The Subculture of Policing

In a stunning article in 1978, sociologist John Van Maanen wrote: “The collective myth surrounding the rule-bound ‘policeman [sic] as public servant’ has no doubt never been very accurate. By virtue of their –

  • Independence from superiors,
  • Carefully guarded autonomy in the field,
  • Deeply felt notions about real police work and those who would interfere with it,
  • Increasing isolation from the public they serve

(as a result of mobile patrol, rotating shifts, greater specialization of the police, and the growing segmentation of society at large with its own specialized and emerging subcultures), police-community ‘problems’ will not disappear.

“And, since the police view their critics as threatening and as persons who generally should be taught or castigated, one could argue that the explosive potential of citizen-police encounters will grow…

“If the police increasingly view their public audience as foes – whose views are incomprehensive if not degenerate or subversive – it is likely that they will also magnify cues which will sustain the stereotype of citizen-as-enemy escalating therefore the percentage of street interactions which result in improper arrest and verbal or physical attack…

“In fact, the future may make prophetic Brendan Behan’s half-jesting remark that he had never seen a situation so bad that a policeman couldn’t make it worse… Professionalism may well widen the police mandate in society and therefore amplify the potential of the police to act as moral entrepreneurs. From this perspective, what is required at present is not professional police but accountable police.”


[“The Asshole,” by Jack Van Maanen in Policing: A View from the Street, Eds. Peter K. Manning and Jack Van Maanen, 1978.]


By Taylor Callery, Chicago Magazine
This week Peter Nickeas wrote a well-done piece on the police subculture in Chicago. He describes today much of what Van Maanen said above about the subculture:

“Over the past six years covering crime for the Chicago Tribune, I’ve interviewed scores of police officers and gotten to know more than a few. Most came to the job because they wanted to help people. Many learned about policing at a young age from older relatives on the force. The more I talked to these cops, the more the time felt right to reprise [Connie] Fletcher’s [What Cops Know]—to hear in officers’ own words the things they usually say only to each other, and to get their take on subjects usually left to reporters, politicians, and academics.

“I talked to a dozen officers—black and white, men and women, rookies and veterans, patrol cops and sergeants, detectives and undercover investigators. They spoke to me freely, on the condition of anonymity, about rookie jitters, job stress, the drug trade, use of force, the mayor, the toll of poverty and violence on children, and the allure of being a cop, among other things…”


  • It’s worth reading the stories that Nickeas has accrued in the “Chicago Magazine” article and the challenges they present to police improvement/reform.