Behind the Scenes at the Police Station – Do we really need police ethnographies anymore?

Professor Louise Westmarland

Due to the proliferation of ‘fly on the wall’ television documentaries it seems we’re all ethnographers now. TV series such as ‘Police, Camera, Action’ or ‘Police Interceptors’ claim to ‘show it how it is’ and seem to have full and complete access to all areas. Car chases, fights, arrests, domestic abuse – even murder – it’s all exposed to the unforgiving lens of the constantly whirring camera the all-seeing eye, in the back of the cop car. This is, of course, a stage-managed view – edited and controlled to provide a broadcastable piece of docu-entertainment, but it does raise the question – what else is there to see? On the other hand, can the people the police regard as ‘other’ or ‘outsiders’ really ever be allowed to peep into the closed world of policing?

One of the slightly unusual aspects of working at the Open University is that we are provided with opportunities to work with film and television producers. Recently I was lucky enough to be invited to lead a team as the academic consultant on two prime time BBC series – ‘The Met’ and ‘The Met 2’.  As my PhD – 20 years old this year – was one of the first ethnographies to spend significant periods of time looking at gendered policing in the UK, I also have the experience of ‘being there’. But how do the two experiences compare? Does the TV documentary replace, replicate or even improve upon the traditional time-honoured ethnographic study in terms of seeing ‘warts and all’ policing?

Ethnographic tests

Researchers in the academic world have the same problems around access as programme makers. Arriving as a brand new PhD student some years ago I was initiated into the world of police culture at breakfast in the police canteen. ‘You one of those feminists then?’ asked the cop sitting next to me just as I took the first bite into my bacon sandwich, ‘because if you are, this report you’re writing – it’ll be biased – they should have got a man to do it’. During the course of my PhD fieldwork other, more physical tests involved being lowered down a ladder with a rope around my waist on the side of a dock to a small inflatable boat bobbing around on an incoming tide; being taken onto the sloping roof of a Crown Court building on a frosty morning to visit the firearms team observing a gang shooting trial, and perhaps most dangerously, going on a CID pub crawl. More recent ethnographers have also told the same tale of needing to pass tests – as Bethan Loftus (2009) and Matthew Bacon (2016) have shown.

During the fieldwork for my PhD, although my access was technically assured – permission from the Chief Constable to meet anyone, ask anything, go anywhere, see anything – in reality, I had to negotiate each step of the way. Each individual officer was a mini gatekeeper, although news of my presence spread as the months progressed. Eventually of course, after three years in the back of police cars, spending the night hiding behind trees and walls at potential shoot outs, hostage situations and drive-bys, I think I gained enough of their confidence to be able to claim to say I’d seen it all. Talking to the film crew showed that they also had to pass some police tests of trust. One episode showed a car being stopped where the police suspected a handgun was being transported across London. The person in charge of the camera said he hadn’t known about the gun, or at least how the police knew it was in the car. He’d been kept back in a car following the lead car, to maintain his safety. We had a conversation about how the police only reveal the truth to observers once they are fully confident in your ability to keep their secrets.

TV culture

In general, for academics entering the world of BBC television production, compared to front line policing, would seem to be a breeze.  As an academic advisor the role is to suggest story lines, offer general suggestions and to advise on points of fact. Some cultural similarities existed between police and TV producers, whilst others were very different. Trying to explain the difference between ‘crime’ and ‘harm’ for example, to the film crew was frustrating at first. Aiming at an entertaining series of programmes the BBC director was intent on portraying police work via the firearms teams, terrorist bomb squads and horse parades took my back to my PhD. At that time the prevailing police version of true heroic manhood was based on the specialist departments dealing with the ‘cars, guns and horses’ (Westmarland 2001, Ch.5). Similarly, the TV production team originally felt that this was all they needed for good ratings. As academics we had to prove ourselves to be useful by pointing out ideas of interest such as the link between sex workers and people trafficking; the potential ambiguities around classifying some people as victims and others as suspects; and acting as a sounding board for some story lines, such as those involving youngsters. For the film directors and producers, once we’d passed the ‘tests’ however, showing that we knew something about policing, were prepared to sit for long hours in hot editing studios watching the initial cuts and were trusted to offer sensible suggestions, we developed a useful and enjoyable rapport.

But is it the ‘truth’?

