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Police culture: Changing the Unacceptable

Celeste Lawson

In the 1980s a series of media investigations exposed police corruption in Queensland. The intensity of media interest grew, culminating in ABC's Four Corners broadcasting The Moonlight State in May 1987, an expose on police officers accepting bribes to ignore crimes such as illegal gambling and prostitution. Such national interest in Queensland police corruption prompted Acting Premier Bill Gunn to commission an inquiry, now known as the Fitzgerald Inquiry (Commission of Inquiry into Possible Illegal Activities and Associated Police Misconduct, 1989). The Fitzgerald Inquiry not only proved that the reported corruption existed, it proved that corruption was systemic and high-level. The Fitzgerald Inquiry resulted in Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen losing his stranglehold on Queensland politics; the Police Commissioner, Terry Lewis, being jailed; and the introduction of massive reforms within the Queensland Police Service. The Fitzgerald Inquiry blamed police culture for the corruption.

Organisational culture is the unwritten rules that constrain the behaviour of individuals within an organisation (Clampitt 2005). For police officers, these rules are dictated by the function of policing itself, creating a unique culture and promoting the characteristics of conformity and solidarity, among others. Police culture had become unacceptable and by 1989 public satisfaction with police dropped to the lowest in Australia and there was limited confidence in the policing organisation (Sced 2004a; Sced 2004b; Swanton, Walker and Wilson 1988; and Swanton, Wilson, Walker and Mukerjee 1988). The Queensland community's expectations of a "good" police officer changed as a result of the Fitzgerald Inquiry. It was no longer acceptable for police to lack accountability; it was no longer acceptable that an unwritten "code" hid corruption and protected corrupt officers; it was no longer acceptable that police officers were obliged to conform to cultural standards.

This paper looks at police culture in the time since the Fitzgerald reforms, particularly within the field of crime prevention, one of Fitzgerald's key recommendations. That police culture was considered unacceptable is not disputed. The question that must be asked is whether it has changed as a result of reform, or is, indeed, changeable. The transition from unacceptable to acceptable is a change that police officers may not be able to control. This paper investigates the extent to which police culture in the Queensland Police Service has changed in the twenty years since the reform of the Fitzgerald Inquiry, particularly as experienced by crime prevention officers. Using in-depth interviews with crime prevention officers in the Queensland Police Service and a content analysis of position descriptions, this paper will show that culture is a complex phenomenon within the policing organisation, and despite the organisation's best efforts, there will be elements of culture that will resist change because the very function of modern policing reinforces the practice.

Policing: Role and function

Policing is a relatively modern phenomenon, with the concept of a civilian police force (separate to the military and the rest of the criminal justice process) formalised in England in 1829 by Sir Robert Peel. Considered the father of policing, Peel set out a system aimed at preventing crime and reforming criminals. Colonial Australia adopted the same model when the number of free settlers grew beyond the scope of the military (Finnane 1994). But, unlike their British counterparts, Australian police were strongly influenced by the new colony where it was expected they be armed, that they hunt bushrangers when required and that they escort gold shipments (Bryett 1993).

Modern Australian police organisations maintain the military-styled bureaucracy developed during the colonial years. Each state in Australia operates its own police service through the respective State Government. Operating autonomously, the various police services are bureaucratic organisations, formally structured with a quasi-military hierarchy. There is a rank structure and a great many rules and regulations to be scrupulously followed. At the street level, however, police officers exercise extremely wide discretion with limited or no supervision (Chan 1999). This situation is not unique to Australia, and is common police experience throughout the Western world. Police officers are responsible for upholding the law, investigating offences and prosecuting offenders. They are tasked with the preservation of peace and good order, and the protection of life and property (Queensland Police Service, 2006). The way police officers perform these functions has changed dramatically from the community-focused police of Peel's era. From the introduction of the motorcar to forensic analysis at crime scenes, the development of technology has meant policing has become faster. Radios and mobile phones allow police to be notified of crimes quickly; computers and forensics aid investigations; and police efficiency is now measured on how long it takes to respond to a call for service. Policing has become "reactive" rather than Peel's "proactive" ideal.

