An academic within the police – the similarities and the contradictions for degree-gate

I am hoping this blog doesn’t sound self-indulgent as that is certainly not my intention – it is also longer than my usual rants. However a couple of events this week have made me think about some similarities (perhaps) between my role, as a policing academic, and the conversation happening this week about the Police Education Qualification Framework, or what I have tenderly termed as degree-gate.

So… this got me thinking and reflecting on a paper that I heard at the Society of Evidence Based Policing Winter Conference in Leeds last week. Professor Betsy Stanko, my boss whilst I was employed by the MPS, gave a paper about MOPAC’s recent evaluation of body worn videos in London. Betsy has always been an outspoken and very honest speaker – last week she didn’t let us down.

Betsy took the opportunity to describe the animosity she felt from her academic colleagues when she announced her decision to become an internal researcher in the MPS. Her desire to influence change in the organisation through the use of research was not understood by many and in her talk she discussed how colleagues described her as ‘going over to the dark side’. There was a perception that by entering the police and becoming an ‘insider’ she would lose objectivity and may, potentially, maintain a functioning and well-resourced research unit by producing findings that the police ‘wanted to hear’.

Part of academia – well for me anyway –  is about questioning, thinking, analysing different arguments / perspectives and drawing a conclusion from those arguments. It is essentially about ‘critical thinking’. I am asked regularly by police officers what this term really means. This is my take – Critical thinking involves reflective and independent thinking where an individual thinks through all sections of a problem or a question and considers all potential outcomes. Therefore perhaps the opposite of critical thinking is choosing what to do or say based solely on emotion, or even jumping to a conclusion without working your way through the separate parts of the issue.

The ability to think more critically and effectively problem solve around complex issues (perhaps required no more than ever at the current time) is one of the main aims of degree-gate. Giving officers both the practical skills via the vocational training element and the critical thinking perspective is what this proposed change is all about. So when I hear all over social media / in the classroom and amongst my friends who are involved in policing that there is currently little or no allowance for officers to be critical or to influence new ways of working I can actually fully relate to this from my own experiences within the organisation as an academic.

This is how I would sum it up: As a research team, were we accepted by all – NO; did we gain quick wins in some areas with certain individuals – YES; did the voice of our research fall on deaf ears sometimes and was it seen as a threat to ‘experiential knowledge’ – YES; but were some of the findings, when delivered in an operationally useful way, listened to and implemented – YES. My point here is that we faced some of the very same challenges it seems the majority of officers think new graduate recruits will experience when entering the job straight from university. The lack of credibility via work based experience and the assumption that the degree equates with professional policing are also complex issues (most of you know my views on this) but the similarities concerning the ability for new officers to utilise some of the skills taught in the academy about questioning, analysing information and thinking more critically are key.

I would guess that one of the arguments that will be raised against the proposed change to police entry requirements via the College’s consultation process, will concern the inability of the organisational culture to accept change, diversity of thought, critical thinking and challenge. All be it limited, the findings we have from research at Canterbury Christ Church University with our own (already serving officer) students is that gaining an academic qualification is highly valued by the individual but rarely valued by the force. And remember this is from officers who already have experience and knowledge of the prevailing culture and are potentially more comfortable with this experience to make suggestions. It is these very points that officers raise as NOT being accepted or valued by management when they start to study policing in a more critical way.

So there you have it – an actual similarity for me as an academic and officers themselves who are being encouraged to and do try to challenge the status quo. Please note however there are also in the story of academia in policing a few – as I see it – contradictions.

Much research in policing has explored police officer decision making (albeit often without actually talking to officers themselves (another bug bear of mine). I have myself been involved in a large project related to this in the context of rape investigation. However the bottom line is that officers regularly have to make fast, often risk averse decisions (more so now than ever) which need to be delivered in the moment.

What is yet another paradox to me, in the current degree context, is that one way to ‘fix this’ problem of accountability and individual decision making has seen the development of evidence based tool kits or scripts for officers to utilise when faced with these difficult decisions (usually following a review which has reported negative findings). Such narrow frames can entirely negate the possibility of critical thinking and push officers into a particular decision which requires limited if any critical thought at all. Breaking away from this narrative after a negative review has been published can create an element of risk for officers when thinking about diverting away from this process. In fact both in the construction and operationalising of tool kits there is limited independent thinking allowed and in an era of inspection regimes and regulation officers even feeling supported to do this is questionable.

The other key part of being in academia for me, is the potential it provides you with to add to the knowledge bank by identifying a gap or a question and going away and ‘researching it’. Of course you must always and rightly recognise the limitations of that work but at least in some way the outcome is an addition to the knowledge base already in existence. The assumption from colleagues (and I totally relate to what Betsy said in her paper) was that by doing research for the organisation who paid our wages meant that we may lose critical independence and produce research findings that essentially supported what the organisation wanted us to find.

Maintaining that objectivity and being ‘accepted’ was not easy. I suffered hostility from intelligence analysts who did not see the difference between what I was there to do and what they did (although interestingly they are also a group of people who have been resisted by the organisation as a result of a perceived lack of operational experience), by the federated ranks who saw us as the senior management’s spies and from the senior management who clearly had concerns about our potential to criticise their ‘new ideas’ as not working. This coupled with our lack of credibility due to having no operational experience and our living in ‘ivory towers’ meant we were rarely welcomed with open arms. Actually I found the whole experience for the first two years as a junior researcher pretty stressful.

