Cultures of Policing Workshop: 11 April 2014, Swansea University

The ‘Cultures of Policing’ workshop was held at Swansea University on 11 April 2014. The workshop brought together leading academics and early career researchers from several disciplines and institutions to investigate policing and police culture during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Its concern was to demonstrate the relevance of historical and cultural perspectives to our understanding of contemporary police cultures. There are several levels to police cultures: the institutional, the public, and the private. The workshop stressed the importance within police cultures of unspoken rules of behaviour and the implicit codes of conduct and identities shared by officers.

Chris Williams (The Open University) and Chris Millington (Swansea University) drew on the representations of police in novels and memoirs to investigate police culturein interwar Britain and France respectively. As part of a broader analysis of the transmission of police culture between different regimes, Williams explored the similarities between Graham Greene’s ‘Assistant Commissioner’ in the 1934 novel It’s a Battlefield, and Gordon Halland, a police officer who had served in India, Ireland and Britain. In comparing the ‘Assistant Commissioner’ with Halland, Williams questioned how far historians should be concerned with fictional representations (with their focus on archetypes), when reconstructing the history of police culture.

Millington’s paper concerned incidents of violence between police and demonstrators in the accounts of former police officers and two left-wing novels from 1930s France – Maxence van der Meersch’s When the Looms are Silent (1934), and Paul Nizan’s The Trojan Horse (1935). Millington argued that though French police training emphasised respect for the democratic rights of the citizen and the importance of self-control during confrontation, the inexperience of young officers, the violence of political fanatics and contextual factors meant that violence during demonstrations was always a possibility. When violence did break out, police often acted with gratuitous brutality, reasserting their masculinity before their colleagues and their victims in a display of violence.

The papers of Alice Hills (Durham University) and Jonathan Dunnage (Swansea University) investigated the experience of policing in newly democratised regimes. Hills drew attention to the importance of history to the culture of policing in Somalia and Nigeria, not just in the use of decades-old training manuals, but also to police forces’ appropriation of national memories and legacies. Hills explained how police forces, while rarely instigating regime change, show remarkable resilience in accommodating it. Police officers and leaders are vulnerable to pressure from political elites as well as the military and intelligence community. Through intimidation from the elites and their absorption into political and state networks, forces come to favour the maintenance of the status quo, leaving them reluctant to overturn political orders in which they have a stake.

Drawing on the example of the Italian Interior Ministry Police (Pubblica Sicurezza) in the aftermath of the defeat of Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime, Dunnage posited that, where far-reaching purges are not implemented, police institutions emerging from periods of authoritarian rule continue to value the powers and professional skills acquired during these periods whilst simultaneously denying the cultural and ideological implications of previous subservience to a one-party dictatorship.

Katharina Hall (Swansea University) examined the character of the ‘Nazi Detective’ in Philip Kerr’s The Pale Criminal (1990) and Richard Birkefeld and Göran Hachmeister’s Wer übrig bleibt, hat recht (2002). Hall’s paper stemmed from her current project on crime fiction. Hall explored the ways in which the novels engaged with the historical reality of the period, and suggested that the genre should be viewed as another means by which historians can disseminate their research beyond the academic community.

Masculinity and policing in the Arab World was the subject of the paper by Sophie Smith (Swansea University). The centrality of ‘active sexuality’ to Islamic conceptions of masculinity has seen male rape deployed as a method of torture in police stations and prisons across the Arab World. A phallo-centric masculinity protects the masculine identity of the rapist by destroying that of the victim. Rape is thus a political act. Smith argued that fiction may provide the best source for research into this taboo subject.

Discussant Nadine Rossol (University of Essex) highlighted the variety of approaches to the research of police cultures taken in the papers. The tools of cultural studies can provide a fresh perspective in the study of policing. The papers demonstrated that conceptions of violence, masculinity, and comradeship cut across time periods and locations, suggesting that police cultures to some extent share essential characteristics. These cultures play a prominent role in the formation of police identities. The workshop raised several questions for further investigation: can systems of policing be transferred to other countries and continents, and what role does an understanding of police cultures play in this? Are police cultures transferred wholesale or are they fragmented, with the host society choosing some elements and rejecting others? How have the police represented themselves in the past and how do they use multi-media in the current age to influence the public?

The organisers thank the Research Institute for the Arts and Humanities and the Callaghan Centre at Swansea University for their financial support. The participants plan to establish a research council-funded network for the study of policing in historical perspective.

If you would like more information, contact Dr Chris Millington –

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