How far can history inform our understanding of police culture and police reform?

Practitioners and scholars of policing continually confront the limited success of democratic police reform initiatives. A recent journal article has stressed, for example, increasing disillusion on the part of international reform ‘donors’ over attempts to instil democratic human rights in police forces in societies emerging from dictatorial rule and/or civil conflict (Bayley 2014, p. 1). Donors’ limited understanding of police culture or the history of policing in ‘recipient’ societies has also been stressed (Brogden 2002, p. 179; Hills 2012, pp. 741-742).

Given the above scenario, how far can historical precedent aid our understanding of police culture and police reform? Institutional documents, training manuals, magazines, memoirs, film footage, and oral testimonies enable a reconstruction of the evolution of police forces in the past, their values and worldviews, and the behaviour and working lives of their personnel. They record how police forces related to criminals and the wider public and how this was represented internally. They offer a detailed picture of how police forces acted during dictatorships and subsequently in the face of reform initiatives, and of how donors interpreted their behaviour and attitudes. When today’s donors may in some measure be prevented from thoroughly penetrating the cultural of ‘recipient’ forces, historical research arguably allows more detailed insight into police behaviour and attitudes, since it is often informed by confidential documents which only entered the public domain decades after the historical period in question.

While differing social, cultural and regime contexts make it difficult to draw direct parallels between current situations and those of the past, historical precedent can nevertheless inspire scholars and practitioners concerned with today’s policing. Analysis of the police forces of fascist states in mid-twentieth-century Europe and the processes they underwent following the demise of these regimes, for example, can enhance understanding of the nature of transition of authoritarian police forces to democratic societies. Beyond key issues of reform (purges, structural modifications, donor intervention, etc.), an examination of the aesthetics, narratives and rhetorical style of police forces under dictatorships and during/after periods of transition to new political orders, can be revealing. Significant here are celebratory and commemorative rituals involving police forces, and the representation of their institutional history and traditions, as evident in speeches, police publications and newsreel commentary.

In fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, highly choreographed police ceremonies formed part of a broader ‘aestheticization’ of politics which these regimes promoted. In both countries, ‘Police Day’ (Festa della Polizia/Tag der deutschen Polizei) was designed to show-case the forces of law and order to the public as fully integrated components of the fascist/Nazi states. Such festivities, alongside more solemn acts of commemoration of police martyrs, also aimed to tie personnel ideologically to these regimes by highlighting the common values of policemen and fascists/Nazis (Dunnage and Rossol 2015). In Italy, in spite of fascism’s imperfect ideological penetration of the police, such rituals arguably helped to solidify an authoritarian institutional culture which survived the fall of Mussolini in 1945. Moreover, from 1948 ‘Police Day’ was resumed in much the same form and employing a similar style of rhetoric, albeit without the earlier fascist symbols and references (Dunnage 2012, Chapter 7). This is an example of the more subtle aesthetical and linguistic factors at work during processes of transition from authoritarian to democratic policing, which, I would tentatively argue, could throw light on aspects of police reform today. In the Italian case, while the types of ritual employed under Mussolini and the narratives they embodied may not have converted personnel into fervent fascists, they arguably gave the commanding ranks of the police a sense of institutional pride and national importance, as well as accustoming them to manipulative strategies of communication to both the public and their own men. This outlasted the dictatorship and contributed to the shaky transition of Italy’s forces of law and order to democracy.

Having recently completed a major project on policemen serving under Mussolini’s dictatorship and Italian police culture during the fascist period (Dunnage 2012), my present research focuses on the legacy of the fascist experience in the post-war Italian police. Alongside a study of aesthetics and rituals in the police, I am analysing the narratives underpinning institutional literature (manuals, journals), as well as post-war attitudes towards the previous dictatorship as revealed in personnel documents.

Dr Jonathan Dunnage is an Associate Professor of Modern European History at Swansea University, email:

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