Police Culture

It is generally accepted that there is a direct connection between police work and a unique occupational culture (Chan 1999; Skolnick and Fyfe 1993; Reiner 1992; and Manning and Van Maanen 1978). The nature of the policing role has created a culture specific to that function. Like any organisational culture, police culture consists of widely shared attitudes, values and norms. What differentiates police culture from other organisational cultures are the strains that originate in the policing environment (Paoline, Meyers and Worden 2000). There are "traditional" recurring features of police culture, many of which have assumed the status of something Loftus (2010) calls "sociological orthodoxy". These characteristics include: an exaggerated sense of mission towards the policing role and craving work that is crime-oriented and promises excitement; the celebration of masculine exploits; the willingness to use force and engage in informal working practices; suspicion; social isolation; defensive solidarity; cynicism; pessimism and intolerance towards those who challenge the status quo (Reiner 1992).

The two characteristics considered in detail for the purposes of this paper are solidarity/loyalty and conformity. Solidarity and loyalty are characteristics which can develop to such a point that not only do police officers trust their colleagues with their lives as they exercise their duty on the road, but they protect the "brotherhood" in all situations, reinforcing a "code of silence" (Kleinig in Coady, James, Miller and O'Keefe 2000). From Fitzgerald's perspective, loyalty was evident in this unwritten "code" in Queensland, which punished police officers who criticised other police. Fitzgerald used this as an example of why corruption was allowed to flourish (1989: 202) since police officers would not "dog" on other officers, nor investigate questionable performance. If the code was breached, the police officers would be ostracised and shunned. Kleinig agrees with Fitzgerald in that loyalty and the "code of silence" is generally perverse, but O'Loughlin and Billing (in Coady 2000) state that the strength of the "brotherhood" is not in "covering up" but in "looking after your mates" (2000: 80). The characteristic of loyalty can be positive.

Conformity is evident in police culture through officer behaviour. Officers are encouraged to conform to specific behaviours (such as arrest as opposed to negotiation) (Paoline 2000). Officers who defy the expected behaviour are stigmatised and labelled "deviant" (Garcia 2009). This includes officers in non-typical sections, whose behaviour is dictated by their role. Fitzgerald considered conformity as a negative force acting on police officers. Fitzgerald used the example of junior police officers who join the police, bringing with them limited experience of work or society. These officers enter an environment where contact with the public is in times of need and conflict. By socialising with other police, their experience of "society" remains limited, influenced only by policing experiences. When these junior officers climb the ranks, their cynical attitudes are perpetuated and, eventually, preserved to the point where they are inflexible regardless of change around them. Fitzgerald stated that the elements of police culture are interwoven and support each other (1989: 201).

Fitzgerald implied that culture was a negative thing, given that it perpetuated a police force filled with corruption and misconduct. In reality, culture is complex, neither "positive" nor "negative", but indisputably powerful. The effects, often unconscious, can be seen throughout the organisation. Police officers are unaware of the influence that is being exerted on them, or the influence they are exerting on others. Whilst most police would be aware there is a "culture", they would be unaware of how that culture impacts their decisions and work performance.

Fitzgerald was critical of the "unacceptable" cultural elements identified as typical of police culture — including solidarity and conformity — using the example of the unwritten police code that reinforced behaviour where corruption could occur. Fitzgerald made recommendations that he hoped would change the police culture — changing the unacceptable to acceptable. Fitzgerald recommended, amongst other things, that community policing should become the primary philosophy of policing in Queensland. This recommendation was implemented and the major priority of policing became a proactive community policing philosophy, which was at odds with the dominant reactive approach. The proactive approach was embedded in policy (including position descriptions) and the change imposed on officers. The police officers who, twenty years later, epitomise these massive reforms are crime prevention officers. Crime prevention officers implement the community policing philosophy within the structure of the new (now well established) section of crime prevention. This might include conducting presentations to community groups, visiting schools or conducting safety audits (Queensland Police Service 2005b). A significant proportion of their time is spent engaging the community. These officers implement crime prevention programs as required in their Districts, based on current crime trends and issues (Queensland Police Service 2007).

