The Police personality

Siegal gives an American perspective of the police personality: ‘The typical police personality is thought to include authoritarianism, suspicion, racism, hostility, insecurity, conservatism, and cynicism’ (1986: 500). Potter (cited in Adlam 1981), commenting on the British police, suggests that: ‘It is commonly accepted that police officers tend to be authoritarian, dogmatic, and conservative’.

 A psychometric study by Clucas (cited by Colman and Gorman 1982) found a sample of policemen from northern Britain to be extraverted, tough-minded, and conservative compared to the population norms of the tests used. (The term conservative as used in this context is understood as a steadfast resistance to change and a preference for safe, traditional, and conventional behaviour.) Similarly Potter (cited in Colman and Gorman 1982) in another psychometric study carried out in 1977 found police recruits to be more conservative than the general norm: however, following training there was a slight reduction in conservatism. Cook (1977) found conservatism scores similar to those reported by Potter, and that officers with twelve months’ service tended to be less con­servative than the recruits — although still more conservative than the general population. Cochrane and Butler (1980) compared the values held by police officers, recruits to the police force, and civilians. Using the Rokeach Value Survey (Rokeach 1973), it was found that overall the police placed significantly more value than civilians on a comfortable life, mature love, and self-respect, and significantly less value on a world at peace. Recruits differed from civilians only in placing less importance on ‘a world at peace’, and officers from recruits only in placing more value on ‘self-respect’.

A more recent study by Colman and Gorman (1982) collected data using four psychometric tests and an open response format to three questions on the ‘death penalty’, ‘coloured immigration’, and ‘mixed marriage’. Two groups of police officers were used: recruits from an initial training course, and probationer constables with an average of twenty months’ service: a non-police control was also included in the study. A comparison of the characteristics of the three groups revealed that they differed significantly on age, and that the control group had a higher level of educational attainment. Analysis of the psychometric data showed that the controls were significantly less conservative and less authoritarian than the two police groups; there was no difference between groups on the measure of dogmatism. (The term authoritarian as used here indicates a belief in the rightness of those with authority and power at the expense of individual freedom and the rights of minority and unconventional groups within society.) Independent judges rated the responses to the open format items on a scale labelled ‘liberal/tolerant — illiberal/intolerant’. More illiberal responses came from the police groups on the topics of the death penalty and coloured immigration. The initial training group were retested at the end of their nine-week programme and it was found that the recruits had become slightly less conservative and authoritarian — although the means remained higher than the controls. Colman and Gorman argue that the differences in age and education do not account for their findings — a point which might have been settled by a more sophisticated statistical analysis — and conclude that ‘the police force tends to attract to it people who are more conservative and authoritarian than those of comparable socio-economic status’ (1982: 8). The change in test scores following training reflects, Colman and Gorman suggest, the effect of the liberal studies included in the training. However, the high scores by the proba­tioner group suggest that this liberalizing effect is short lived. Colman and Gorman sound two notes of caution: their study was conducted in the Midlands and so requires replication elsewhere; there are perils in assuming that illiberal attitudes will necessarily be translated into illiberal actions.

Using a wide selection of psychological tests in New York, Fenster et al (1977) compared patrol officers with local citizens. The police officers were found to be more intelligent, more masculine, less neurotic and more extrovert than the local citizens. However, the police officers were found to hold common beliefs about crime and society.  Meanwhile, Carpenter and Raza (1987) found that American police officers were more psy­chologically healthy than private security guards, submarine personnel and USA Air Force recruits using the Minnesota Multi-Phasic Personality Inven­tory (MMPI). In particular, they were less depressed and anxious, and more interested in social contacts. But they were a more homogeneous group than the others.


