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SA Crime Quarterly

On-line version ISSN 2413-3108
Print version ISSN 1991-3877

SA crime q.  n.57 Pretoria Sep. 2016 



'Darker shades of blue': A comparison of three decades of South African Police Service culture



Jéan SteynI; Sazelo MkhizeII

ISchool of Applied Human Sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
IIDepartment of Criminology and Forensic Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal




Research on police has emphasised that police culture reflects the identities and sensitivities of police officials. Recently, a 'contemporary police culture' school of thought has emerged, challenging the traditional view that police character is homogenous and universal. Supporters of this philosophy argue that developments in policing have dramatically changed police culture, making traditional characterisations antiquated and irrelevant. This article contributes to this debate by exploring three core elements of early police organisational culture models - solidarity, isolation and cynicism -among a representative sample of South African Police Service (SAPS) officials with 10, 20 and 30 years' experience.



Research on police has long recognised the importance of police culture in shaping officials' attitudes to work. In the decades since the early ethnographic work of William Westley,1 a range of police ethnographies have been conducted, predominantly in the United States and United Kingdom.2 These have noted, among others, feelings and perceptions of isolation, solidarity and cynicism among police officials, as well as a sense of mission, conservatism, pragmatism, machismo, racism and sexism. These have been understood as attributes developed by police to cope with the challenges of the job.

These traits have been cited so frequently that one might think them a ubiquitous element of police culture. However, recently a 'contemporary police culture' school of thought has arisen, challenging the prevailing traditional portrayals of homogeneity and universality. Its proponents argue that new developments in police and policing have dramatically changed, and that traditional characterisations therefore do not reflect contemporary police culture or police actions. What is more likely, however, is that while certain aspects of police culture have changed, others remain firmly entrenched. Using a survey carried out among n=173 South African Police Service (SAPS) officials, this article aims to contribute to this debate. It specifically explores whether attitudes relating to solidarity, isolation and cynicism vary by the number of years of service in the SAPS.


Coping themes of solidarity, isolation and cynicism in traditional police culture

Academic portrayals of police and policing have historically presented police attitudes as characterised by cynicism and feelings of isolation from the public. With the introduction of community policing in the 1980s (1990s in South Africa) it was hoped that police culture would evolve more positively.3

Police culture is shaped by at least two key aspects of the job: the police occupational setting and the police organisational setting.4Culture can be defined as a pattern of basic assumptions shared by a group and taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to certain problems.5 Schraeder, Tears and Jordan note that organisational culture describes shared beliefs and expectations about organisational life within an organisation.6Police occupational and organisational culture is operationalised as the work-related principles and moral standards that are shared by most police officials within a particular sovereignty. The most definitive element of the occupational setting is the risk of physical harm to officials, and their potential to use force against others.7

The second key aspect of the job is the hierarchical structure and related internal oversight of officials.8 In this setting, officials face erratic and disciplinarian managers. Police officials are expected to enforce the law while respecting both the law and the organisation's rules. Transgressions can be harshly punished. Novice police quickly realise that they are more likely to receive managerial attention for their mistakes than for their accomplishments.9 As a result, they stop taking initiative in their work.

Police are expected to be competent and are quickly found to be at fault when they are not.

The police organisational environment is also one that supports vague task affinity. Empirical enquiries suggest the three primary roles expected of police officials are preservation of the peace, execution of the law, and the provision of public assistance.10 The potential for harm to police officials, and for their use of force, as well as critical management and role ambiguities, can generate pressure and angst among police, and as such impede police work. Solidarity, isolation and cynicism have been identified as three coping strategies that police adopt in response to their work.11

One of the most powerful attitudinal elements of police culture is the sense of solidarity shared by its members.12 Solidarity in the police context can be described as the glue that holds police culture together.13 It sustains police group identity, marks group boundaries and shields police from external oversight.14 Police solidarity is a product of conflicts with and antagonisms towards diverse community and public groups that challenge police authority, such as community members, courts, the media, politicians, and top-ranking police officials.15Moreover, the danger of police work (real or perceived) encourages strong loyalties in an 'all for one and one for all' sense of camaraderie, and a military sense of combat-readiness and general spiritedness. Powerful loyalties emerge in the commonly shared and perilous effort to control dangerous crimes.