There are two broad arguments in relation to cultural change. The first is that police culture has not, and will not, change; that the very role of policing reinforces the cultural characteristics that makes the police culture unique and unmalleable. The second argument is that police culture can, and has, changed; that recruitment practices, technology, and societal expectations have changed the way police go about their business, and therefore the way police culture impacts on police work. Whilst the first argument holds that cultural change is near impossible, the second argument suggests that cultural change is constant. Both arguments agree on the characteristics of "unacceptable" police culture, the culture that evolved from the historical development of policing as a function of society, as already discussed.

The argument that police culture will not change stems from the belief that culture is reinforced by the police function itself. More precisely, it is the police officers' understanding of their role and function that informs their conduct. The police culture allows officers to manage the strains that originate in such a work environment (Paoline et. al. 2000). In many cases, the transferral of culture is unconscious. Basic assumptions and ideologies have become so ingrained that they remain unquestioned, perceptions and ways of thinking have developed because of repeated successes in solving problems over extended periods of time (Holgersson and Gottschalk 2008). This argument is valid for police researchers such as Loftus, who states that it is the function of police that dictates the culture, as opposed to individual characteristics, technology or societal expectations. Loftus believes that the timeless qualities of police culture endure because the basic pressures associated with the police role have not changed, and because social transformations have exacerbated, rather than reduced the basic definitions of inequality (Loftus 2010).

The argument that police culture has changed, and is in constant change, is centred in reform of policing. Recruiting and technology are dramatic, obvious changes that have occurred within policing organisations in the past two decades. Fitzgerald also promoted structural change, change of philosophy and change of policy. It was Fitzgerald's intention that police culture would change as a result of this reform. Paoline (2000) agree, stating that one might now expect to find greater variation in officers' attitudes, because of diversity of police officers and a changing work environment. Police officers have traditionally been white, heterosexual men. The change in recruitment practices means there has been a gradual rise in, and a concerted effort to recruit, non-Caucasian, female and gay and lesbian officers. Patterns of interaction have altered because of the demographic diversity now found in police officers who would not be readily accepted into the "unacceptable" culture.


There were two data collection methods used for this study. The first was a content analysis of position descriptions in the Queensland Police Service, and the second was interviews with crime prevention police officers. The analysis of position descriptions can establish both manifest and latent meaning at an organisational level: that meaning which is obvious and deliberate, and that meaning which is hidden or implied. Interviews are an appropriate methodology to demonstrate the behaviour of individuals (Sarantakos 2005; Van Riel 1997). Although hesitant to use interviews as a means of establishing knowledge of culture, Schein (2004) acknowledges that individuals are aware of actions. It is through the analysis of these actions that the actual culture can be revealed. The method of analysis selected for this study was discourse analysis. This method is both qualitative and interpretative. It is an ideal analysis method for this study because it is suited to analysis of language, both written and spoken. This form of analysis will allow the study to determine the discourse of culture at both an organisational and individual level. Consistent with suggestions from police researchers Rosenbaum (2010) and Bradley and Nixon (2009), this approach combines "policy and practice", not only taking an academic stance, but by also producing practical results.

The two position descriptions selected for analysis were a general duties officer and the specialised crime prevention officer. The categories selected for analysis were elements that would illustrate police culture, including "conformity", "solidarity", and "evidence of cultural change". These categories were then coded to reveal dominant themes. The general duties position description was last updated in March 2005 and the crime prevention position in October 2004 (Queensland Police Service 2005a and 2005b). The position description for crime prevention officers is very broad and generic which affords the individual officer a great deal of freedom in determining their individual role, and the position objective is essentially the same as general duties. There are four principal responsibilities in crime prevention and six in general duties. Three are common to both. Two relate to administration of budgetary and human resources. The third relates to the implementation of community policing initiatives. The principal responsibility specific to crime prevention relates to media representation. The selection criteria are the same except for the level of knowledge of legislation (sound for crime prevention officers versus thorough for general duties) and ability to research problems (for general duties) or complex problems (for crime prevention). The key selection criteria relating to communication emphasise media management in the crime prevention position.