Police beliefs about crime and society


Part of the training of new recruits is through contact or on-the-job training with more seasoned or experienced officers. At one level this can be regarded as teach­ing the recruits the job at a practical level. On the other hand, seasoned officers may employ practices that are less than ideal or even unacceptable to their managers. Consequently, the novice police officer may merely learn bad practice from his or her colleagues. This is particularly important when we consider the transmission of the occupational subculture or police culture. Police culture refers to the characteristic patterns of belief, behaviour, thinking and interaction that police officers tend to share in common. They are essentially normative as they are the accepted and prescribed standards of police personnel. This does not mean that they are fixed and unchanging. Although personnel may be recruited because they seem to reflect the characteristics of a 'good' police officer, they learn police culture by interacting with other police officers. The occupational culture may be in some ways at odds with what new officers have learnt at Police College. There may be a painful reality shock when they try to put their college knowledge into practice. They may find that their new ways of doing things clash with what is acceptable to the transmitters of police culture ­the old school of officers.

While police culture is a generic description of the cultural characteristics of the police, there is also evidence of the prevalence of certain sorts of attitude that characterise the general thinking of ordinary police officers. We may call this canteen or cop culture in order to differentiate it from the more general police culture. There may actually be a clash between the management subcultures and the subculture of the rank-and-file officers. Wootton and Brown (2000) summarise canteen culture as involving and valuing:

. action;

. cynicism;

. conservatism;

. mission;

. pessimism;

. pragmatism;

. solidarity;

. suspicion;

. racial prejudice.

The list might be extended further since, in addition to racism, sexism, homophobia and heterosexism are characteristic of the culture. Essentially, cop culture determines the rules abided by police officers that allow them to be seen as being effective in their work. This means that the standards of the dominant group within the police and their styles of interaction determine what is regarded as effective policing and the effective police officer. Gay and lesbian officers, for example, can then be seen as subordinate to the dominant group - their values disregarded. The nature of the canteen culture is such that homosexual officers do not 'come out'. This choice can do nothing to challenge the homophobia and, in a sense, reinforces it.

After joining the police, the processes of occupational socialisation may create a situation in which the individual's police identity is not psychologically compatible with other aspects of the individual's identity (e.g. their sexuality). In-group identifica­tion refers to the sense of a common identity shared by members of the force. This sexist, heterosexist and homophobic culture would readily identify gays and lesbians as out-groups. This may encourage hostility and discrimination by the majority group towards the out-group. Women, ethnic minorities, lesbians and gays are not readily tolerated because they are 'other' or different from the accepted norm. The problem for officers with these characteristics (e.g. they are women or homosexual) is that the dual identities of police officer and being homosexual, for example, can be extremely difficult to reconcile and handle.

Wootton and Brown (2000) studied police officers. One group consisted of officers who belonged to one minority (e.g. the' officer was female). The other group had two minority positions (e.g. they were black women or they were homosexual black men). The officers were interviewed and what they had to say was coded in terms of the presence or absence of a number of themes. A grid was then created in which the different officers were listed against the different themes emerging in the interviews. This was then analysed using a complex statistical technique (multi­dimensional scalogram analysis). This essentially plots people into a chart indicating their similarity/dissimilarity across the themes. There seemed to be a cluster of hetero­sexual officers who shared similar experiences. Lesbians and gays were not among them. Furthermore, officers with just one minority characteristic (e.g. being black or being homosexual) tended to group together as similar in terms of their experiences. Individuals with two minority characteristics (e.g. black homosexuals) tended to be at the periphery - separate from the dominant heterosexual group and the minority group. Wootton and Brown recommend that it is members of the heterosexual core, those demonstrating the discriminatory attitudes, who should be seen as having the problem - not their victims.

There are other aspects of police culture that warrant attention. In particular, there is some evidence that the police have systematically different beliefs about the criminal­ity of men and women. Horn and Hollin (1997) took a sample of police officers and a broadly similar comparison group who were not police. A lengthy questionnaire was used to extract, in particular, ideas about women and men offenders. Factor analysis, a complex statistical technique, revealed three dimensions underlying ideas about criminals:

. Deviance which includes beliefs such as 'Trying to rehabilitate offenders is a waste of time and money' and 'In general, offenders are just plain immoral'.

. Normality as reflected by agreeing with statements like 'There are some offenders I would trust with my life' and 'I would like associating with some offenders'.

. Trust which is measured by such matters as 'I would never want one of my children dating an offender' and 'You have to be constantly on your guard with offenders'.

