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Police culture: bad apples or bad barrels?


Police culture: bad apples or bad barrels?

Police wearing hi-vis

Dr Ian Durrant discusses ‘canteen culture’ within the police and asks why ‘bullying’ behaviour has resurfaced?

Recently the Metropolitan Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick announced an independent review of police culture. Although the catalyst was the shocking abduction and murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer; in the weeks since Sarah’s murder, public faith in not only the Metropolitan Police, but British policing has a whole, has received blows from both without and within. Numerous stories have emerged from both members of the public, as well of former and serving officers of sexist language and behaviour, which would appear to reflect a dated misogynist culture, the likes of Gene Hunt, Regan and Carter would recognise and feel at home in.

Perhaps one reason why these revelations appear so shocking is that police forces are more diverse both than at any time since their inception. Not only are warranted police officers drawn from all sections of the community, but the glass ceiling, if not broken, appears at least porous. 11.9% of chief constables and 29.4% of chief officer ranks in England and Wales are held by women. Given that 33.1% of police constables are women, although clearly still a male-dominated sector, evidence of adverse impact on promotion appears to be reducing.

In addition, almost 40% of employees across the 43 police forces in England and Wales are Police Staff – a combination of professional and support staff and those who don’t patrol the streets.

 58% of whom in the Metropolitan Police are female. Civilian workers with all the rights and freedoms under UK employment legislation, including the freedom to join trade unions and to whistleblow if they witness or are subject to illegal, unsafe or inappropriate behaviour.

So why have revelations about behaviour, we thought we had left behind in the 1970s resurfaced in 2021?

Perhaps it is because of the power of organisational culture to be self-perpetuating. Canteen culture has been used to describe, the divide between the public and private behaviour of police officers. Behind closed doors police officers and staff, talk, share stories, joke and play tricks on each other, many of which the public would find shocking. Surprisingly academic commentators and the officers themselves have often characterised such behaviour as serving necessary functions. To relieve tension, foster a sense of community, particularly amongst men and even to demonstrate that recipients are emotionally suitable for the role .

In my own research into workplace bullying; playing jokes and tricks on colleagues, even referring to oneself as a sexual predator was universally re-christened as ‘banter’. An attribution used by both male and female police officers, including those in managerial roles.

Although such behaviour had all the hallmarks of workplace bullying, the perpetrators, witnesses and to a lesser extent, victims, insisted it was not bullying since ‘the intent’ was not to cause harm. Indeed, if the victim could not ‘take it’ or complained, it was taken as evidence of their weakness.

Given that currently all senior officers must start their career at police constables, first being accepted and then enculturated. It is possible that the behaviours that go on behind closed doors, under the umbrella of canteen culture, in effect serve to select those with certain values, beliefs and behaviours, the components of organisational culture, and deselect those who object. In effect creating a self-perpetuating and institutionalised, if unintentional, sexist culture.

To be successful in changing police organisational culture, the review proposed by Cressida Dick, needs to be prepared to examine all its manifestations, including in private, off duty spaces. More broadly we must redefine concepts like bullying to include those behaviours which are unacceptable, even if those involved do not appear to object.  Managers, be they warranted police officers or civilian staff need to be both role models and to challenge behaviours like banter, which can create a hostile environment and lead to bullying and sexism becoming hidden in plain sight.  

Dr Ian Durrant is Senior Lecturer teaching on a range of programmes across the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Education and is involved in a number of research projects for the University including impact evaluations, social return on investment studies and organisational culture change. 

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