Content analysis can be used to describe the messages sent by an organisation, but not how the messages were received or acted upon (Weerakkody 2009). Interviews were used to determine if the cultural message of the official Queensland Police Service position description of crime prevention was consistent with the actions and beliefs of crime prevention police officers. A "purposive sample" (ibid. 2009: 99) of crime prevention officers provides sufficiently rich data for interviews about their cultural experiences as a police officer. Ten officers were selected to provide an adequate cross-section of variables such as rank, experience, gender and geographical location. These officers ranged in rank from Constable to Senior Sergeant. A small sample size is acceptable in qualitative studies because of the in-depth nature of the information being gathered (Sarantakos 2005).

Semi-structured interviews were conducted in November 2007 and the interview transcripts were coded using the themes "conformity", "solidarity", "cultural acceptance", "cultural non-acceptance" and "evidence of cultural change". Direct quotes have been taken from the interview transcriptions. Officers have been identified by a number and not a name as per ethical requirements of the Queensland Police Service. The geographical location of the officers has not been revealed. Interviewees were asked to describe a typical day in crime prevention policing, and whether or not they believed their role was "acceptable" in policing. They were also asked about the influence of police culture on their crime prevention tasks.

The study revealed evidence (within the speciality of crime prevention) of police culture as outlined by Fitzgerald. The cultural element of conformity was evident in an analysis of position descriptions. The formal layout of the document and the classification of criteria as "essential" reinforced the behaviour expected of police officers in those roles. Despite a broad and generic function, it was implied that if officers did not perform the functions as stated, they were not performing the function of a police officer. The tone of the document implied that the criteria were not negotiable. The very existence of a document such as a position description also illustrates solidarity/loyalty. The document implies that all officers are part of the same "team". When a person is appointed to the position, they join that group. The Queensland Police Service is sending an organisational message that the expectation on all officers is the same. This is consistent with the function of policing.

Interviewees were asked two questions about crime prevention and police culture. The first related to their role and how it had changed or evolved and why. The second question was directly about the impact of culture on their work. The interpretation of responses to this question was designed to reveal the interviewee's belief regarding the impact of culture on their duties. The elements of conformity and solidarity/loyalty were evident. All crime prevention officers provided examples of cultural conformity being pushed onto them from other operational police. In a negative context, this imposition generally came from officers (either junior or senior) who saw crime prevention as distinct from traditional policing. This was a consistent perspective regardless of the length of service of the crime prevention officer or the geographical location. Consistent with Fitzgerald's findings, officers were shunned because their role did not conform to the cultural ideal.

Once upon a time nobody went and spoke to the [crime prevention officers]. Nobody knew what [we] did and that's why we probably had a reputation about having cuppas with people. … Some junior staff don't see the big picture. They don't know how it all fits in." Officer 1

They don't see that crime prevention does anything. They just see it as tea and scones at Neighbourhood Watch type meetings. They haven't got a clue on what's done with crime prevention." Officer 2

"I don't know what they think I do… I don't think they understand, because I can't really define it, so once I can establish what it is, I can say well hang on that's not my role." Officer 3.

"But a lot of people think, like I did prior to joining the DCPC role, that it was a cushy job. That mentality. That we do nothing, we just swan around and have morning teas and cups of coffee, go and have a chat to the old ladies at the nursing home. That sort of mentality is what other people think we do." Officer 7

"It's almost like a position that's non existent. Why the hell would you want to go over to that position? They don't do anything. Yadda yadda yadda." Officer 8

"It seems to me that those people that don't know what crime prevention is are the ones that will criticise. [They] will say things that it's warm and fuzzy and it doesn't have a practical application." Officer 9

"The actual role itself is see as a little bit of a wishy washy role. No real benefit to the QPS, to [station] staff." Officer 10

This is related to the negative influence of the cultural element of solidarity, which was evident in the views of several respondents. Officers 2 and 3 said their role was considered "as a nothing" and "worthless". This was prompted by a lack of understanding of the role and the work that crime prevention could perform. Officer 3 stated she had never received any indication about what her role was, so she understood it was reasonable for no one else to understand what she did either. Officer 2, in the position 12 months, stated she did not feel included in the station. She was not part of sectional heads meetings, nor was she consulted for District crime management meetings. Her District Officer "didn't care" what tasks she performed and so she prioritised her own tasks based on what she believed her role was designed to do. She stated that other police considered her role "tea and scones" and she often heard negative comments about herself and her role. Officer 2 stated solidarity did influence the way she did her job, but acknowledged that she, too, was responsible for addressing that culture.

