Police Occupational Socialization

Police occupational socialization is the process whereby individuals learn to be fit for performing police work by becoming aware of organizational and occupational practices, internalizing them, and carrying them out as participating members of their work group. Learning takes place through three social phases: pre-entry, entry, and in-service. This sequence involves individuals making a choice to become a police officer, learning formal and informal lessons during police recruit or academy training, and learning them on the job, respectively.

How officers make sense of these social events affects the way they perceive, influence, and interact with citizens in a law enforcement capacity. At the pre-entry phase, individuals learn about themselves, evaluate their personal qualities by comparing themselves with what they know about the police, and make a decision to become a police officer. During the entry phase, they begin to construct a self-concept that is coherent with what they learn about police roles, activities, and relationships with citizens. They begin to form a social identity about themselves as group members of the police profession. They learn to make social inferences about the citizens they meet. Finally, at the in-service phase, they strengthen and defend their self-concepts and social identity. They learn to conform to organizational and occupational norms so that they can act comfortably within the police culture. Officers develop different work-style attitudes that reflect subjective outlooks that include beliefs and values affecting how they interact with citizens during police-citizen contacts. Police socialization ensures that individuals acquire the necessary knowledge to perform adequately on the job. Understanding the role that thinking or mental processes play during socialization is at the heart of comprehending why officers act the way they do in their occupational settings.

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Pre-Entry Phase

Who am I? What do I think of myself? Who is a police officer? What does a police officer do? These questions are a focal point of the pre-entry phase, in which the process of making a choice to become a police officer is a major social psychological paradigm. At the pre-entry phase, individuals explore what they know about themselves (or self-concept) and what they know about the roles and activities of police officers. Individuals piece together some understanding of “who I am” from both self-knowledge and knowledge held by others. They construct self-knowledge from inferring their personal characteristics or qualities from their past behaviors. They use what other people know about them or think about them when forming opinions about themselves.

When constructing knowledge of policing, individuals use factual or fictional perceptions. Friends or relatives who are police officers are factual or genuine sources of learning who is a cop, what characteristics he or she has, and what he or she does on the job. Fictional or imagined perceptions of policing often come from media sources. For example, television or movie cops as portrayed by actors such as Mel Gibson demonstrate characteristics of power, toughness, and aggressiveness. Steady streams of these media images define police officers as being tough, strong, and invulnerable and fitting into a box that defines machismo. Whether real or imagined, these values often become part of “who I must be.”

Individuals reason from “who I am” to “who I must be,” including knowledge of both the self and the police. They employ four kinds of schemas that help them generate a hypothetical picture about themselves in the police role: a person schema (who is a police officer), a self-schema (who I am), a role schema (what behaviors I expect to perform in a given situation), and an event schema (how the situation will unfold). What explains in part the decision to become a police officer is the perceived discrepancy between “who I am,” on the one hand, and “who I must be,” on the other: The greater the discrepancy, the higher the probability that individuals will not self-select themselves for law enforcement training.

Individuals who see themselves as trainable and suitable for the job apply for it. Before they become police officers, however, they must pass through a rigorous selection process, which most often includes a written test, a physical agility test, background investigation, a personal interview, a medical exam, and a battery of psychological tests. A police administrator considers applicants who have ideal police characteristics and the ability to perform necessary job functions. The employment decision along with the selection process usually produces a homogeneous group of applicants who demonstrate a willingness to conform to organizational (official) and occupational (both official and unofficial or working) police practices. These police applicants or recruits experience formal socialization when they enter training at the police academy.

Entry Phase

Police recruit training refines the cohort of acceptable applicants through formal and informal lessons that weed out those applicants who do not conform to established police practices. Formal lessons involve instruction in a training curriculum, which usually includes the subject areas of administration of justice, fitness, law, police procedures, use of force, police professionalism, and community relations. Informal lessons about the job often take the form of war stories told by police academy instructors. Officers begin to learn from instructors and from their peers at the academy about unwritten rules, work attitudes, values, and beliefs of the occupational culture.

During academy training, the prevailing social psychological paradigms are self-concept, social identity, and social inferences. Officers begin to identify with the police subculture by constructing self-concepts that are coherent with what they learn about policing through formal and informal lessons at the academy. They fit into their self-concepts distinct characteristics of the police subculture, such as an ethos of toughness, autonomy, suspiciousness, secrecy, solidarity, and bravery. Officers begin to form a police identity from characteristics that belong uniquely to the police subculture and that they share with other officers. Police identification turns “I” into “we,” which extends “who I am.” Officers see themselves as members of the police subculture—a process known as self-categorization.

When officers self-categorize themselves, they view out-group members or non-police officers as outsiders (intergroup discrimination). They favor in-group members or police officers (in-group favoritism) because they see themselves as having more in common. The language officers use to refer to out-group members helps create and feed in-group bias. For example, “Let’s get the bad guys” or “It’s us against them.” The in-group/out-group arrangement is implicit when officers use pronouns such as “we” and “they” or “us” and “them.” Viewing themselves as part of the police subculture produces feelings of friendship, solidarity, and trust among officers. A cooperative work effort helps them tackle the challenges of contemporary policing.