One of the ways in which researchers often claim to be developing a type of ‘truth’ to their findings is when the people they are observing forget they are there, or begin to treat them as ‘one of us’. During my PhD this moment arrived when I was told to drive the police car whilst the officer I was accompanying was hiding in wait for a suspect; being handed ‘jobs’ by dispatchers as they thought I was CID, or, in one case, accidently stopping a suspect from escaping. As I became more trusted by the police teams I was observing the ‘hanging around waiting for something to happen’ times became good opportunities to find out what the officers thought, did and said when no-one was looking.

Following my PhD I wormed my way into observing police detective work – accompanying an elite homicide squad in an American city with one of the highest murder rates in the world. This probably took police researcher danger to a new level – to say that people were shot for taking someone else’s parking spot is no exaggeration – I saw it happen. As a white woman in an almost exclusively black African American ghetto, simply driving to work each evening was considered a risk. Activities such as buying petrol or posting a letter near the police station, which was disguised as an office block under a shopping mall, was considered risky by the detectives who constantly insisted on accompanying me to and from the local post office, bristling with firearms.  This was quite useful as it provided me with opportunities to talk to them about the dangers they face, and why they felt guns were so essential. One officer asked me, in the course of one of these discussions what ‘British police do when someone runs off – do they just chase after them?’ and he was incredulous at my reply.

Contrasting cultures

One of the interesting things about the US ethnography I conducted was that although there were many differences in terms of practice between US and UK officers, there were certain cultural aspects that seem to be universal. Police occupational culture – sometimes called ‘cop’ or ‘canteen’ culture – has a number of supposedly recognisable characteristics, which Robert Reiner’s ‘rites and rules’ of police work summarise (2010, Ch. 4). These include:

  • Sense of mission
  • Cynicism/pessimism
  • Suspicion
  • Isolation/solidarity

For front line police officers these rules translate as:

Sense of mission

  1. We exist primarily to catch the ‘bad guys’ and lock them up
  2. We see the hurt victims experience and want to rebalance the unfair ‘justice’ system
  3. We want to make society a better, safer place for the ‘decent’ people


  1. We fight with one hand tied behind our back as criminals don’t play by any rules.
  2. People don’t realise the difficult and unpalatable issues we have to confront every day, but we’ve seen it all before.


  1. Off duty, in social situations, do not tell anyone you are a cop.
  2. Most people can be assessed as ‘good and upstanding’ or ‘police property’.


  1. Don’t tell on your colleagues, especially to the management.
  2. On the streets it’s ‘us and them’ and we always have to win.
  3. If someone breaks the code of cop loyalty, even unintentionally, they are not to be trusted again until they prove themselves to be sorry and make amends.

At certain times other behavioural requirements such as ‘machismo’ and ‘pragmatism’ are required because adherence to police culture demands a world view, and a way of being, as it is not simply carrying out a role. These characteristics are revealed by behind closed doors behaviour such as racist and sexist ‘banter’, bending the rules, and ‘we know best’ attitudes. In the TV editing suite there was also banter which was illustrated a ‘back room’ sensibility or insider knowledge. We joked with the film crew about the outcome of various cases – for example, a series of seemingly serious offences would be listed by the voiceover and then the outcome would be ‘no offences were found to have been committed’ or ‘case dropped due to lack of evidence’. ‘Another case of a severe slap on the wrist then!’ being the response in the viewing suite to laughter all round. The trust in the academics was also shown when members of the production team left the viewing suites – there was supposed to be someone with us at all times – but if coffee was needed or similar, as they got to know us they would say ‘can I leave you for a moment – don’t touch anything!’ In terms of the ethnographic studies I have conducted, these trusting behaviours are often shown once certain barriers have been broken down, which can take a long time and involve a lot of emotion work. As with any relationship, it’s hard to gain trust and easy to lose. In particular, solidarity-suspiciousness means that police officers don’t take trust as given, it needs to be earned and constantly maintained.

Overall then, going behind the scenes at the police station illustrates some other things we think we know about policing and reveals others in all their glory. My view is that fly on the wall programmes provide a good insight as to the frustrations and difficulties police officers face, and are often entertaining and informative. The programmes I was involved with had the time to develop stories and fully explain situations, unlike some of the more ‘action’ focussed shows. This is an excellent insight regarding various policing issues, but even six-hour series but cannot provide the critical analysis of in-depth academic study conducted over a number of years. Getting to know police officers, and obtaining their trust is key, and being a critical friend requires understanding of these difficulties but also a willingness to explore the rites and rules of police culture.

Professor Louise Westmarland is Director of the International Centre for Comparative Criminological Research and Professor of Criminology at The Open University

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