The Dangers of “Blue Culture” in Policing, According to a Retired Officer

A Police Captain Reflects on Her Career and Why Good Police are Leaving the Profession in Droves

Law enforcement officials are resigning in high numbers in the wake of nationwide protests against police shootings. It would be easy to assume these leaders oppose the call for increased accountability and oversight, and that is sometimes the case. But some of those resigning are reformer officers who spent decades working to fix longstanding issues within their departments and in broader policing culture. As a recently retired police captain and as a Black woman who has been in a similar position, I can attest that the toxic backlash reform-minded officers receive from other police officers is often a significant motivating factor in the decision to leave policing.

This is a result of the “Blue Culture.” Blue Culture describes the tendency of law enforcement to not only band together in the face of scrutiny, but to also be suspicious of and reject those who call for systemic change, even their own peers and co-workers. Groupthink pervades all levels of policing. Officers are expected to operate uniformly. If they deviate from the prescribed path, their colleagues are likely to treat them as outsiders.

To truly do the job well, a collaborative mindset and flexible thinking are necessary, but one of the ways Blue Culture stifles this is by the abuse of the police power of discretion. For instance, a 2013 study found that marijuana was the most commonly used drug in America: 19.8 million people, or 7.5% of the country’s total population over the age of 12, identified as current users — this is regardless of race. With such a significant percentage of the population consuming marijuana, an officer can reasonably expect to find the drug through random searches known as pretextual stops. However, pretextual stops disparately impact Black communities. Police do not have to arrest every person suspected to be a marijuana user, but many officers use encounters that involve marijuana as the potential golden ticket to finding evidence of other crimes, stretching the purpose of the 4th Amendment for search and seizure, and adding to an already tense relationship between police and Black communities. In addition, officers who may not be in alignment with the practice may remain quiet in order to have less discomfort at work.

Some officers will insist they are improving public safety by making petty marijuana arrests, but what actually occurs is an alienation of not only the individual arrested, but their family members, friends, and their community. By making easy arrests for something most Americans believe should be legal, they create a criminal history or augment a criminal history unnecessarily. Those same community members might be wary of cooperating with law enforcement in the future. Ultimately, police are achieving the opposite of what they claim they intended, and the community continues to distrust the police.

Internally, Blue Culture involves poor hiring and promotion practices. Those who should be hired because they were well-qualified are often passed over for those who fit the traditional image of a police officer. This is often at the expense of diversity. When I supervised a background investigative unit for hiring in my department, I questioned why less qualified applicants were being hired. Many of them were related to someone in the department or had the right connections. In addition, good officers are frequently held back from advancement, especially when they advocate for common sense changes to policing culture. Favoritism and nepotism teaches police that the only way to succeed — and avoid conflict at work — is to uphold the status quo. Instead, we should encourage police officers to seek ways to improve the effectiveness of their organizations and strengthen their relationships with their communities through diversity of ideas and action.

For women and officers of color, the worst aspects of the Blue way of thinking are exacerbated by underlying racial tensions present in policing, stemming from its foundation as slave patrols in the 1700s. Black officers begin their law enforcement careers knowing that one of the primary roles of this profession has historically been the subjugation of their communities. The stereotypes and systemic racism born out of that history continue to this day in policing culture, making it difficult for minority officers to challenge abuse without suffering ostracism, hostility, and professional limitations.

Between internal pressures from fellow officers and external pressures from societal unrest, it is not surprising that many officers committed to reform are leaving the profession. However, there are changes that department leaders and public officials can make to help retain good officers.

One of the key policing recommendations proposed by the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) earlier this year is a national registry designed to track police misconduct, which would ensure that officers fired for misconduct are not hired in other jurisdictions. This would indicate to the public that behavior harmful to the community is taken seriously and that the officers responsible are held accountable by police leadership. The National Decertification Index attempts to do this but falls short because the information is not public, data is inconsistent and incomplete, few departments are aware of it, and even fewer use it. There are currently no mandates to use it or abide by it.

Additionally, LEAP recommends reforming state laws and police union contracts so that records of misconduct and disciplinary action are not shielded from public view. Furthermore, implementing mindfulness training, de-escalation, and nonviolent communication training can help shift policing culture, unravelling the animosity some officers hold toward reform-minded colleagues and members of the public.

Many of us entered policing because we want to ethically serve our departments and our communities, but internal practices need to evolve so that police officers are empowered for their good work, not punished. Until then, we will continue to lose our chance at substantial change and law enforcement legitimacy.

Capt. Sonia Pruitt (Ret.) is a veteran of the Montgomery County Police Department in Maryland and a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP).

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