A great deal of police research over the past 45 years has documented the likelihood of police to feel isolated from their friends, the public, the legal system and even their own families.16 This is both a result of their unique, often fraught public position in society, and because the work does not correlate with the standard working week.17 As a result, some police choose to socialise with other police or pass time alone.18

In 1967 Arthur Niederhoffer wrote of the cynicism he had observed during his career in the New York City Police Department. He believed the average officer's state of mind was characterised by hostility and bitterness, levelled at all around him, including the police system.19 Left unimpeded, police cynicism contributes to alienation, job dissatisfaction and corruption. Gauges of police cynicism tap the argot of police culture, a language nuanced with vexation towards overseers, police toil and the establishment. Cynicism appears early on from language and attitude sculpting in college training, partly because of a desire among newcomers to emulate experienced officials in an effort to shed their status as novices.20


Research on themes of solidarity, isolation, and cynicism

The Police Culture Solidarity, Isolation, and Cynicism Questionnaire [PCSICQ] study, a longitudinal, four-stage, repeated measure study among a representative sample of all new SAPS recruits, was conducted between 2005 and 2010. First administered during basic training in January 2005,the study established that SAPS cadets entered the organisation (Van Maanen and Manning's choice-stage of police culture socialisation) with predispositions to the solidarity, isolation and cynicism found in the literature.21 These sentiments were either maintained or strengthened during academy training (Van Maanen and Manning's admittance-stage of police culture socialisation) and field training (Van Maanen and Manning's encounter-stage of police culture socialisation). Over the next nine years of police service (Van Maanen and Manning's metamorphosis-stage of police culture socialisation) these attitudes were fortified and reinforced.22

Steyn, Bell and De Vries made use of the same survey instrument to compare the attitudes of new SAPS recruits with those of recruits at the Justice Institute of British Columbia (JIBC) Police Academy. The study found that both new SAPS and JIBC police recruits had a shared affinity for police solidarity, but that while most SAPS recruits showed characteristics of isolation and cynicism, only half the JIBC recruits did.23

These findings support the view that the SAPS, like other police agencies, recruits individuals whose values and attitudes align with the organisation's culture, and that these predispositions are cyclically fortified and reinforced by police culture.


Research objective and questions

Extending the findings of the PCSICQ study, which showed the presence of the stated attitudes during the first 10 years of SAPS officials' careers, this research asked: do SAPS officials' attitudes align with the themes of solidarity, cynicism and isolation, and do they vary among officials with 10, 20 and 30 years of service?


Research methodology

A cross-sectional, quasi-experimental, three-group post-test research design was employed.

Outcome variables

Attitudes refer to cognitive evaluations (favourable or unfavourable) of statements made on a 30-item questionnaire, developed by Jéan Steyn in 2004, measuring solidarity, isolation and cynicism among police officials.24 The study made use of the PCSICQ, developed by Jéan Steyn in 2004.25The PCSICQ is a composite measure consisting of three subscales, with 10 items per scale.

Police culture solidarity coping theme subscale items

[01] Policing should be one of the highest paid careers

[02] It is my duty to rid the country of its bad elements

[03] Police officials are careful of how they behave in public

[04] You don't understand what it is to be a police official until you are a police official

[05] Police officials have to look out for each other

[06] Members of the public, media and politicians are quick to criticise the police but seldom recognise the good that police members do

[07] What does not kill a police official makes him or her stronger

[08] Most members of the public don't really know what is going on 'out there'

[09] A good police official takes nothing at face value

[10] To be a police official is not just another job, it is a 'higher calling'

Police culture isolation coping theme subscale items

[11] I tend to socialise less with my friends outside of the police since I have become a police official

[12] I prefer socialising with my colleagues to socialising with non-members

[13] I don't really talk in-depth to people outside of the police about my work

[14] Being a police official made me realise how uncooperative and non-supportive the courts are

[15] My husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend tends not to understand what being a police official is all about

[16] Shift work and special duties influence my socialising with friends outside the police

[17] I feel like I belong with my work colleagues more every day, and less with people that I have to police

