Some experts say that people become police officers and firefighters because they seek the power and status of the job. Others say that recruits join because they have a desire to help people, but over time they become cynical and corrupted. Both the police and firefighting cultures instill a sense of entitlement to power and authority over the rest of society.
Police training especially is designed to strip the individual's previous identity and "make" a police officer. The police uniform, badge and gun are universal symbols of power and authority. When the individual puts on the uniform, [personal account] he assumes the authority that goes with it. He expects and commands obedience and respect from the public. Donning the uniform and wielding the power of the job contribute to what is known as the "police personality." Some officers leave the police personality on the job, while others carry it everywhere, all the time.
The police personality serves to insulate officers from the rest of society. It fosters an "us versus them" mentality. The cops are the good guys and everyone else is a potential bad guy. There is a constant power struggle between the good and bad guys. Police believe that societal order depends on the good guys winning — at any cost. When anyone challenges the police, the police defend their right to enforce control and authority. Officers must trust each other to provide assistance and back-up in their struggle to maintain control. They develop strong bonds of loyalty that ensure they will be there for each other.
The Brotherhood must be reliable in life and death situations. Cops — and firefighters — stick together.
When an officer is in trouble on the job or in trouble with his wife or girlfriend at home, he counts on his buddies to cover for him. He gives them a story that explains why he "had to do" whatever he did. Whether or not they personally condone his behavior, they may rationalize his behavior, saying he was stressed out, under a lot of pressure, or quite simply, that he's only human. They repeat his version of the story and they stick to that version. They put themselves on the line with their fellow officer. Whether testifying in court or smoothing things out at home, the rules are simple for them:
When a cop stops someone for a traffic violation or responds to a call about a disturbance, and that person flashes a police or firefighter ID, things usually relax. Responding officers and traffic cops have a great deal of leeway in choosing what laws to enforce, with whom to enforce them, and the manner in which they uphold the law. The symbol of the brotherhood entitles the offender to "professional courtesy." The responding officers usually apologize for the intrusion and any inconvenience, and it's understood that "nothing happened here."
It is no secret that many police and fire departments have problems with racism, homophobia and sexism. While departments seek new recruits from the general population, official rosters rarely reflect the community's demographics. Minorities and women still fight for admission into the club, few are at command level, and many report sexual harassment and discrimination. Our book Crossing the Threshold explores the profession's treatment of women and minorities and officer-involved domestic abuse.