Interestingly then I can clearly see the parallels between the proposed intake of graduate officers and my previous role and can therefore relate to and understand the concerns that officers raise about the ‘point’ of doing a degree. This is particularly pertinent when the general feeling is that there is no or limited willingness to accept the challenges that these programmes are hoping to provide via these new graduate officers.

I hope those that know me are aware of my own questions about this proposed change and that is why I want to be involved as much as I can in the debate.  Indeed there are many officers who are already trying to do this – with no degree – and they also report a sense of brick wall syndrome. I am not convinced that simply having a ‘degree’ will provide the clout/credibility that some think it might but as this roll out happens only time will tell. I can only reflect on my own experiences and frustrations when trying to challenge current practice about a range of police issues, some of which remain problematic several years after the research findings were delivered. It seems that it will be acceptable for policing to become a more transient occupation – however whether this transience will be intended by the new recruits themselves or simply result from a frustrated workforce who join with a desire to use the skills they have learnt and then become suppressed at every corner is a conversation worthy of debate. The evidence from the U.S concerning this issue needs consideration.

These challenges together with what could be considered in some areas as a very narrow definition of evidence based policing which can be prescriptive, be perceived as limiting human discretion and decision making raises yet more contradiction for me. Policing is complex, involves people of all sorts of backgrounds and with all sorts of issues. The concept of ‘one scientific truth’ is challenging in this arena (but that’s for another blog). However my point is that the police culture / hierarchy / organisation has to be ready for these challenges and different ways of ‘critical’ thinking.

It seems at the moment that most of those who are already working in the organisation think it isn’t ready, some think that other more scientific programmes aimed at increasing the use of evidence and research in policing might compound this intolerance of human questioning by trying to eradicate ‘doubt’ and finally that this will further push the usefulness of the academy away from the majority of frontline officers. In a regularly reviewed and regulated world it is not surprising that officers feel at risk to speak out and try new things. In fact if these prescriptive research outputs provide a ‘safe’ process to follow (which are then utilised to regulate against) why wouldn’t you follow it? Via this method, capturing what officers might have actually ‘done’ during that process is lost, as is any chance of reflecting on practice and learning from it.

All of these issues present huge challenges for the degree-gate debate but challenges that I hope can be overcome as I firmly believe in education in policing.  As a research team we worked our way around the challenges by understanding the culture, recognising the practitioner experience in our projects and developing outputs that were understandable and useable by the frontline – not always but sometimes. The fact that potentially the largest and longest review of rape investigation has still made relatively limited impact on attrition is surely evidence of the difficultly with changing practice and using learning. I am convinced this is about culture, leadership and indeed systems in place that actually impact on the successful embedding of learning.

I just hope that the desire to recruit graduates into the police is matched with a desire to accept critical thinking and the questioning that must form the ‘educational’ element of a policing degree. Without that acceptance we may just be setting the whole process up to fail. It would have been interesting to speak to the many serving officers in the job who already have a degree – I wonder what their thoughts are on an ability to challenge?

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4 Responses to An academic within the police – the similarities and the contradictions for degree-gate

  1. Stephen Wilkinson says:

    A very thought provoking blog post. As a current student, studying on a BSc (Hons) policing programme at a different university, I worry that it will be hard, if not near on impossible, to gain acceptance by my colleagues and superiors.

    Whilst the task of policing is a very complex one that takes all kinds of people and different approaches, the value of education within the police is not something that can be overlooked.

    Topics being researched in academia can, and will, have a positive effect on policing in Britain. However, I agree that one thing that cannot be taught in the classroom how to manage complex situations involving human emotion, situations like Rape or Mental Health, but students can gain a more in-depth understanding of the laws surrounding such incidents, understanding that I feel isn’t being achieved in the current methods of training (which is understandable seeing as the time available to train new recruits before getting them out onto the street isn’t very long at all given the nature and responsibility of their role and the powers bestowed upon them)

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    • Thanks so much for commenting on this. I would love to know more about where you are studying and the types of modules you are doing. I agree with all you say and have concerns myself about the allowance within to be questioning and critical. Emma

      Liked by 1 person

      • Stephen Wilkinson says:

        Hi Emma, I’m studying at Staffs and in my 3rd year of the BSc (Hons) Policing & Criminal Investigation. My final year research project is to look at the use and robustness of s.136 MHA 1983. Our modules include Investigative skills, crime and dishonesty, community policing; among others

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  2. Ian Campbell says:

    Thought provoking blog… As a recently retired 30+ year cop it seems to me that you are right, inasmuch as the service is not yet ready to accept the degree orientated recruit process and credibility is the key…I have worked in some difficult areas of Policing and difficult geographical areas and can say that some of the best work is done by Officers and managers who originated from and understand the Communities they serve. The principle of academics and non academics joining the service together and sharing experience and knowledge appear to count for nothing, whereas those who have served know that the best of both worlds can make a real difference to culture, I fear that over reliance on academia will skew the relationship between the Police and Public…It is espoused that the Police are the Public and the public are the Police…Who then believes that many people on council estates or socially deprived areas can relate to academics or middle class University educated Officers as a rule?…And vice versa? Until access to degree level education is accessible to poorer families as a default then credibility, and “Street Credibility” will remain an issue and create a division and mistrust within the organisation, in my humble opinion….

    I retired as a Sergeant in a Metrpolitan Force with experience of Training,CID,Custody, Communications,Performance Management,and16 years in Neighbourhood Policing in a very diverse Community.

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