#Degree debate… for what its worth here are some of my initial thoughts…

What a week – #Degree Debate has certainly created some controversy!

To be honest even within my role, as the Programme Director for a policing degree which only accepts serving police officers or members of police staff, I have found my own personal reaction very mixed when it comes to the decision to advance the professional status of police officers by ensuring all recruits have a degree in ‘policing’. This is not because I disagree with raising the professional profile of police officers by standardising the ‘training’ and academic input but more because of this:

1: I understand why officers would feel angry with the perceived implications that they are not already ‘professional’ and…

2: I wonder how ready the ‘police’ organisation is to truly welcome the reflexive, diverse thinking practitioner that certainly our programme tries to encourage. This is perhaps currently more heightened by the perception that an increasing amount of ‘prescriptive’ processes seek to limit the human element so critical to policing and the role of discretion involved.

The conversation about professionalism within policing has been widely debated but one thing seems to thread through and that is that there is no clear definition of what professionalism is. It means very different things to different people and indeed at different times the meaning of what professionalism is changes. As Rowe (2009) articulates there is continued ambiguity about whether professionalism is best understood in terms of a ‘body of knowledge’, the ethical qualities of individual police officers or whether it is something to be assessed in the context of officer performance. Professionalism is also, as Simon Holdaway, suggests NOT static. Perhaps in the current climate this is particularly pertinent as officers face more and more challenges in relation to the complexity of the situations that they deal with.

I guess that is why when I heard this news about all new officers having degrees I was keen to hear about the point in which the degree would kick in and what the content of these accredited programmes will involve. For example the officers on our programme are offered entry onto a six year part time programme at year four. This recognises and takes into account the experiential and professional knowledge officers already have as a result of their roles. The programme is not about teaching them how to do ‘policing’ or indeed how to be ‘professional’ and it is not about police training (quite simply I wouldn’t have a clue). It is about offering the students different forms of knowledge to help them think about and reflect on the social, political and historical contexts within which policing has evolved.

It is about encouraging them to consider more critically what they do and who they deal with and further, to reflect on their experiences and learn from them. Surely such a method can apply in any situation – critical thinking, using both theoretical knowledge and experience when considering the impact or affect a decision has had on the situation / victim or offender. Too much we hear that both professionalism and performance is caught up in meeting performance figures and targets with very little understanding of the process and behaviour utilised to get there. An example of this was the very brilliant Project Sapphire in the MPS – aimed at improving victim care in rape cases and reducing attrition. However the power of the sanctioned detection culture limited any understanding or review of the process applied to improve the rates of detections and the treatment of the victim involved.

This to me is what professionalism is, officers who sometimes may do the wrong thing in terms of good performance for the sake of the needs of the, in this case, victim. This takes courage, trust and acceptance from supervisors that the ‘right’ thing has been done.

The role of discretion is essential in police work. Demands to the police are changing and surely anyone would agree that policing is far beyond notions of locking the bad up and protecting the vulnerable as research has showed time and time again that these two categories are not distinct or indeed mutually exclusive. Police officers have to weigh up complex situations with victims, offenders, missing people, dealing with the mentally ill and so it goes on. You cannot, I agree, teach that in a classroom officers need to reflect on their experiences develop and learn from them in order to amend (or not) their actions when they are faced with that situation again.

I have written before about my issues with current processes that further limit police decision making – not least areas of predictive policing where any form of human action is reduced via computer based decisions on the where and who of crime patterns and that is just one example. I think this is my problem… when I open up on my introduction session with my new students I always state very clearly that I am not and never have been a police officer. I am not here to teach them to do their job. I am here I hope to offer a way in to thinking more critically, reflecting on their own professional experience and understanding what reflection in the context of learning is. Therefore what concerns me is what will happen within the organisation to allow this reflection? Arguably at the moment there is limited space for officers to be creative or be innovative. Perhaps the way that knowledge is received by the organisation is for another blog. I hope very much that one outcome arising from all of this is the long term cultural change in relation to diverse thinking and a conformist culture (I cite @dedicatedpeeler here) that is needed.

In essence I think the idea of all officers having access to university learning is a brilliant one. I hope it is delivered with support where required and that officers are able to use the knowledge alongside their own professional experience and become more reflexive in their approach.

The more and more I think through this subject the more complex I think it is. But put simply… Do I think there are already many officers that act professionally without a degree – yes. Do I think that having a degree will automatically make officers behave professionally – no. Do I think there is an opportunity here to change, in the longer term, a culture that can stifle individualism and voice – yes.

I firmly believe that there is a difference between further professionalising the police in the eyes of the public by formalising a standardised degree in the topic and making someone ‘professional’. The latter I am not sure can be taught in a classroom. If, as the degrees involved are developed, there is a sense that ‘being a good officer’ can be taught, my concerns return to a hugely lost opportunity and further reinforcement of a conformist culture which suffocates all the things that I personally believe professionalism to be.

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5 Responses to #Degree debate… for what its worth here are some of my initial thoughts…

  1. Melissa Jardine says:

    This is a great read. Thank you. It has helped clarify my own thoughts. I’m also interested in professionalism and discretion. I sometimes describe professionalism as when police refer to a body of knowledge (evidence-based) to justify applying the law in certain ways, if at all. I work with police in developing countries/transitioning economies around the world and come across two intersecting issues: firstly, how to encourage the use of professional discretion in countries where principles of the rule of law are still under development and seen as conflicting ideas; and secondly, usually discretion is widely used in these countries anyway but often in repressive ways. In many cases, these police forces require a Bachelor degree in policing – and corruption is still rife. As part of current research, I’m looking at current understandings on the use of discretion compared with ‘contextual decision-making’ of law enforcement in classical China. I’m interested in what lessons can be learned from the latter to help current police (in Asia) negotiate the use of discretion given often competing demands of rapid social and economic change, a developing regulatory framework and heightened community expectations of police. Thanks again for this very insightful post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ian Hesketh says:

    Great piece Emma.
    My view would be that police officers ought to be equipped with the skills to critically assess information, and the resultant decisions they make are based on the processing of that information and conclude with the best outcome. As you allude to, policing finds itself in a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity; so-called VUCA. The ability of officers to cope with all this can be enhanced by access to quality (university) education. Sure, some officers ‘have it’ but not all ‘do it’ and herein lies the issue for the service. For me, a vital element of professionalism is accreditation or/and qualification. It is simply good practice. So I for one, am in favour.
    Ian Hesketh

    Liked by 1 person

  3. uwlpolicing says:

    Spot on in a whole number of ways.
    My main concern with the professionalism debate is the mixed messages from government. On one hand the new (?) college has potential but then cops are told that unpaid volunteers can do their jobs and you can be a very senior officer with no experience
    That does not happen in professions!
    The police need a clear steer. Reducing access to non graduates will reduce the pool of BME officers too. Another example of the government not understanding the nature of policing
    Access to in service degree level education on the other hand should be widely encouraged for the reasons given by the author


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