There were two versions of the questionnaire - one with female offenders as the subject, the other with male offenders as the subject. Women offenders were seen as less fundamentally bad (deviant) than men who offend. This was true irrespective of the sex of the police officer. Compared with the non-police group, police officers saw offenders as fundamentally deviant or bad. The police viewed offenders as less normal than the general public (factor 2), though they tended to see offending women as more normal and like the general public than they saw male offenders. They also regarded offenders as less trustworthy than did the general public and male offenders were seen as less trustworthy than female offenders.

It should be remembered that rapid changes occur within police organisations as a consequence of the pressures on police management coming from political sources as well as legal judgements and reviews of particular policing episodes. These will differ from country to country and force to force but nevertheless they put established practices continually under review.

Traditional personality measures

Adlam (1980 quoted in Adlam, 1985) used the Rokeach Value Survey (a questionnaire that aims to establish an individual’s core values) with 137 inspectors and chief inspectors. ‘Honesty’ and ‘Responsible’ were ranked highest of the eighteen values, while ‘Intellectual’ and ‘Imaginative’ were placed at the bottom. Generally, this shows less con­cern for feeling and intuition by the sample.

Gudjonsson and Adlam (1983a) looked at a different set of personality variables using two psychometric tests. The Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (EPQ) contains scales labelled Psychoticism (P), Neuroticism (N), and Extraversion (E); P can be thought of as ‘tough-mindedness’, N as emotionality, and E as sociability. The 15 test is composed of three subscales, Impulsiveness (Imp), Venturesomeness (Vent), and Empathy (Emp); Imp can be understood as a tendency to act quickly, Vent as a liking for adventure, and Emp as sympathy with the feelings of others.

The personality measures were administered to four groups of police officers: a group of recruits, a group of probationary constables with eighteen months’ mean length of service, a group of constables with mean length of service of almost twenty years, and a group of senior police officers also with a mean of twenty years’ service. The scores for each group were compared with normative data to reveal that compared to the general population: ‘The recruits were found to be high on E, Imp and Vent, but low on P. The probationary constables, on the other hand, were introverted and had low Emp’ (1983a: 509). An identical comparison of experienced police and senior officers with general popula­tion norms revealed that ‘both [police] groups scored very low on Imp, Vent, Emp and P’ (1983a: 509). Gudjonsson and Adlam suggest that the personality profiles of the recruits reflect the attraction of the popular image of the police as an exciting and varied occupation. They further suggest that the differences between the recruits and the experienced officers may be due to the sobering effects of police work, although it may also reflect which recruits graduate through training to enter the force. In total two conclusions are drawn: the variety of personality profiles argues against strict stereotyping of the police officer; however, the low scores on the Empathy scale do lend some credence to the image of the police officer as a ‘controlled somewhat unfeeling indi­vidual’ (1983a: 512). As Gudjonsson and Adlam are quick to point out, this does not necessarily mean that the police are unconcerned about the public; it may well be that ‘not being inclined to become emotionally involved may be an effective adaptive mechanism that helps police officers cope more successfully with stressful situations’ (1983a:512).

Personality Dimension


Probationary Constables

Experienced officers




Very Low












Very Low




Very Low




Very Low


A central point in the debate about the ‘police personality’ is illustrated by the contrary views of Colman and Gorman (1982) and L. Brown and Willis (1985). Colman and Gorman argued for a ‘predispositional model’ in which the personality traits or social attitudes exist prior to joining the police; indeed, it is these particular personal qualities that make police work attractive to such individuals. Brown and Willis differed in favouring a ‘socialization model’ in which personality and values are formed as a consequence of the prevailing values in the police culture. This is sometimes called ‘canteen culture’, which moulds the views of police officers. Many studies have highlighted how the police label them­selves, and stereotype and label others. In particu­lar, there is great pressure to conform to the specific norms of the culture. Even researchers who have been involved in participant observation of the police find this pressure upon them.

