Where there’s a will there’s a way!

Red Button Project

Earlier on this evening I went for a run with a friend of mine. He happens to be a sergeant in the MPS and unsurprisingly I guess, like so many others, he is feeling disillusioned, silenced and at times unable to question matters he doesn’t agree with. Tonight though he made an interesting comment – some of the current working practices he said ‘take away the will and the motivation from us all’…

What do we mean by ‘will’? Free and independent choice? A voluntary decision? Taking on responsibility through choice or through morality? Interestingly, the prevailing, can do culture of the police continues despite the significant resourcing issues and financial cuts being experienced by forces across the country. Such an ideology works well with expressions such as ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’ – the determination perhaps that, whatever the odds, the organisation will in some way respond, deal with, attend, investigate and perform a wealth of other wider roles the police service find themselves responsible for – perhaps indeed far widening roles in the current climate.

The issue is that to have a workforce willing to deliver no matter what and meet this ideal of a ‘can do culture’ you need a workforce with a ‘will’. I speak to police officers most days and the majority of them have a strong sense of duty to deliver a service to the public. This is the public they essentially joined to protect and care for, not simply to fight criminals and prevent crime, but to deal with victims, find vulnerable missing young people and deal with a wealth of other situations that essentially end up in the lap of the police.

I am not suggesting that they don’t get things wrong sometimes or that there aren’t officers that join for the chase and the excitement. But the realistic, recent depictions of the MPS and of GMP’s specialised sexual violence unit show clearly that officers have to deal with the most horrific situations and in the main try and do this to the best of their ability.

Last week I was lucky enough to attend the European Society of Criminology Conference in Porto. As ever I found myself attending the ‘police focused’ papers and was pleased to hear about some excellent research being conducted on all sorts of police issues other than simply more ‘evaluations’.

Now, I would like to juxtapose this ‘will’ conversation with a paper I attended there. In fact two papers….The first considered the recent drive to further embed academic research into police decision making. I won’t extend too much on this as I have many times before in previous blogs and of course most reading this know my views on this area. I listened intently to a paper by an academic from a university heavily involved in working with police to link research into practice and completely agreed with some of the ideas put forward as barriers to this working effectively. One of the terms he referred to was the need for ‘cultural disruptions’ – this involves the two way flow of information not simply the transfer of knowledge from the academy to a practical environment.

My interpretation of this was a need to encourage creativity, innovation and new ideas. To collect them and use them and learn from those involved in this collaboration and disruption to normative culture. This as you know is something I am exceptionally supportive of…. The Red Button Project is all about listening to new ideas, offering solutions from the ground about issues facing officers today and using that experience and knowledge to move forward. The changed landscape created by austerity is a battle. However what we must use it for is to try new things, test new ideas and move away from ‘what we have always done’. In order to make this happen however requires willing officers who are encouraged to speak up, challenge and offer ideas in safe environments where they don’t feel discouraged or dare I say it ‘stupid’.

This I think requires a ‘will’… which brings me to the second paper I would like to link in here. There are many levels of evidence based policing and again for those of you that read my and also my fellow Red Button Project colleagues (@nathanconstable and @dedicatedpeeler) blogs know that I advocate the use of all sorts of ‘evidence’ in policing. I do have concerns about the voice of officers involved in EBP randomised control trial and the extent to which their voice is heard within the process. An MSc student of mine, completing in November 2015, is exploring this through interviews with officers involved in trials and his findings are fascinating… especially if we relate them back to this term ‘will’. Preliminary findings suggest that officers feel demotivated and uninvolved in such processes… This leads me to the second paper.

This concerned the use of technology in policing – particularly predictive policing. Pred Pol as it seems to have become termed, is the use of technology to ‘predict’ based on previous crime patterns, where crimes may occur in a very small locality. This is obviously then used to drive deployment of officers to these tiny hotspot areas where they will then patrol for a fixed time at the set times churned out by the computer programme. Now much of this paper talked about the methods behind the development of such programmes which I do not want to discuss here. I am more interested in the terminology used to describe it and the link I think this has with the depletion of police innovation, creativity and voice.

The history of science and statistics in policing is complex and, using the ideas of one of the presenters, has moved from being grounded in a welfarism ideology which perhaps utilised the skills of social scientists to identify crime areas and the drivers of crime within those areas. New Public Management and using statistics to pressure professionals into producing the ‘right statistics’ came next and still remains to an extent. The neo-liberal ideology that centres on blame and responsibility being passed down is central to this method and its legacy will take time to remove. However now we enter a new era in policing … Pure (dare I say it) science. What the speaker referred to cleverly as ‘algorithmic governance’. A complete libertarian principle where guidance and decisions are removed from the role of the human actor and driven by data plugged into the system.

I am at risk of making this blog too long and complicated but if we think about this as the complete removal of anything except data driven briefing sheets we find ourselves in a situation where police officers respond to the areas they are told to go to by a computer. Decision by machine…

The interesting thing was that the speaker here suggested that officers would like this process. That they would welcome this pure crime driven, patrol approach. Actually I questioned… ‘They don’t’. Police officers need to have a will… A will to make a difference, use their professional judgement and learning and be heard. The first speaker is right if we really want science in its many formats to be embraced by officers we need to recognise that ‘evidence’ takes many forms including human experience and expertise.

Let’s not destroy an opportunity for this integration of the academy and policing scholars by using officers as the robots responding to the expertise of a machine. I can only imagine the will being crushed from most officers as they receive a computer printout telling them where to go, at what time and for how long… Maybe we will just have to wait until the ‘computer says no’.

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3 Responses to Where there’s a will there’s a way!

  1. IanHesky says:

    Superb piece Emma, and a great narrative for Discretionary Effort and Public Value. I am publishing on both these subjects very soon, so this is close to my heart and, I would suggest, extends beyond Policing?


  2. Marisa Silvestri says:

    This is a thoughtful and reflective piece Emma – I’m also a keen advocate of ‘cultural disruption’ to really bring about meaningful change to organisational settings – we just need to be mindful though that coming up with ‘new ways of doing and seeing things’ is gaining ‘fashionable’ momentum again….but ‘cultural disruption’ for me is best visited on a ‘micro’ level first, individuals need to think about the significant internal shifts that are needed when proposing alternative ways of ‘doing’ things on a more ‘macro’ level .. inevitably resulting in a shifting of power, a giving up of power for some… you know I’m thinking about the subtle ways in which gender is played out in policing, this requires a deeper level of inquiry that critiques the idea that ‘all is equal now’ within and beyond policing…. In building on your point about the transference of knowledge between actors, again, let’s be mindful that it’s not the knowledge produced that we need to worry about but how it’s heard…


  3. Marisa thanks. Agree entirely. Indeed one of our students is writing this very subject as his next blog. How any information or evidence is actually used by the organisation is the critical issue but the micro level consultation is the starting point for me and I know you too.


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