[18] As a police official, I am being watched critically by members of the community, even in my social life

[19] I can be more open with my work colleagues than with members of the public

[20] Generals do not really know what is happening at grass-roots level

Police culture cynicism coping theme subscale items

[21] Most people lie when answering questions posed by police officials

[22] Most people do not hesitate to go out of their way to help someone in trouble

[23] Most people are untrustworthy and dishonest

[24] Most people would steal if they knew they would not get caught

[25] Most people respect the authority of police officials

[26] Most people lack the proper level of respect for police officials

[27] Police officials will never trust members of the community enough to work together effectively

[28] Most members of the community are open to the opinions and suggestions of police officials

[29] Members of the community will not trust police officials enough to work together effectively

[30] The community does not support the police and the police do not trust the public

Each item was scored using a Likert scale between 1 and 4 (strongly disagree 1, disagree 2, agree 3, strongly agree 4). The higher the score, the greater the presence of a particular police culture attitudinal theme. Items 22, 25 and 28 on the PCSICQ are reverse stated to control for manipulation, and as a result, counter scored (strongly disagree 4, disagree 3, agree 2, strongly agree 1).

A pilot study was conducted in December 2004 among 100 SAPS functional police officials stationed in the city of Durban, South Africa. Factor analysis identified nine factors, of which four met the latent root criterion (also known as the eigenvalue-one criterion or the Kaiser criterion).

The factor analysis showed statistically significant loadings (with >0.70 communality) for items 30, 24, 21, 29, 27 and 30 on Factor 1. Items 21, 23 and 24 could be grouped into respondents' viewpoints apropos the truthfulness and trustworthiness of the populace, whereas items 27, 29 and 30 gauged participants' beliefs about the effects of these traits on police-community interactions. The relational direction between the Factor 1 loadings signified that respondents who viewed the public as commonly deceitful and untrustworthy correspondingly felt that the police and the public could not work well together.

Items 25, 29 and 30 were loaded with statistical significance on Factor 2. Item 25 was a determinant of how respondents felt about citizens' respect for the police, and items 29 and 30 measured the respondents' attitudes regarding the relationship between the police and the public. The respondents who thought that the public did not respect the police also felt that the police and the public did not trust one another.

Factor 3 reflected high loadings (with >0.70 communality) from measures 12, 11, 2, 5 and 6. These items showed that the respondents believed that police officials should look out for one another. Respondents who supported a collective purpose (i.e., rid the country of its bad elements) and viewed outsiders as critics of the police, likewise believed that police officials had to look after one another and preferred to mingle more with police colleagues and less with outsiders.

Measures 23, 16, 28, 24 and 14 loaded statistically significantly on Factor 4. These items measured the extent to which respondents socialised with others outside the police and their justifications for this. Respondents who indicated that they had socialised less with outsiders since joining the police were also of the opinion that this was due to unsupportive courts, shift work and special duties. They believed that even though members of the public were open to the opinions and suggestions of police officials, the former were not to be trusted and were generally dishonest.

In general, the factor analyses revealed that several of the items did not load on any of the four factors (with eigenvalues >1.0), and that some of the items loaded statistically significantly on more than one factor, thus emphasising the multi-dimensional and amorphous nature of the constructs. The critical question is whether each item, based on the literature, is valid as a measure of a dimension of the solidarity, isolation and cynicism commonly associated with police culture. This article argues that they are.

The Pearson product moment correlation coefficient ('r'), between solidarity, isolation and cynicism indicate positive linear relationships:

Solidarity and isolation, r = .963, p<.001

Solidarity and cynicism, r = .627, p=.006

Isolation and cynicism, r = .644, p=.003

The reliability coefficient (Cronbach alpha) of the PCSICQ is 0.77, which indicates strong internal consistency.