While this debate was concerned with the British police, the same argument is evident in the American literature with advocates of both the predispositional model (Rokeach et al. 1971) and the socialization model (Genz and Lester 1976). An American study by Austin et al. (1987) attempted to test these two models by monitoring the authoritarianism of police officers who had been made redundant. They argued that if the socialization model was correct then when officers leave the police environment changes in values should be found. If the predispositional model holds, that is that the values are stable characteristics not dependent upon reinforcement from the police culture, then leaving the police should not cause any change in values. Austin et al. found that while the level of authoritarianism varied significantly according to age and race — with older and black officers showing the highest levels — there was no change after leaving the police culture. Indeed, a comparison of two groups of ex-officers who had been out of the force for one and two years respectively showed no effect of time away from the police culture on levels of authoritarianism.

While the findings of Austin et at. say a great deal about the robustness of authoritarian values, the question of acquisition of these values remains unanswered. Were the values present prior to joining the police, or were they the product of socialization within the police culture? The relative merits of the predispositional and socialization models can be considered from another viewpoint: if there is a predisposition what is there about police work that would attract a certain type of person? Alternatively is there any evidence that the police culture nurtures certain types of personality and associated values?

In looking at the attraction of the police service as a career the question becomes one of determining the payoffs for joining the police. Hunt (1971) in an American study found that white candidates for the police force listed, in order of importance, the following reasons for wanting to join the police:

1.      pay,

2.      security and fringe benefits;

3.      opportunity to main­tain law and order;

4.      and helping people.

 In a British study Reiner (1979) found that the most frequently cited attraction of the job of police officer was the way of life it offered — interest, excitement, outdoor activity, a ‘man’s job — rather than financial consideration. Although, as Reiner suggests, the importance of financial considerations may vary according to economic conditions and the state of the job market. Reiner (1979) also asked a sample of 168 British police officers to rate the most important aspects of their work. There was a reasonable match between what was seen as important in a job, and what was experienced once working as a member of the police force. Interest and variety were valued; interest and variety were found in the job. The police officer’s lot is clearly not too unhappy: over half the sample said they would rejoin the police if they were to begin their careers again.


Police ratings of job content and comparative assessment of police work (from Reiner 1979)

                                        Per cent rating  Per cent rating
Content                          most important  police work very good

Interest and variety               53                            86
Pay                                        30                            14
Good workmates                    1                            74
Performing public service   13                            58
Pleasant work conditions      2                            12
Supervisor not breathing
 down neck                              1                            44


However, while there are various payoffs for police work, different individuals will be attracted to different priorities. An American study by Hochstedler (1981) suggested various ‘police types’ based on different approaches to police work.

·        The supercop is concerned with protecting society from serious crime: he or she is prepared to use force in fighting ‘real crimes’ such as rape and robbery, probably ignoring minor crimes.

·        The professional officer perceives him or herself as performing a difficult and complex task which demands a range of skills and abilities. Such officers are generally competent and efficient in their work.

·        The service-oriented officer is more akin to a social worker than a crime-fighter; his or her aim is to help and rehabilitate within the community rather than to use the power of the law. Hochstedler suggests that these types of officers are the most likely to experience frustration as their goal is long-term change which, in many instances, he or she is unable to achieve.

·        The avoider, as the name suggests, tries to do as little as possible; this is not always because of laziness, but may be due to con­fusion, fear, or ‘burn out’.


However, Reiner (1985) makes the distinction between four different types of officers:

1.       ‘the bobby’ (ordinary officers),

2.       ‘the new centurion’ (‘street-wise crusader against crime’),

3.       ‘the uniform carrier’ (‘lazy cynic’),

4.       and ‘the professional’ (ambitious).


The other side of the coin, that the job produces the person, is to be found in various accounts of police work (Kirkham 1981). The emphasis in such accounts is on initiation into the police culture. Butler and Cochrane (1977), for example, found that British police officers became more self-assertive, more independent, and more dominant with increas­ing socialization into the police force. In a study of the British police, Adlam suggested a number of stages to this process of socialization. In the first few years of being a police officer there is a general ‘broadening of experience’, followed by the development of independence and emo­tional ‘hardening’. Eventually the officer becomes ‘more confident, more suspicious and cynical, more compassionate and understanding of the plight of others.., and more calculating and manipulative’ (1981: 157). All this in a culture in which ‘officers like to pursue robust and tradi­tionally masculine interests during their off-duty time, or as one officer put it: “Beer, sport, and women—preferably all at once” ‘(1981:157).

