Organizational Culture and Police Misconduct

94 Pages Posted: 3 Jun 2003 Last revised: 24 Aug 2016

Date Written: 2004

Abstract

Most police departments defend controversial uses of force by individual officers in one of two ways: as well-intentioned but unfortunate responses to dangerous and ambiguous situations or as the aberrant behavior of rogue cops. These explanations are powerful and important because they frame the way police departments respond to police brutality. This article argues that because the stories police departments tell themselves (and us) about the causes of police violence are flawed and incomplete in essential ways, it is not surprising that judicial, administrative, and departmental responses to police violence are notoriously unsuccessful.

The primary defect in these explanations (and the solutions that go with them) is that they view police misconduct as resulting from a series of isolated factual and moral judgments made by officers functioning as individuals rather than as part of a distinctive and influential organizational culture. The "regrettable-accident" explanation asks whether the officer's judgment about how much force to apply was reasonable under the circumstances as known by the officer at the time of the incident. This explanation fails to consider, however, how the officer came to be in that situation in the first place and how her training and role in the police bureaucracy affected the way she viewed the broader parameters of her decision. The "officer-gone-bad" explanation is similarly flawed because it assumes that the misbehaving officer is off on a "frolic and detour" for which she alone is accountable. It allows the department to distance itself from an incident by labeling the perpetrators as deviants who are wholly unlike their fellow officers. Conversely, it allows managers to declare to the rest of the rank and file, "This terrible incident does not reflect on the rest of you." This allows the organization within which the official is embedded to absolve itself of responsibility for facilitating the officer's wrong-doing.

By contrast, theoretical and empirical scholarship on policing strongly suggests that organizational factors are a major determinant of police misconduct and thus an important - and often neglected - part of the solution. Unfortunately, like the individualistic explanations police departments offer for the misbehavior of their members, many of the remedies currently invoked to control police brutality are inadequate precisely because they ignore or undervalue institutional and organizational factors.

This Article demonstrates the individualistic focus of extant legal remedies and argues that we will never control police brutality unless we take account of the role of organizational culture in creating the milieu that perpetuates police violence. While the rogue cop explanation has turned the focus of attention toward trying to identify problem officers, the real story is that organizational factors interact with individual propensities to produce police brutality. Cops do not arrive at the police department door as fully-formed brutalizers; they are created, in some part, by features of the organizational culture that makes it possible or probable that they will act on their violent propensities. Thus, judicial remedies that focus on individual conduct (and departmental strategies that seek to identify psychological factors that might predispose to violence) must be supplemented by measures whose aim is to change the culture that encourages these propensities to be expressed in a pattern of conduct.

Suggested Citation

Armacost, Barbara E., Organizational Culture and Police Misconduct (2004). George Washington Law Review, Vol. 72, No. 3, 2004, UVA School of Law, Public Law Working Paper No. 03-6, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=412620 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.412620

Barbara E. Armacost (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States
804-924-3413 (Phone)
804-924-7536 (Fax)

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