The study randomly selected three of the nine provinces - Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo. It selected police officials based on those recognised by the SAPS as having 10, 20 and 30 years of service. Participants were members of the SAPS - South Africa's sole national police service. A police official is an individual, irrespective of rank, appointed in terms of the South African Police Service Act.26

Administration of the survey

Approval for the study was granted by the SAPS Head Office Strategic Management Component (SMC). The SAPS SMC and the SAPS Head Office Human Resource Division (HRD) supplied an official list of police officials who had received 10, 20 and 30 years' SAPS service medals (1994 until April 2015) in each of the three provinces. A telephone directory list was obtained from the SAPS web page and each identified police official was telephoned. Using English, each individual was validated, the purpose of the telephone call and the study explained, and the voluntary and confidential nature of participation clarified. The questionnaire was administered to willing participants via email.


Data analysis

Analyses were conducted in six steps. First, the socio-demographic characteristics of the sample were calculated, disaggregated by the three sub-groups: 10 years of service, 20 years of service, and 30 years of service. Second, analyses tested for statistically significant differences based on province, gender, age, race, marital status and education level. Third, total and percentage outcome scores for each of the three attitudes: solidarity, isolation and cynicism were compared across the three sub-groups stratified by province. Fourth, Mann-Whitney tests comparing mean differences for each attitude (solidarity, isolation and cynicism) in the three sub-groups were conducted, using Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) software, in two sub-steps:

(1) comparing participants with 10 years of service and 20 years of service and (2) comparing participants with 20 and 30 years of service. Fifth, average scores for individual items were computed using MannWhitney U tests and Kruskal-Wallis H-tests for two sub-steps: (1) comparing participants with 10 years of service and 20 years of service and (2) comparing participants with 20 and 30 years of service. Finally, a factorial Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) test was run to test for interaction effects on the three theme variables, using race, gender and years of service as factors.



Table 1 indicates that the study sample represents the population of SAPS officials from the provinces of Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo, who overall received 10, 20, and 30 year service medals from the organisation in 2015.

Table 2 depicts the variance between the years of service sub-groups in relation to gender, age, race, marital status and educational level. Despite their diversity, attitudes across the samples remained strikingly similar.

Outcome scores

An inclusive mean score of 24 (60%) or higher per participant on a particular theme (for example, solidarity [items 1-10]), with the minimum score being 10 and maximum 40, was selected as a measure of inclusion.

Table 3 reveals that police officials, irrespective of years of service and province, showed a propensity towards the attitudes of solidarity, isolation and cynicism (with an overall mean score of 29.08 [above the predetermined 24] and mean score percentage of 72.71% [above 60%] on the 30-item PCSICQ).

Figure 1 shows that solidarity was the most pronounced attitudinal trait (mean score 31.24 and mean score percentage 78.10%), followed by isolation (30.87 and 77.19%) and cynicism (25.14 and 62.85%). It reveals almost no variation in attitude by years of service. This is confirmed by the Mann-Whitney U test (tables 4 and 5), which found no statistical significance.

SAPS officials with 20 years of service were more likely than those with 30 years of service to agree and strongly agree with the following items: (1) police officials should be better paid (p=0.027), (15) partners/spouses do not understand what being a police official is all about (p=0.024), and (23) most people are untrustworthy and dishonest (p=.047). SAPS officials with 10 years of service were more likely than those with 20 years of service to agree and strongly agree with the following items: (17) police officials belong more with work colleagues and less with people they have to police, with every passing day (p=.025), and (21) most people lie when answering questions posed by police officials (p=.025). SAPS officials with 20 years of service were more likely than those with 10 years of service to agree and strongly agree with item 30: the community does not support the police and the police do not trust the public (p=.016).

Besides the statistically significant differences stated above, SAPS officials with 10, 20 and 30 years of service, as indicated in Table 6, consider their work as follows: taking place in a dangerous and uncertain environment, highly skilled and with moral purpose, and only suitable for unique individuals with characteristics such as toughness and suspiciousness. Groups outside of the police have very little understanding of police work, as reflected in unsatisfactory monetary compensation, cockeyed criticism and ill-considered prescriptions. These police officials isolate themselves from outsiders (friends, family members/important others, community, courts and top-ranking officials), in favour of their colleagues. They believe most people lie when answering questions asked by police officials would thieve if they knew they would not be caught, are untrustworthy and dishonest, not perturbed by the cries for help of others, unlikely to praise police, and resistant to the opinions and advice of police officials.


