The conflicting notion of ‘professional policing’…

This week Theresa May addressed the delegates at the National Police Federation Conference in Bournemouth. Giving officers the tools required to ensure professional behaviour was one of the key issues raised in her speech.

Unfortunately a clear example of what is not professional behaviour was highlighted in the press today. It involved a young woman who tried to end her life after being investigated for falsely reporting a rape allegation in Hampshire. This was juxtaposed this week with the excellent three part BBC2 programme ‘The Detectives’. The programme clearly showed the harsh reality for officers dealing with sexual crimes. Not simply the complex nature of the vulnerability of victims but also the critical nature of the ‘evidence’ needed to collaborate the victim’s account and the need for long term care to ensure that they feel supported enough to attend court and give very personal evidence to a jury.

I think the point I want to make here is that in this instance being a ‘professional’ officer is about caring, listening, supporting, collaborating and indeed problem solving around the issues that officers face in an investigation. I am not a police officer and have no ‘real’ working knowledge of this area but I have conducted research into sexual violence for the last thirteen years and I know from reviewing cases and interviewing both victims and police officers in some depth, that this very real depiction of this crime was done incredibly well in this TV documentary. It was in my opinion honest, balanced and not sensationalised in the way that some programmes reporting on this area can be.

In her speech this week May referred to the provision of necessary equipment and skills that officers need to deliver a professional service. This involved, amongst other issues, the relevant research evidence to ensure they are focused and effective in their approaches, supporting a review of the target culture across the UK and increasing the use of technology to make the police more efficient in their role. What she did not refer to was the concept of time. According to The College of Policing, by reviewing all of the evidence concerning policing and ‘what works’ the most successful interventions occur in ‘micro places’ or in neighbourhoods, are tailored to deal with a specific problem and are proactive as opposed to reactive in their approach – problem orientated policing is the evidence base. Therefore I ask the question – how can the current reform agenda to make the police more professional, being pushed by the Home Secretary, be truly effective when the evidence of what is needed entirely conflicts with all that officers tell us is happening and is possible on the ground.

Neighbourhood policing is being undermined, policing is becoming more reactive as resources diminish and officers in investigative roles find themselves overloaded with cases way beyond the number they should be responsible for. The time required to effectively problem solve around a case is becoming more and more limited and this in my opinion is a real risk to perceived professionalism. Professional means different things in different contexts and experience of those contexts is vital. The provision of objective evidence is of course important when officers make their decisions about ‘what might work’ but when you are faced with a victim of rape with mental health issues, who has been assaulted by someone they know, there is no accounting for the actual experience that these specialist officers have built up to deal with that well.

Being able to reflect on that experience and consider what might help support that person through the CJS is timely and needs consideration. It is not something that can be found in a recipe book on policing. Reducing resources in these specialist areas and the loss of this essential knowledge is dangerous, risky and could lead to ill-considered decisions. Certainly not ‘anybody’ could deal effectively with a rape investigation by referring to evidence and advice populated on the latest Apple device. This is about considering this more objective knowledge alongside human, professional experience which is arguably only built up over time.

Last month Professor Simon Holdaway guest lectured at CCCU and talked about the concept of professionalism as a social process and not a static determined fact. Determining what is and isn’t professional is entirely context dependant and the importance of recognising the craft of policing in any one of those complex situations is vital. Without this there is a strong possibility that officers will see the provision of ‘knowledge’ as yet another form of governance to limit their own discretion and built up, experiential skills.

Policing will never be static nor will it ever operate in a static environment. Therefore those operating in that changing world have to be involved in the development of that knowledge. What we mean by and what constitutes professional behaviour has to be a moveable concept – nowhere is this perhaps more evident than in the dealing of allegations of sexual violence.

There seems to be a huge conflict between the notion of ‘professional’ being supported by the Home Secretary and what professionalism means to officers themselves. Professionalism for practitioners requires time, reflection and an environment that allows engagement with the public and proper support for victims. The ability to do these things, via the current governments in the main, non-evidenced based cuts is undermined and further threatened. Therefore it seems perhaps that the top down processes and reforms are there to essentially save time when actually the one thing that policing requires to do professionally is time. If you really want to support a professional police service please, please give them that.

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2 Responses to The conflicting notion of ‘professional policing’…

  1. Peter Manning says:

    excellent commentary…..professionalism is a big buzz word that has to be “deconstructed” You points are well-taken. Simon is a visionary! Anyway ThanksPeter K. Manning

    Peter K. Manning Elmer V.H. and Eileen M Brooks Professor of Criminal Justice and CriminologyChurchill Hall Northeastern University 360 Huntington Ave. Boston MA 02115 USAph 617 373 7748Fax 617 373 8998Date: Fri, 22 May 2015 16:55:45 +0000 To: manningpk@hotmail.com

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  2. Thanks for an interesting insight into a complex issue that will affect everyone as effective policing is important for all involved from the victim, to the police, to the general public. I would be interested to understand how the conflict that you describe is resolved.
    I see the issue of professionalism as moving in a system or institution based approach to policing rather than a culture based approach to policing. The difference is that officers are trained to certain standards and within a framework that is interchangeable rather than with a local policing culture in which pockets of bad practice or lack of knowledge of wider developments can stunt an officer’s growth and the force’s effectiveness.

    From what you described, I would not consider the issue of a caring or sympathetic officer as an issue of professionalism. Professionalism is about making the officer better by moving from an ad hoc or unstructured approach to the structured approach of the way a professional deals with it. A professional police officer, like a professional soldier, will have a system of knowledge enhanced by experience that provides a better service than someone who has sort of learned it on the job and from what does or does not work ie seat of the pants or the culture based work.

    A related issue, though, which appears to be drawn into your post is the issue of street level bureaucracy. What it is that the police now confront as a police issue, which years ago would have been a social services issues or health service issues such as child grooming or mentally ill victims and perpetrators. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Street-level_bureaucracy In this area professionalism gives the officer increased skills and understanding in which they can deal with these scenarios by knowing what services to contact and how to resolve them without relying on the organisational culture or what their colleagues know.

    Culture still has an important role as the experience on the ground, knowing how to talk to the NHS and who to talk to in the NHS is different from knowing to talk to the NHS. Professionalism will never replace that but it makes it more effective and it gives the frontline officers the tools and skills to do it.

    Overall, the move to professionalism is a good thing as it gives the police a basis by which they can understand their professional development and put them on par with other services and industries that benefit from this professionalism.

    Will this cause disruption? Yes you betcha. Will it be worth it? Yes. The police officers who go through this program will be markedly better on average than those who have not gone through. In time as all officers go through the program, it will improve the quality of police officers and ensure a fairer system for the police officers to develop their careers and their future job prospects as professionals with an important set of professional and personal skills.

    It is a time of great opportunity and it is something to seize and make of it what you can.

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