“We discuss serious incidents and air frustrations, but there is also a lot of humour,” says incident commander Ronny Samuelsen at Ski Police Station in Follo, Norway.
“We joke a lot with each other. You simply have to accept this when you work in law enforcement. If someone has screwed up, the result will be amicable bullying. It’s all typical police humour.”
Samuelsen believes humour creates cohesion, well-being and energy, which in turn lead to better results.
Police officers need a strong team spirit, according to Associate Professor Rolf Granér at Linnaeus University in Växjö, Sweden, who has studied police humour.
Police officers must work closely together and are often unpopular among people they meet. It's "us against them".
“The humour helps them cope with the emotions that arise during stressful days at work,” says Granér.
In a new journal, Nordisk politietterforskning [Nordic police research], he has summarized the research on the function of humour among police officers.
“Police officers encounter a lot of human suffering. To be able to handle the job, they need to release the pressure,” he says.
Ronny Samuelsen agrees. He has handled a lot of difficult situations, some involving weapons, murder and tragedy.
“When we relax after a tense situation, humour crops up very quickly. I have seen it time and time again.”
He seldom remembers what has been said – only that they have laughed together, and that makes it feel easier to go back to work.
“It’s good to laugh. After lots of adrenaline, you let off steam, both physically and mentally,” he says.
Rolf Granér is concerned with the serious aspects of the jokes.
“All humour is dependent on the situation. It says something about the context,” he says.
Gallows humour makes tragic events less dramatic. Dry, cynical language is an emotional defence against getting overly involved in misery and suffering.
There are other professions, such as psychiatry, in which personnel also work with people in difficult circumstances. But they are trying to help them. This makes strong reactions easier to deal with.
Police are working from a more abstract perspective – the benefit to society – and must distance themselves from the reactions of the suspects they encounter.
Police “make jokes about people they meet in their work, including suspects and annoying bystanders. It creates a distance,” says Gran. “They have to distance themselves, but I’m worried that the distance may become exaggerated, that some police officers lose their ability to empathize.”
According to Granér, police humour is often directed at others. Women, minorities and other groups are targets, along with all types of criminals, bosses and colleagues. Jokes can lead to increased team spirit, but can also exclude colleagues, or lead to violations against detainees.
Samuelsen admits that police humour can at times be exclusionary. But he does not think that police make jokes at the expense of groups in society. They laugh at situations and, sometimes, at individual people they meet.
“We see so many strange things. People can act in very entertaining ways. If a criminal has done something stupid, and recogniszs it themselves, we can even laugh together,” he says.
Between colleagues, the humour can be rougher. Samuelsen could say to a female colleague that equality has gone too far when it turns out that she can’t cook. Officers can even joke about skin colour, even though no one has anything against either women or minorities in the police.
Jokes of a sexual nature are rarer, says Samuelsen. He believes this is because there are now more women in the police force, and because society has changed.
Coarse jokes about gender and ethnicity have also become less common in recent years, says Granér, as the number of women and minorities in the service has increased.
The Operations Centre in Oslo has 136,000 followers on the social networking site Twitter. A number of reports have made them chuckle.
One example: “Storo: We received notice of on-going domestic violence with women screaming. When we arrived we found a nurse pre-party. We’re leaving the place soon.”
Ronny Samuelsen finds that humour can be disarming in encounters with the public.
“When we meet people with a smile, there is less tension. Humour can also be a tool to calm a difficult situation,” he says.
But it's a balancing act: He does not want to offend anybody or to be perceived as unprofessional.
Humour can also be used to criticize colleagues in a harmless way or to test the limits of the internal hierarchy.
“If I think the boss has made a mistake, I can let him know in a way that can be perceived as a joke, so I have an opportunity for retreat. But I do intend to give a little sting,” says Samuelsen.