"Sometimes it, yeah, I suppose it depends on how much effort you want to put into it. I suppose that's the influence. I sometimes don't make much of an effort because of the police, well, because of it all, the police culture. Sometimes it's just the way it is." Officer 2

Officer 3 has 15 years service and moved from being the Officer in Charge of a small station to the crime prevention role. Her operational policing experience is extensive.

"I'd only started the [crime prevention] job two weeks and I already had a lecture from someone saying we expect you to help us if we go to a blue. Just the mentality they have because I am not on the road, and how would you know what night shift feels like, and all I can do is laugh." Officer 3

Officer 4 recounted a personal experience where she went to a police social function and the conversation turned to policing experiences. As an officer with extensive general duties service, it was the first time she had attended a social event as a crime prevention officer.

"Obviously in that sort of social setting what I'm doing as police work now isn't, it's not really classed so much as police work. So you sit there and say nothing because what you've got to say is just as uninteresting as a person who's not in the police. I really felt on an outer. And I was actually able to look at the conversation for the first time, and go 'Oh my God, are these people for real?'" Officer 4

But Officer 4 and others said that attitude was changing, and the strength of support from other police had increased. Officer 1, in crime prevention positions four years and current position one year, said she was a valued member of the policing team. She participated in weekly management meetings, and was involved in the District planning.

"This is probably not only my opinion but what I am seeing across the state is I think we're being more valued. And we're being called upon more rather than just reactive policing. It's more of a holistic approach now. … Now staff know that they can come to me and they will get something in return, and there will be a result. And so I'm finding that staff culture towards crime prevention is becoming increasingly favourable." Officer 1

Officer 9 confirmed this increasing solidarity with crime prevention. He stated he believed the reason why he and his partner were accepted was because crime prevention was part of management decision making, and because both officers had worked hard to explain their role to those not well informed. He had experienced the negative impact of police culture in the past. Officer 9 said the support had continued because of his ongoing effort to link crime prevention to other operational sections of policing.

"It comes down in a lot of cases to the respect as an individual and I have a good relationship with all sections because they've been involved in different aspects of crime prevention." Officer 9

Officer 7 said her experience had noticeably improved in the last few years.

"I've come from a general duties background, which was pfft crime prevention what a bunch of wanks, that sort of mentality. And I was one of them as well. And even when I started my role in the crime prevention unit, in 2004, which is not very long ago, I still had that mentality. But I had a bit of service as well. I came out just after Fitzgerald, so I'm still one of the baby boomers so to speak. I had a bit of the old way, a lot of the new way and a lot of the changes and things are progressing." Officer 7

Officer 10 had only been in a crime prevention role for three months, and the actual position was introduced only 16 months previously. He was able to bring the cultural element of solidarity to crime prevention from his operational experience.

"A lot of people didn't really fully understand the benefits of [crime prevention], and not trying to blow my own horn, but with the effort and the relationships, like I've been [here] for seven years so I've got a working relationship already with the outlying groups, so that reputation assists you in doing that [crime prevention] role." Officer 10

Cultural Change

The purpose of this study is to establish the level of cultural change in the Queensland Police Service since the Fitzgerald Inquiry. Fitzgerald had found the culture "unacceptable", a view reinforced by the Queensland community who had given the police the lowest approval rating in Australia at that time (Sced 1989). The Fitzgerald report criticised police culture, blaming solidarity/loyalty and conformity for allowing corruption to flourish. Fitzgerald's reforms were aimed at changing culture. He recommended the new section of crime prevention, changed the police structure and modified recruitment practices.