Discussion and conclusion

This study contributes to the literature on police culture and socialisation by offering analysis of rigorously collected data from a middle-income country in the global South.

The study asked: do SAPS officials' attitudes align with the themes of solidarity, cynicism and isolation, and do they vary among officials with 10, 20 and 30 years of service? It found that SAPS officials held such attitudes, irrespective of years of service. The findings agree with a previous 10-year longitudinal study that revealed the same attitudes found in this study.27 They support the view that police organisations recruit individuals aligned with the organisation's culture, and that cultural attitudes reach a relative peak through socialisation. The findings do not support the views of those who believe that police culture has changed significantly due to developments in police and policing.28 There is no doubt that novelties in the police occupational and organisational environments have changed some aspects of traditional police culture, but others have endured. The findings also provide an alternative view to Crank's notion that police culture cynicism attains maximum potency between the fourth and fifth year of a police officer's career, and suggests that the upper limit is only reached around the 20-year mark (15 years longer than originally thought).29

The findings suggest that solidarity, isolation and cynicism are standard coping strategies among South African police officials, as they have been shown to be elsewhere. The notion that community-oriented policing challenges these attitudes seems, based on this study, unfounded. Encouraging interaction between police and the public increases dissonance (catch-22 policing), and police officials attempt to reduce the associated anxiety through solidarity, isolation and cynicism. That said, this study does not assume a direct relationship between attitude and overt behaviour, nor does it draw conclusions about the SAPS as a whole. Further analyses should be conducted to elucidate non-socio-demographic factors that shape these attitudes, such as actual SAPS member practices and on-the-job experiences.



1 William A Westley, Violence and the police, American Journal of Sociology, 59, 1953, 34-41.         [ Links ]

2 Michael Banton, The policeman in the community, New York: Tavistock Publications, 1964;         [ Links ] Arthur Niederhoffer, Behind the shield: the police in urban society, New York: Doubleday 1967;         [ Links ] Maurice Punch, The secret social service: the British police, London: Edward Arnold, 1979, 102-117;         [ Links ] Michael K Brown, Working the street, Russell Sage Foundation, 1981;         [ Links ] Simon Holdaway and BH Blackwell, Inside the British police: a force at work, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983;         [ Links ] Michael Brogden, Tony Jefferson and Sandra Walklate, Introducing policework, London: Unwin Hyman, 1988;         [ Links ] Clifford Shearing and Richard V Ericson, Culture as figurative action, British Journal of Sociology, 42, 1991, 481-506;         [ Links ] Elizabeth W McNulty, Generating common sense knowledge among police officers, Symbolic Interaction, 17, 1994, 281-94;         [ Links ] Roy R Roberg, John P Crank and Jack Kuykendall, Police & society, Los Angeles: Roxbury CA, 2000.         [ Links ]

3 Megan O'Neill, Monique Marks and Anne-Marie Singh (eds), Police occupational culture: new debates and directions, Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2007;         [ Links ] David H Bayley, Model of community policing: the Singapore story, New York: DIANE Publishing, 1989;         [ Links ] David Alan Sklansky, Police and democracy, Michigan Law Review, 103, 2005, 1699-1830;         [ Links ] Bethan Loftus, Police occupational culture: classic themes, altered times, Policing & Society, 20, 2010, 1-20;         [ Links ] Tom Cockcroft, Police culture and transformational leadership: outlining the contours of a troubled relationship, Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice, 8, 2014, 5-13;         [ Links ] Michael E Meyer, Jéan Steyn and Nirmala Gopal, Exploring the public parameter of police integrity, Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 36, 2013, 140-156;         [ Links ] Peter Moir and Henk Eijkman (eds), Policing Australia: old issues, new perspectives, Melbourne: MacMillan, 1992;         [ Links ] Mollie Weatheritt, Community policing now, in Peter Willmott (ed.), Policing and the community, London: Policy Studies Institute, 1987, 7-20;         [ Links ] John Alderson, Community policing, in Joseph A Schafer et al. (eds), The future of policing: a practical guide for police managers and leaders, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983;         [ Links ] Herman Goldstein, Improving policing: a problem-oriented approach, Crime & Delinquency, 25, 1979, 236-258;         [ Links ] Clifford Shearing and Michael Brogden, Policing for a new South Africa, London and New York: Routledge, 1993;         [ Links ] Janet Chan, Changing police culture: policing in a multicultural society, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.         [ Links ]

