Ellipsis Omnibus

Disillusioned but not disenchanted…

Labeling: Law Enforcement & Criminals


Certain groups have been given labels by society. Different sects of society view these labeled individuals differently, both positively and negatively, due to their own background and the given label. Research was done to analyze three points within this realm of labeling; how people act differently towards labeled individuals due to the situation, how views differ depending on the given label such as police as opposed to sheriff and criminal as opposed to felon, and how these differing views change between different groups. These groups include individuals of different ages, of different occupations and of different association with the two sides of the criminal justice spectrum.

Labeling theory grew out of symbolic interactionism. These two theories are based on three simple premises: first, people act on the basis of the meaning that things have for them. Second, this meaning grows out of interaction with others, especially those who they are intimate with. Third, the meaning is continually modified by interpretation (Blumer, 1969). The difference between symbolic interactionism and labeling theory is that labeling theory is a more specific theory which applies symbolic interactionism to deviant phenomena. An American sociologist, W. I. Thomas (1929) said that “If men define situation as real, they are real in their consequences,” to show the definition of the situation. People become deviants as the consequent of being labeled according to the labeling theory.  People may not first be involved in deviant behavior. Being deemed a deviant is not decided by whether people violate norms or laws, but rather by if the authority gives sanction to them. 

Cooley’s (1902) self-view from other people’s view point in looking glass self explains how labels are built up. There are three elements in a self-idea; the imagination of our appearance to the other person, the imagination of their judgment of that appearance, and some sort of self-feeling, such as pride or mortification. People imagine how others think about them and they try to respond to be like how they are defined. On the other hand, Frank Tannenbaum (1938) said that everybody does something delinquent and deviant, but not all of them get labeled or caught in Crime and the Community.  In a slum area, almost all boys engage in mischievous, sometimes technically illegal behavior such as fighting, skipping school, stealing, and throwing rocks at windows. These behaviors are normal for them. However, some of them are just punished by the authorities, and it does not end these activities because there are more boys who are not punished.

Edwin Lemert (1951) suggested two types of deviance; the primary deviance and the secondary deviance in social pathology. The primary deviance is an initial deviance, and it has little effect on individuals. It is simply the enactment of deviant behavior. In opposition, the secondary deviance is the subsequence deviance. When someone is stigmatized, condemned, or isolated for engaging in deviant behavior, it becomes necessary to deal with and manage this social reaction in certain ways. In consequence, it creates and amplifies spoiled identity. When the primary deviance shifts into the secondary deviance, self-fulfilling prophecy functions. “In the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the original false conception comes ‘true’. This specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning” (Merton, 1968).     

In all consideration, labeling makes people stick to the self identity as deviants. Formal sanctions have the risk to encourage people who are originally not involved in deviant behavior to become deviants, and keep deviants from improving their behavior after they are labeled. People may be put into a prison which is an example of a formal sanction. After a person’s prison term, they would have hard timeto make a living and socializing with people because of the stigma they have. It may cause them to be involved in crimes again, and make the label as deviant more established. It becomes even harder to remove the stigma after the repetition of crimes. Formal sanctions tend to make the label stick to people, so informal sanctions sometimes works better to stop deviance because it is less likely to stick. Rehabilitation is an example of an informal sanction and works more effectively than punishing people in the criminal justice system, such as a sentence to serve a period of time in jail. It is because rehabilitation helps people to improve their behavior and prevents them from building their identity as deviants.

The methods used for analyzing the three variables include three main types of sources.  The sources used where interviews with people of the different groups as well as first hand experience for the vast majority of the findings.  The interviews generally consisted of word association sessions in which the individuals where asked to give their thoughts on various types of labels.  Secondary to this was the background research on labeling theory itself.