This research was undertaken to establish whether the police culture had changed, particularly within the field of crime prevention, whether the "unacceptable" was now "acceptable". The results established three key points. The first is that police culture influences perception of crime prevention. Second, "typical" police culture exists in crime prevention, including conformity and solidarity/loyalty. Finally, a paradigm shift has occurred within police culture, allowing proactive and reactive officers to exist in growing harmony. The influence of police culture is evident in the number of interviewees who felt obliged to justify their role. Because the role of a crime prevention officer is the opposite of a culturally acceptable police officer, this justification was considered necessary, otherwise it would be assumed the crime prevention role was worthless or a waste of time. Some officers stated that other non-crime prevention police believed the role was a "nothing". That this justification action was necessary indicates that the culture of conformity exists. Yet this is not surprising. Nor is it surprising that cultural elements were found in an analysis of position descriptions. It is the function of policing and the legislative requirements of the organisation that result in conformity being a significant part of police culture. This function has not changed since the Fitzgerald Inquiry. Whilst technological, recruiting and structural changes mean that the style of policing has changed in the past two decades, the actual function of policing has remained the same. It can be argued that culture is not necessarily affected by such change.

Chan (1999) believes police officers and police organisations are not passive carriers of the police culture. They take an active part in the construction of their environments. Simply changing the circumstances of the environment is not going to make dramatic change to the culture. Cultural change can only be sustained with commitment and reinforcement from inside and outside the organisation. She quotes a 1978 study that found that police culture was resistant to changes despite persistent efforts to change it. This was regardless of sophisticated technology, tighter organisations controls and new ways of policing. Chan's own research has supported this finding, and further, that change from the outside is resisted and change from the top down is ignored (Chan 1999). The results of this study would appear to confirm this. Crime prevention was introduced as a new section. Now, twenty years later, the section is not so new. The interviewees stated that they felt it was their responsibility to make the crime prevention role fit within the culture so it was deemed acceptable to other police. The role of the crime prevention officer is different to other police functions that tend to take place after the criminal event. A crime is committed and it is reported, investigated and prosecuted. This is typical reactive policing. The aim of crime prevention is to be proactive by addressing the crime before it happens. Through interactions with the community and promotion of police, the crime prevention officer can build relationships with the community, who will then be aware of crime and policing, and take precautions to prevent themselves from becoming victims of crime. If a crime occurs, then the crime prevention officer can assist victims being less afraid to report the matter, and less fearful of becoming a repeat victim.

Concerted efforts to enable officers to engage in community policing, rather than concerted efforts to change their attitudes, may hold more promise for successful cultural change. The individual officer appears to be the catalyst to support and acceptance. Whilst support of hierarchy is important, if the officer can prove the worth of their work, police culture will accept the role. This finding is supported by a study by the Queensland Police Service in 1996 about police officers' attitude to, and belief in, community policing. The study found officers not directly involved in crime prevention programs were likely to reject the community policing philosophy, while those officers who had experienced community policing generally embraced it (Queensland Police Service 1996).

What these arguments reveal is that there are aspects of the police culture that will not change unless the nature of police work changes. The operational nature of policing, dealing with criminals and enforcing the law, is unlikely to alter the cultural characteristics of solidarity and conformity. The public outrage that prompted the Fitzgerald Inquiry revealed a police culture dominated by solidarity and conformity. The culture of today is still dominated by solidarity and conformity. The change in culture that was demanded by the public is not one that is possible without changing the function of policing. The very function of policing reinforces the "unacceptable" cultural elements. In order to change culture, the function of policing must change. This is not just changing policy documents, but changing what it is police do in society. Yet, society itself dictates the role and function of police, a role that exacerbates and reinforces the culture. It is the ultimate paradox — society demands change, but the change it demands is the one change it cannot have if police are to perform a law enforcement function. But the negativity of the culture experienced by Fitzgerald does not appear to be evident, even if the cultural elements remain. The proactive and reactive functions of policing exist in growing harmony, and this attitude appears to be increasing.


This study was limited by its focus on crime prevention. Crime prevention was Peel's ideal, and Fitzgerald's major recommendation. By limiting the study to one issue within policing, a more thorough analysis could be made for the purpose of this study, but this decreases the ability of the findings to be generalised. The data collection methods allow for the ability to establish the effect of police culture on the discourse of crime prevention. The analysis has revealed how police culture has influenced the behaviour of crime prevention officers and whether this influence is contrary to their own beliefs of the role of crime prevention. Further research would need to be undertaken to see if this attitude is consistent across reactive sections of the police service.

The views expressed in this paper are not necessarily those of the Queensland Police Service. The interviewees do not necessarily represent a true indication of events in Queensland.


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