keep their balance and, if they draw their firearm, they can easily assume a “Weaver” shooting stance.

Though it reflects an underlying preoccupation with potential violence, how an officer stands is a relatively mundane, low-cost behavior. Other behaviors, however, are far more dire.   

While on evening patrol with Officer Erickson in Elmont, he spotted a group of six Latino boys walking on the sidewalk. At first, he drove past the boys, none of whom looked older than freshmen or sophomores in high school, but then stopped his car in the middle of the street and looked into his rearview mirror. He growled, “Look at these little shitheads…” I asked him if he knew the boys and he responded, “No, I don’t, actually...I should, though.” 

With that, he reversed down the one-way street. Just before stopping alongside the boys and rolling down his window, he unholstered his pistol and placed it in his lap, the barrel of the weapon pointed towards the door and the group of boys. He asked the boys what they were up to, if they were staying out of trouble, and how they were doing in school. The boys responded with a mumbled chorus of “Yeahs” and one joked sarcastically that he was getting straight As. Before driving away from this legally “consensual” encounter, he told the boys, “Alright, you guys stay out of trouble. Have a good night.”

As he holstered his firearm, Erickson explained to me, unprompted, why he had held it in his lap, pointed toward the boys:

“I always do that when I’m just talking to someone out the window like that. You never know — they would’ve been able to shoot at us in a split second if they wanted. That’s why I keep it down here, relaxed, finger off the trigger. But you have to be ready for that, always have a plan of attack.”

The boys that he stopped, gun barrel pointed at them through his car door, were not killed. They were not verbally abused or beaten. They were not arrested. Nonetheless, Erickson’s behavior, shaped by a policing culture that demands assiduous preoccupation with danger and potential death, forced innocent boys into a situation poised on the edge of violence; a “furtive” movement, a shadow, or an alleged bulge in a pocket might have tipped the scales toward catastrophe. 

The Price of Peril 

The culturally informed practices of police officers are implicated in the perpetuation of longstanding racial inequalities in the criminal legal system. Importantly, neither police training or officer behavior need be explicitly racialized to contribute to existing inequalities. Instead, policing is one of many social institutions that is both embedded in and a producer of prevailing understandings of race, place, crime, and threat. 

As described by Victor Ray in his theory of racialized organizations, officers are part of organizations that are themselves nested in existing arrangements of race, class, and gender. As a result, the behavior of individual officers is shaped by the wider ecosystem of police culture, training, and policy that arose out of unequal and highly racialized understandings of the role of police (and who should be subject to their power). Even if we assume that individual officers are not overtly and violently racist, today’s most well-intentioned officers are nonetheless (re)producers of a policing apparatus that, over time, has been empowered politically and financially to disproportionately surveil and coerce vulnerable, marginalized communities.  

The problem of police culture is not one of “bad apples.” Nor is it fundamentally one of “bad barrels” or “trees” i.e. bad departments. Instead, police culture is a problem with the very roots of the policing orchard, the deep, often unseen structures that set the conditions in which policing developed. It is why, even if we assume a preponderance of “good” officers, the policing system and its ossified culture remain plagued by problems as old as policing itself. 

For these reasons, racial inequalities in stops, searches, arrests, and force are not evidence of a broken system. To borrow the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, “This is not our system malfunctioning. It is our system working as intended.” The solution to the problem of police culture, then, is unlikely to be found within policing itself. 

Peril and Policy 

Despite changes to the structure of policing, the problem of police culture is troublingly consistent. Wholesale reform is no small task. But departments can take concrete steps to, at the very least, not make the problem worse. For example, officers should not be allowed to attend 3rd party training seminars that preach “warrior” policing and amplify the life-or-death mentality already so prevalent in policing. Neither should this type of training be permitted within the context of official police academy curricula. 

Another option is to raise the minimum age requirement for policing from 21 to 25. Insurance companies figured out long ago that young people (especially men, who make up nearly 90% of U.S. officers) are prone to car accidents, in part because they engage in risky behaviors like speeding and drinking alcohol. Knowing that human brains are not fully formed until age 25 and that younger officers use more severe force options and use force more often, hiring older officers stands to reduce baseline levels of police violence.    

But these efforts at harm reduction will not fundamentally change the nature of policing as a coercive institution. This reality is at the core of calls to defund the police, itself an outgrowth of a broader abolitionist framework that reimagines public safety as something bigger than trends in crime statistics. The massive resources dedicated to policing, advocates for defunding the police argue, should be dedicated to communities and community-based organizations that research shows can reduce violence long assumed to be the sole responsibility of police.  

Of course, this massive resource shift will not occur overnight. And caution is warranted lest we defund police without effectively bolstering the community infrastructure necessary to meet the needs of our most vulnerable. There are also clear short- and medium-term changes, such as repealing qualified immunity and bolstering agency-level accountability infrastructure, that should be implemented to more immediately mitigate the harm of the current policing system. 

Reimagining public safety will take courage, from politicians and police chiefs as much as street-level workers and social scientists. Sociologists and others must use their skills to be part of the design, implementation, and measurement of what is hoped will be a new and more equitable system of policing. As the COVID-19 epidemic continues to rage and murder spikes in cities across the U.S., we must stand ready to provide the insights necessary to guide policy decisions that, for far too many, are a matter of life and death. 

Note: Officer and city names are pseudonyms to prevent identification of individuals and field sites.