            Labeling and association with labels can be seen in everyday life. To get a good understanding of this one can look no further than their home town. The following scenario is a true-to-life example of both the positive and negative aspects of labeling that can transpire within the same period of time and is the perfect example of the first aspect of labels, labels changing due to situation. It began with the unfortunate incarceration of a close family member. This individual was sentenced to 30 days at the county jail. Several family members to include the mother, father, and a sibling arrived at the county facility to take advantage of the opportunity to visit with the incarcerated family member. The resulting reception and ultimately the visitation experience were nothing short of traumatizing. The visiting family members were treated as if they themselves were the offender that was incarcerated. Information concerning the visitation schedule, which rotated by cellblock on occasion, was as guarded as the gold of Fort Knox. Questions were answered with short, abrupt quips without the courtesy of any eye contact. No written rules or regulations were available for reference to become acquainted with existing visitation procedures. Procedures were revealed through the hearsay of other visitors or the inevitable reprimand from a seemingly frustrated corrections officer, once an elusive procedural violation had occurred. Needless to say, an overwhelming sense of humiliation and powerlessness quickly consumes the first-time visiting family. As the family continues its quest for subsequent visit with the loved one, additional procedures are discovered mainly by trial and error. Not surprisingly, the rules seem to change depending on which crew of corrections officers are on duty. This aspect culminated in pure frustration for the visiting family members.

            The second part of this scenario is just as puzzling and does just as much to exemplify this aspect of labels. One of the previously mentioned visiting family members attended a class that took place at the Russellville Police Department (RPD) headquarters. The classroom was filled to capacity with personnel from RPD with the exception of two individuals. One of these individuals was the mentioned family member. During the course of the eight-hour class, it was discovered that a majority of the law enforcement officers present had military backgrounds. The family member, being retired military himself, made known the fact that he had served as well. Instantly, the family member was taken in as one of their own. The group consequently had lunch together and reminisced about their tours of duty while in the military. Afterwards, the group went into secured area of RPD’s headquarters with family member in tow. The family member was given access to work schedules, training schedules, and department computer terminals during this time of presumed camaraderie. This experience was a far cry from the shocking experience of visitation that transpired at the county jail just a few miles away.

            Association with an incarcerated person can easily make one subject to the negative aspects of being labeled as deviant. The mere association with a known person of a deviant nature seems to be enough for members of the law enforcement community to treat one as if they were deviant as well. This event can have a lasting negative effect on not only the incarcerated individual but also all persons who associate with the offender. Conversely, direct association with law enforcement officers can have one labeled in a positive manner by the individuals within the group in which the association occurs. The fact that an individual can be labeled as deviant by one group of local law enforcement officers and labeled as accepted by another group of local law enforcement officers at the same time, merely on the grounds of who the individual associates with is truly a revelation to the involved individual. This observable fact would surely both intrigue and frustrate the average citizen (Roberts 2007).

How views differ depending on the given label was the next part of the study.  This was to look at how the individual’s views changed due to word association. To begin section this a brief interview was conducted with Ann Loyd, a 64-year-old white female. She was asked to comment on any distinction she made between the labels given to different levels of law enforcement, i.e., police, deputy, or state trooper. She comments, “local law enforcement officers seem to display a serious lack of authority and professionalism. When interacting with the public there is a tendency to exaggerate the importance of their position. They are always more than willing to brag about some lame accomplishment in an effort to elevate their position of authority. Conversely, the label of state trooper brings to mind an officer who possesses noted intelligence, professionalism, and authority”.

            When asked to comment on any distinction made between labels associated with law violators, i.e., felon, criminal, and inmate, she responds, “I do not make a distinction between these labels. I see all law violators in the same light, as they have all broken the law”.

            Lastly, she was asked to comment on any era during her lifetime that law enforcement officers were seen in a more positive or more negative manner. She comments, “I cannot recall a particular time or incident. However, I have seen a pattern of ups and downs in my image of these individuals. Unfortunately, the range of the upswing is an image of mediocrity, at most, and the downswing is an image viewed as generally bad.

