The Importance of Climate in Police Work

In response to the avalanche of complaints and protests surrounding police shootings over the past two years, the United States Department of Justice has conducted numerous inquiries into departments around the country.  Five major studies into police departments, and policing as a whole, have been published in the last 18 months.  Four were in response to issues in specific departments: Ferguson, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago.  The other was the Final Report of the President’s Taskforce on 21st Century Policing.

The cumulative result of these studies is dozens of recommendations and action items for departments to bring long-term improvement to their community interaction.  These recommendations focus on building trust, restoring legitimacy and establishing the principle of procedural justice.  Most of these recommendations are reasonable and will, in the long-term, result in greater operational efficacy.  Many involve implementing or expanding various elements of community-based policing.  They also include policy revisions and processes that incorporate community input and oversight.

The drawback is that these recommendations are systemic cultural changes that will take time, can be expensive and may encounter opposition which creates delay.  This aspect of change is highlighted in the October 7, 2016, Chicago Tribune article on the Chicago Police Department policy proposals stating, “It remains unclear what version of the rules will ultimately take effect, and the department has provided itself room to change course if any of the proposals prove controversial.”

Analyzing, developing, and refining new policies and procedures is a time-intensive process.  If police unions, associations or the public disagree with the new policies, there could be a series of negotiations increasing the man-hour investment and delay in implementation. That is followed by the distribution and training process which usually is a scheduling nightmare.  This kind of change in the organizational culture can be difficult and time consuming.

People often use the word culture, but I am not sure we all have the same definition.  Scholars who study the subject say organizational culture is a pattern of shared basic assumptions that manifests from the policies, procedures, and practices of the organization over time.1  Culture embodies shared ideologies, interrelated beliefs about how things work, values the organization deems worth having and behavior that is considered normal.2  Typically, line officers and first line supervisors have no control over their organizational culture and little, if any, input into the change process.  And yet, it is the behavior of line officers and supervisors that is most often in question when high profile incidents occur.

What can be done to quickly and positively impact officer behavior while these long-term improvements are in the works?  I believe the answer is to make organic changes in the climate of police work.  We may not have control over our organizational culture but we, as officers and supervisors, can control the climate or psychological atmosphere of our work environments.  We react passionately, with indignation, to those who protest the police, but we cannot control them either.  Our focus should be on what we can control: our thoughts, our words and our actions.  This is not discipline in the sense of punishment or correction, it’s discipline in terms of self-control.

The terms culture and climate are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference between the two.  Organizational climate is the shared meaning members attach to their particular setting within the culture.  It’s the way people feel about their work environment.  Climate is made up of the perceptions the members have about the atmosphere at work.  We can have a climate of support or a climate of fear, a climate of acceptance or a climate of rejection, a climate for excellence or a climate for mediocracy.  What we say to and about ourselves contributes to the climate of the workplace.  The climate then can either facilitate or inhibit legitimate behavior.3

We need to recognize the impact that our climate has on our product.  We are required to be circumspect in our conversations with our constituency.  We know our actions must be reasonable and measured.  But our speaking and our behavior are outflows of the climate we create and within which we operate.  The way we talk about the calls we work, the people we deal with, the actions we take and the outcomes we produce creates the psychological atmosphere that defines our work environment.  The way we feel about and the meanings we attach to those things direct future thinking and behaving.

What kinds of stories do we love to re-tell when we are with colleagues?  Which officers are admired, revered or emulated for their exploits in the field?  What attitudes are expressed in our shop talk?  If it brings a smile to our face when we hear that the handcuffs were on a click too tight, or that there’s a new dent in the hood of the patrol car, or there was some serious road rash on the last arrestee, that might be an indication that we work in a climate conducive for abuse.  If that’s the well we dig among ourselves, why should we expect the water to taste any different when we pump it out on the public?  Our attitude about the way we exercise our authority comes from the climate in which we operate.4

We need to think strategically and act intentionally to control our work climate and to control the socialization process (the process by which members learn how to think, and feel, and behave like a member of the organization) so that we can organically produce better outcomes while we await the systemic changes that will produce better policies and procedures.  This socialization process never stops.  It’s most pronounced in younger, newer officers, but it never really stops.  We need to tell our stories, laugh at our jokes and be real people around ourselves because that’s how we build relationships with the people we may have to depend upon for our very lives.  But we need to recognize what’s appropriate and take control of that behavior so that the climates we perpetuate are climates for success and not climates for disaster.

Part of the take-away from the DOJ reports is what those reports reveal about the culture and work climates of places like Ferguson, Philadelphia and Baltimore.  No doubt, they are indicative of other places around the country.  It’s not every department or to the same degree, but the elements are there and the lessons can be applied to us all.  While we wait for the stakeholders and change agents to develop the cultural changes our communities are calling for, we as front line officers and supervisors can decide to take control of our climates and start creating climates that encourage, exemplify, and produce appropriate police behavior.

Adapted from:  OFFICER UP! Creating a Climate for Appropriate Police Behavior5

About the author:

Sergeant Tim Tremaine is a patrol supervisor with the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office in Fort Worth, Texas and is a retired patrol officer from the Arlington (Texas) Police Department.  Tremaine’s first book OFFICER UP! Creating a Climate for Appropriate Police Behavior was released in October 2016.  The 2nd Edition is now available on  For more information see


1 Schein, Edgar H. Organizational Culture and Leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2010, 18.

2 Trice, Harrison M. and Beyer, Janice M. The Cultures of Work Organizations. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1993, 33.

3 Schneider, Benjamin and Barbera, Karen M., eds. The Oxford Handbook of Organizational Climate and Culture. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014, 136.

4 Crank, John P. Understanding Police Culture. New York, NY: Routledge, 2015, 30-40.

5Chapter Two on “Understanding Culture and Climate” is fully notated and referenced for further reading.