Adlam’s observation of increasing cynicism with time spent in the police forces is in accord with the views of American commentators such as Niederhoffer (1967) and Westly (1970). Niederhoffer argued that with time the officer becomes increasingly frustrated with him or herself, their department, and the community in which they work. This frustration, in turn, breeds cynicism about police work and also about the public: as Kirkham pragmatically states: ‘Chronic suspiciousness is something that a good cop cultivates in the interest of going home to his family each evening’ (1981: 81).  Crank et al (1986) found that amongst police chiefs that cynicism, after increasing during the first years of service, gradually declines.   Regoli et al. (1979) studied cynicism in American police and found that while it existed, its level depended on a range of factors such as social class, educational attainment, and size of the police department.  Rubinstein (1973) describes the early experiences of ‘rookie cops’ in urban America and notes how the police officer soon becomes suspicious of every­thing (for example, a man sitting alone in the park may be a sex offender waiting to pounce on passing children). This suspicion is not helped by police training, which encourages awareness of everything as potentially criminal (for example, a person who does not ‘belong’ in certain areas, or an individual sitting in a car who avoids eye contact). ~


Lefkowitz (1975) has suggested how the process of forming a police personality might operate: certain ‘types’ are attracted to police work, and are then picked out in the selection process; the powerful effects of the police culture and the experiences of police work then act to shape up attitudes and behaviour. To date there are no studies of psychological differences between those selected and rejected for the police service; and a lack of longitudinal data on the psychological effects of a long police career. More information is also needed on police attitudes to the crimes they are likely to encounter, especially for emotive and distressing crimes such as rape (Le Doux and Hazlewood 1985).


Practically because of the nature of the job, police offi­cers can become socially isolated (that is, it is difficult to sustain friendships outside the police). Studies have found this to be the case for the majority of officers (for example, two-thirds in a 1962 Royal Commission). Thus the police tend to make friends within their own group and this accounts for the police solidarity. The danger and pressures of the job further enhance this solidar­ity.


In-depth studies

Cain’s (1973) in-depth study of police in Birming­ham and Suffolk found officers to be isolated and concerned only with their own group norms. This included the pursuit of criminals by whatever means were necessary (even illegal acts of violence and control). Great Store was placed on secrecy and group loyalty.

Smith and Gray (1983) studied the Metropolitan Police and discovered the importance of informal norms more than formal rules (for example, internal informal discipline by peers rather than external sanctions). The distinction was made by patrol offi­cers between ‘good’ police work (for example, arresting criminals, and excitement) and ‘rubbish’ police work (for example, domestic disputes, and boring patrols). The researchers noted how the CID officers were concerned with dominance and not losing face. Smith and Gray see this mentality as strongly macho and based around four elements for the officers:


   Alcohol socialising together and consuming large amounts of alcohol was normal. Not drink­ing was seen as unprofessional and unmanly.

   Violence the exercise of violence was synony­mous with the exercise of authority.

   Sex sexist language by the predominantly male officers led to the denigration of women.

   Lack of sympathy for others.


But Waddington (1999) defends the ‘canteen culture’ by pointing out that there is a difference between what the police say when together and what they do on the streets. Looking at police behaviour on the streets, research has found that officers are neither dis­tinctly cynical nor authoritarian, and are similar to social workers in their attitudes to counter-attack­ing violence. Waddington emphasizes that the police are a product of the society they serve: ‘It is far from the case that the police are a repository for authoritarianism, racism and conservatism within a liberal population brimming over with the milk of human kindness’ (pp. 292—3). Waddington argues that the police sub-culture should be seen as a means of coping with a stressful job.




Kevin Brewer (2000), Psychology and Crime, Heinemann, ISBN 0-435-80653-X.

Clive R. Hollin  (1989), Psychology and Crime, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-01807-2.


Dennis Howitt (2006) Forensic and Criminal Psychology, Pearson Prentice Hall, ISBN 0-13-129758-9