As views differ depending on the given label such as police as opposed to sheriff and criminal as opposed to felon, these labels also differ due to audiences or group, bringing about the third section of the analysis of labeling. The first type of differing groups looked at were various age groups to distinguish how the effects that labels have on people vary from generation to generation. The different responses that different generations had to different labels were studied by interviews. The labels that were studied included labels of police and the labels of criminals. Under the police category, the labels used in the interviews were police officer, state trooper, deputy, sheriff, and law enforcement. Slang words that described police were also studied. The words were county mounty, pig, and bear. Under the criminal category, the labels looked at were criminal, felon, fugitive, delinquent, and inmate. The slang words under the criminal category were thug, gangster, and hoodlum.

The first generation that was interviewed included the youngest one. The ages of the youngest generation include 1-25 years. The first question that was asked was, “What do you think of when you hear the word police officer?” The number on answer for everyone in this age group was about getting tickets and patrol cars checking the speed of their vehicles. There was definitely a negative reaction to the label police officer. The other labels under the police category were asked also, and the same reaction was given. State troopers were thought to be the guys with rolling radar, and they were able to give speeding tickets on the highway. Deputies were thought to be the same with a little less power and authority, and sheriffs were the good guys who do everything. When asked about the label law enforcement in general, this generation thought about cops who had to enforce the law and give tickets. The slang words for police, again, had much of the same negative reaction. County mounties were just the local sheriffs. Pigs and bears usually meant a cop was coming up behind your vehicle.

The criminal category labels were also asked to the youngest generation. The overall attitude toward criminals was that they were people who broke rules and were the bad guys who messed up. Felons were considered to be big mess ups, and delinquents were considered to be juveniles who were caught up in deviant acts. Fugitives were considered to be the individual that do not want to be caught and were fleeing. Inmates were individuals who got caught and were put in jail. The slang words thug, gangster, and hoodlum were asked to see what kind of stigma they had. Thug and gangsters carried the same label and were sometimes stereotyped to be African Americans. Hoodlums were considered to be youths causing problems and sometimes considered to be from poor parts of a community.  When asked if their opinions were based on stereotypes or personal experience, the most common answer was stereotypes, and when asked if their opinion had changed over the course of their lifetime, the answer was most commonly no. They had always had the same type of stereotype on both the police and criminal categories.

The next generation interviewed was the middle generation, ages 26-55. When asked what they thought of an individual with the label police, they had more of a respectful response. All of the labels concerning police were considered a respectful position and an underpaid position. They considered police to be the people who protected them, and the people who risk their lives for their lives. Even though this age group had certain level of respect, there was still a certain level of concern for getting speeding tickets from police. State troopers were considered better than local police and deputies were under them. Sheriffs were considered to be the individuals who did not do the dirty job, but more of the paper work. When it came to the slang words for police, this generation saw some of the words as disrespectful, but also had a stereotype to go with most of them. The slang word bear had to do with a truck driving term, and to use the word pig was seen a disrespect.

This middle generation saw most of the criminal labels as people showing disrespect to themselves and the laws. This generation seemed to feel as if criminals were making their tax dollars go into jails and prisons to support them. The slang words seemed to have quite a stereotype to them. Again, as with the younger generation, the label thug meant poor or African Americans to them. Also, the label hoodlum carried the stigma as a troubled youth. Most of this generation’s opinions were based on stereotypes with a few personal experiences when it came to getting speeding tickets from police. When asked if their view had changed throughout their lifetime, most of this generation said they have more respect for police now that they have gotten older.  

The oldest generation interviewed consisted of the ages 55 years and up. This generation seemed to have the most respect for individuals with the police label. Police are considered to be under appreciated civil servants with a huge rush of adrenaline. State troopers are considered much the same as police with a higher rank, and deputies are the same with a lower rank. Sheriffs are seen as individuals who play it safe. They are individuals who are more involved with the community to get votes so they can win elections. When asked about law enforcement in general, the response was that it was need and even biblical. The slang words for the police were much the same as the middle generation with pig being disrespectful and a bear referring to a truck driving term.