At times, however, there are costs for expressing in-group favoritism. Officers might see citizens as being the same or interchangeable. For example, an officer says, “They all act alike” when speaking about members of a particular group. In this instance, the officer does not appreciate the diversity of citizens. Putting citizens into an out-group category might lead officers to process information about them differently. For example, an officer legitimizes and defends in-group beliefs and behaviors, whereas he or she marginalizes and attacks out-group ones. Officers who hold and show in-group favoritism have a tendency to accentuate in-group/out-group differences. Citizens know the differential power arrangement of police-citizen interactions. Police power coupled with certain citizen tension sometimes leads citizens to resist the police, especially when officers make evident their “us and them” mentality.

Besides officers learning to hold a worldview of “us” and “them,” formal and informal training lessons teach officers to make social inferences about police-citizen interactions. Officers learn to process people and events through a cognitive lens of present danger. For example, an officer uses force against a suspect. The event happens at 1:00 a.m. If one uses the situational cue “time of day” to help explain the officer’s behavior, the ecological validity of the model would be poor. Using the cue’s natural metric 1:00 a.m. would reduce the accuracy of the explanation because the officer’s acquisition of the cue in the force situation was subjectively different. The officer learned to form a scaled impression of 1:00 a.m. in terms of present danger.

Police work involves the possibility of danger all the time. Danger shapes police-training practices. Officers learn to see citizens as potentially uncooperative, armed, and dangerous. They learn that they work in an environment of condition yellow: always occupied with the present danger of people and events. Developing a police worldview through a cognitive lens of present danger is a major social psychological theme at both the recruit and the in-service levels of training.

In-Service Phase

At the in-service phase, integrative expressions of the social and the psychological disciplines emerge. Generally, officers, or now “rookies,” reconcile their self-concepts and their social identity. They conform to police norms and develop work-style attitudes.

When rookies graduate from academy training, they usually ride along with field-training (or incumbent) officers who provide on-the-job training. Rookies learn formal lessons such as work-area-relevant information and agency-specific policies and procedures. They learn informal lessons that usually consist of a set of unwritten rules, outlooks, and behaviors such as being “tough” that officers in their agency consider normal and expected in the occupational culture. Field-training officers teach rookies “how it’s done here.” What lessons rookies learn help them to reconcile inconsistencies in their self-concepts and social identity, and thus strengthen and defend them.

Formal and informal lessons during the field-training period cause rookie and incumbent officers to become more alike. Rookies conform to police norms or shared rules of conduct that establish in-the-box behaviors that most officers in most police situations accept and expect. Rookies accept a degree of conformity to these norms because they want to feel included and accepted by their peers. They learn quickly that there is a price to pay for acting outside the box. For example, a rookie officer responds with incumbent officers to a service call for disorderly conduct. The incumbent officers endorse values of toughness, aggressiveness, and respect. When the officers arrive, a male suspect becomes verbally abusive toward the rookie. While the rookie officer has a range of verbal skills available to manage this kind of behavior, the officer fears “losing face” and the consequences of outside-the-box behaviors, such as being labeled a “wimp” or “not a real cop.” The rookie mixes his or her response choice with ideals of enforcing the law or preserving group norms. Because the incumbent officers endorse toughness, aggressiveness, and respect, the rookie becomes tough and aggressive and uses a forceful response to earn respect where none is necessary. In this way, the rookie meets the expectations of incumbent officers.

Rookie officers learn that police calls for service can be tense and uncertain: Calls sometimes evolve rapidly. Once rookies graduate from their field-training period, they find themselves in a new role, having a degree of autonomy in handling police calls for service, holding a police worldview of danger, having broad discretionary power, and asserting authority to carry out police objectives. To meet the demands of police service, initial changes in their psychological makeup often occur. Rookies develop different personal work-style attitudes that reflect in part their experience and organizational and occupational practices. The content and structure of their attitudes might reflect a professional, tough-cop, clean-beat crime-fighter, problem-solver, or avoider style of policing. For example, the rookie officer who assumes a tough-cop perspective believes that citizens are hostile to the police, holds a police worldview of danger, and carries out an aggressive style of policing to keep safe. Initial changes in rookies’ work-style attitudes suggest that they are recognizing and responding to the role demands of a police officer. Although some rookies’ work-style attitudes might remain stable throughout their career, others might modify them to cope with changing policing strategies, job functions, calls for service, and subjective outlooks.


  1. Chappell, A. T., Lanza-Kaduce, L., & Johnston, D. H. (2005). Law enforcement training: Changes and challenges. In R. G. Dunham & G. P. Alpert (Eds.), Critical issues in policing: Contemporary readings (5th ed., pp. 71-88).
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  3. Worden, R. E. (1995). Police officers’ belief systems: A framework for analysis. American Journal of Police, 14(1), 49-81.

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