Recognizing Elements of Policing Through Media

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“Armed with a badge, gun, and more questions than confidence, trainees go into the streets and learn how to be a cop.” Before I took this course I barely knew anything about police. Of course I knew the basic “protect and serve” motto, but nothing about what they face in their day-to-day operations. I picked my opening quote because many police officers are also not aware of the elements that come with the occupation that is a police officer. Through analyzing the book “Cop in The Hood: My Year Policing in East Baltimore” and the 1973 film “Serprico”. I found many elements of policing; this is not surprising considering both works of art are based on real events and experiences on the force. However, three elements that stood out to me were, solidarity and code of silence, the broken windows theory, and police discretion. In this essay I explain what these elements are and how they are entangled in the text and movie.

In the film “Serpico” Frank Serpico was a New York policemen who recently began working as an undercover officer when he learned of the police corruption among his colleagues in the department. Wanting no part in the illegal business of his fellow officers Serpico faithfully reported the behavior to upper management. Reporting the corruption went against the brotherhood and bond that police officers share. After reporting the corruption Serpico was harassed, and threatened by other officers. For his “safety” he was transferred to another precinct but even there police officers heard about Serpico’s “betrayal” and considered him untrustworthy. Although Serpico did the right thing, he was not celebrated for it instead he was left for dead by his fellow men in blue. Why was it that Serpico was punished for speaking out about the corruption?

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The answer to the question is because the value of solidarity and code of silence within the police occupation. “Solidarity refers to the set of shared beliefs, emotional links, work related values, or bonds that are formed among members of a small group, organization or a society.” Police officers unique role and social status separate them from the general public, so they mainly rely on their solidarity with other officers. Because much police work is prone to mistakes and public scrutiny police use the code of silence to protect one another. In the code of silence officers are supposed to stay loyal and not give up fellow colleagues, management, or the organization. This often leads to other officers not reporting police misconduct or turning a blind eye to corruption or engaging in it. The code of silence can make an officer feel entitled and expect the code to protect them from their misconduct.

This movie is an excellent example as to why police refrain from breaking the code of silence. Many are scared of the retaliation from their peers, and the loss of solidarity that Serpico experienced. Much has happened since 1973, when Frank Serpico challenged the negative stigma of voluntary reporting. In present times mandatory reporting is a common policy that requires all employees to report serious acts of misconduct. Modern retaliation polices now protect officers who do report serious misconduct, these polices also diffuse the negative impacts of the code of silence.

In the book “Cop in The Hood: My Year Policing in East Baltimore” The author Peter Moskos talks a lot about the conditions he observes during his time patrolling in the Baltimore “ghetto.” Everyday he sees violence, abandoned buildings, drug dealers, drug addicts and broken families. “Conditions are worse than those in third world shantytowns: children in filthy apartments without plumbing or electricity.” But how did this neighborhood in Eastern District become so crime ridden? “When a neighborhood starts to decline because of social incivilities and physical incivilities residents become scared and move out.” The remaining stable populations in the neighborhood begin to avoid others and isolate themselves. The lack of social control only attracts more criminal activity. This is known as the broken windows theory. “If a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken”.

In the novel, the broken theory is the main reason for the horrible conditions in Eastern Baltimore. In the book Moskos offers an idea that he believes would help bring back more social control and begin repairing the “hood” from the consequences from the broken window theory. Because of all the drug addicts, prostitutes, drug dealers, and violence the Baltimore police get hundreds of 911 calls a day. Most of the calls Moskos describes as “bullshit” calls. “Bullshit” calls are something they shouldn’t be there for, or can’t do anything about. Like drug deals gone badly or the nonpayment to a prostitute. The problem is that the calls are not prioritized, and even though an officer might be able to tell if a call is illegitimate he still has to respond. Moskos says with a better filtering system that exercises professional judgment to decide which calls are legitimate, officers could focus quality rather than quantity. In return Moskos thinks that this would help more officers get out of there patrol vehicles because they don’t have to listen in on their radios for constant calls. Patrolling the streets on foot would increase citizen public safety as well as gain more trust with the citizens. “Freeing up police resources would make response more consistent, and police officers could then focus more on the quality of life issues that concern residents and the broken windows characteristic of a neighborhood out of control.”

The last element Police discretion was found in both the book and the film discussed earlier. “Police discretion represents the flexibility to make decisions and allows officers to decide whether to issue citations, arrest, or even use lethal force.” All police officers use discretion because not all situations can or should be handled the same way. We see very different styles of police discretion in the book. Many of the officers that Moskos worked with handled situations very differently. Some were just hungry for arrests so they can break a record for the month, even if that means arresting people for violating bicycle regulations. Others like officer Lowe believe that “peacekeeping is an under-appreciated role for patrol officers; officers receive no official credit for informally defusing situations.” Both of these officers have very different styles of police discretion, which affect the public in different ways.

In the movie Serpico exercises police discretion very early on in the film when he is out on his first night of patrolling with his training officer. A call came in about a rape, the training officer said to just ignore it because it is not in his sector. Serpico used his police discretion and chose to take the call. It paid off for him because he ends up saving the victim and catching one of the guys involved in the rape. If he didn’t respond to the call the outcome for the victim could have been different. Serpico also uses his discretion and chooses not to be involved in the police corruption that surrounded him. Many different factors determine what level of discretion police decide to use. “A relationship is found between the use of discretion and citizen characteristics such as a age, sex, race, as well as situational factors including demeanor and complainant preference” Police discretion is one of the most important elements in policing because it is used by the police on a daily bases. Police discretion also affects citizens and the community directly. Both in the movie and the book you can see how differently officers use their discretion, it is important to understand that not all officers are the same and when treated with respect most officers will exercise their discretion fairly.

With the knowledge I have acquired I now look at police officers in a whole new light. Their job is extremely stressful and dangerous. They often do not have the resources they need to do their job as efficiently as possible. In neighborhoods like Eastern Baltimore police officers are fighting a never-ending battle with drugs and crime. In conclusion all the elements that go into being a police officer, the code of silence, solidarity from the rest of public, policing in areas that are broken, and utilizing police discretion at all levels, is what makes this occupation one of the hardest in the world. It takes an extremely brave and special person to be a police officer, and I have more respect for them than ever.

Works Cited

  1. Herbert, Steve. ‘Police Subculture Reconsidered.’ Criminology, vol. 36, no. 2, 1998, pp. 343-369. ProQuest,, doi:
  2. Critical Issues in Policing: Contemporary Readings, 7th Edition. Waveland Press, 02/2015. [VitalSource].
  3. Schulenberg, Jennifer L. “Moving Beyond Arrest and Reconceptualizing Police Discretion: An Investigation Into the Factors Affecting Conversation, Assistance, and Criminal Charges.” Police Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 3, Sept. 2015, pp. 244–271, doi:10.1177/1098611115577144.
  4. Nowacki, Jeffrey S. “Organizational-Level Police Discretion: An Application for Police Use of Lethal Force.” Crime & Delinquency, vol. 61, no. 5, June 2015, pp. 643–668, doi:10.1177/0011128711421857.
  5. Welsh, Brandon C., et al. “Reimagining Broken Windows: From Theory to Policy.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, vol. 52, no. 4, July 2015, pp. 447–463, doi:10.1177/0022427815581399.

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