The criminal labels were considered to be individuals who have given up their lives to crime. Felons are the big time criminals, fugitives are criminals who do not want to be caught, and delinquents were people who did not care about taking on responsibility. The slang words for criminals carried a negative stigma to them, as it did with all the generations. Thugs were considered to be rough rednecks. Gangsters were thought to be part of the mob, and hoodlums were thought to be up to no good. Most of this generation’s opinions were based on both stereotypes and personal experiences. If you treated the police well, you in turn were treated well. One individual from this generation said, “It is a mutual respect. When I was young, if someone got arrested they were not cuffed and put into the back of a car. There weren’t even back seats. They would just get in the passenger seat, and they were taken to jail. Things have changed though.” This personal experience could be a reason this generation has such a high respect of police.

            The next type of groups looked at where occupations. Interviews where conducted on how views on labels changed between people of different professions, these professions including detentions officers and pastors. Labels looked at for the law enforcement side of the spectrum included sheriff, deputy, state trooper, and cops. Labels looked at for the law breaker side of the spectrum included criminal, felon, prisoner and delinquent.

            The first occupation interviewed was the detention officer. When asked about the label of sheriff, the officer associated the term with the boss.  Continuing when asked about the term deputy the officer referenced the people that write speeding tickets, however when the term state trooper was used (which refers to the same person as the deputy) the idea of a person who cared more about how they dressed than their job was talked about, calling them “dicks.” The final label of cop brought up the idea of city cops as opposed to county deputies. The detention officers final thoughts on the law enforcement side was that the police are only there to help.

            On the opposite side of the law spectrum were the law breakers. For the detention officer the first label brought up was that of criminal. This term brought up thoughts of somebody with “behavioral issues.” The next term, felon, brought up thoughts of somebody on drugs while the label of prisoner brought thoughts of somebody who doesn’t listen or is uncooperative, reflecting the officers position in the prison system. The final term, delinquent, was associated with juveniles.

            The next occupation interviewed was a pastor. The same terms where given to the pastor as the detention officer. Sheriff and deputy both brought to mind general thoughts of the “law”, while as with the detention officer the term state trooper brought to mind speeding tickets. Cop was seen as a derogatory term.

            On the law breaker side the pastor saw criminals as just that, law breakers. Felons where seen as those who had committed serious crimes and prisoners those that had been convicted. Delinquents also brought ideas of juveniles.

            The final type of person looked at was somebody who had associations with people on both sides of law enforcement, in this case one son who was a police officer and the other who was recently released from prison. The same words where given to her as where given to the two occupations. The law enforcement labels all brought ideas of people who are just there to help, distinguishing only between their official roles. Contrasting this, criminals and the like where all seen by their official roles, such as felons simply being those that had to be on their guard so as not to break their parole. Criminals where generally seen as untrustworthy people who hadn’t been raised very well.

In the end the initial thoughts concerning labels and the ways in which they changed held true. Labels can change, both positively and negatively, due to situation or association with a labeled individual.  Furthermore, views of labeled individuals differ depending on the given label, such as sheriff, pig, criminal or fugitive. Finally, these differing views change between different groups, including different ages, occupations and for those who have affiliations with both sides.


Blumer, Herbert. 1969. Symbolic Interactionism. Engleweed Cliffs. NJ: Prentice Hall.

Cooley, Charles H. 1902. Human Nature and the Social Order. New York: Charles

            Scribner’s Sons.

Lemert, Edwin M. 1951. Social Pathology: A Systematic Approach to the Theory of

            Sociopathic Behavior. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Merton, Robert K. 1968. “The Matthew Effect in Science: The reward and

            communication systems of science are considered.” Science, 159(3810): 56-63

Personal interview with Jeffery A. Roberts, November 21, 2007

Personal interview with Ann Loyd, November 22, 2007

Tannenbaum, Frank. 1938. Crime and the Community. New York: Ginn.

Thomas, William I., Thomas, Dorothy. S. 1929. The Child in America: Behavior

            Problems and Programs. New York: Knopf.





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