4 Eugene A Paoline III, Taking stock: toward a richer understanding of police culture, Journal of Criminal Justice, 31, 2003, 199-214.         [ Links ]

5 Edgar H Schein, Organizational culture and leadership, California: Jossey-Bass, 2004.         [ Links ]

6 Mike Schraeder, Rachel S Tears and Mark H Jordan, Organizational culture in public sector organisations: promoting change through training and leading by example, Leadership and Organizational Development Journal, 26:6, 2005, 492-502.         [ Links ]

7 Ibid.

8 Jéan Steyn and Ian de Vries, Exploring the impact of the SAPS basic training institutes in changing the deviant police culture attitudes of new recruits, Acta Criminologica, 20:1, 2007, 1-34.         [ Links ]

9 Ibid.

10 Paoline, Taking stock, 6.

11 Steyn and De Vries, Exploring the impact of the SAPS basic training institutes in changing the deviant police culture attitudes of new recruits, 8.

12 Paul E Willis, Common culture: symbolic work at play in the everyday cultures of the young, Boulder: Westview, 1990.         [ Links ]

13 John P Crank, Understanding police culture, Florida: Anderson, 2004;         [ Links ] Janet Chan, Fair cop: learning the art of policing, University of Toronto, 2003;         [ Links ] Jerome H Skolnick and James J Fyfe, Above the law: police and the excessive use of force, New York: The Free Press, 1993;         [ Links ] The Christopher Commission, Report of the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department, 1991; Peter K Manning, Police work, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977.         [ Links ]

14 Crank, Understanding police culture, 13; Chan, Fair cop, 13.

15 Lewis Coser, The functions of social conflict, New York: The Free Press, 1956.         [ Links ]

16 DS Drummond, Police culture, Beverly Hills: Sage, 1976;         [ Links ] Jerome Skolnick, Justice without trial, New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1966.         [ Links ]

17 Skolnick, Justice without trial, 16.

18 Brian F Kingshott and Johan Prinsloo, The universality of the police canteen culture, Acta Criminologica, 17:1, 2004, 1-16.         [ Links ]

19 Arthur Niederhoffer, Behind the shield, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1967.         [ Links ]

20 MG Wilt and JD Bannon, Cynicism or realism: a critique of Niederhofer's research into police attitudes, Journal of Police Science and Administration, 4, 1976, 38-46.         [ Links ]

21 Jéan Steyn, Recruiting newcomers to the South African Police Service for the organisation's culture, Acta Criminologica, 18, 2005, 82-100.         [ Links ]

22 Jéan Steyn, 'Darker shades of blue': a ten-year gender comparison of police culture attitudes in the South African Police Service, African Journal of Public Affairs, 8, 2015, 166-189;         [ Links ] John Van Maanen, Police socialization: a longitudinal examination of job attitudes in an urban police department, Administrative Science Quarterly, 20, 1975, 207-228;         [ Links ] Peter K Manning, The police occupational culture in Anglo-American societies, New York: Garland, 1989.         [ Links ]

23 Jéan Steyn, Nick Bell and Ian de Vries, Predisposed police culture attitudes: South African Police Service versus Justice Institute of British Columbia newcomers, Acta Criminologica, 28:1, 2015, 88-111.         [ Links ]

24 Jéan Steyn, The development of police culture attitudes among SAPS recruits, unpublished PhD thesis, Tshwane University of Technology, 2006, 344.         [ Links ]

25 Ibid., 27.

26 South African Police Service Act 1995 (Act 68 of 1995), Pretoria: Government Printer, 1995.

27 Steyn, 'Darker shades of blue', 23.

28 Tom Cockcroft, Police culture: themes and concepts, London: Routledge, 2013;         [ Links ] O'Neill, Marks and Singh (eds), Police occupational culture, 3; Sklansky, Police and democracy, 1699-1830.

29 Crank, Understanding police culture, 13.

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