Academia, remaining objective and its role in professionalisation ……

I haven’t written a #degreegate linked blog for a while. Indeed, there are a number of reasons why I have decided to write this one (which I imagine might be read by some as controversial). So here goes the list….

1. A post on Twitter by @rickmuir about police ‘robots’ and the subsequent conversations resulting from it. These related to professionalism and what that might mean for policing
2. My attendance at a recent meeting regarding the PEQF / #degreegate and the discussion about vocational training v academic knowledge (AKA not police training) and the role of the academic institutions in curriculum development
3. Some feedback from a recent post I sent out on Twitter about current in house policies around offers of support for officers who have a desire to study for a degree
4. The sudden growth in programmes being offered by universities in police related subjects and my perhaps, personal concerns, about the commodification of the police education landscape.

I would like to refer to these points individually and perhaps pull together the commonalities at the end but let me start with this. Myself and Ian Hesketh very recently finished an article together about the use of Twitter as a way of further engaging officers in research. Let’s face it the arguments about police education extend way beyond the vision of having a degree as part of an officer’s journey in the police into the wider arguments about evidence based policing and what that really means. The debates around this continue, whether focused on the pure scientification of police work or the usefulness of small scale qualitative research, the issue of what constitutes police knowledge is contentious. Essentially the aim of both education and research, in my eyes, is based on reflective practice and informed decision making and yet some commentators suggest it should more support a pure scientific approach resulting in top down prescriptive approaches which require compliance to a procedure over an understanding of what underpinned a particular action or behaviour. What this means in relation to the code of ethics is another story for another day. Most importantly in this message is the perception of some practitioners. If we as academics want them to buy into our world and where it meets theirs this needs to change.
Many of you know my / our view at CCCU about the role of practitioners in research and learning. Whilst researching the literature for the article with Ian I came across a piece about the role of social media as a feedback mechanism for practitioners to input thoughts into academic work which really rang true for me.

The article related to the potential this space has for practitioners to give feedback on the research design, the relevance of the findings in their context, implementation and the recommendations – in other words the coproduction of knowledge at every stage of the process. This could include their reflections on decisions made and an understanding of what worked where as opposed to what works everywhere. Policing is complex, nuanced and therefore there may not be, what science strives for, an absolute truth. This is exactly the sort of thing academics need to be encouraging if they really want barriers between ‘us’ and the police to dissolve.

Given the insight into the police world that Twitter can offer the outside world (when done properly) I thought this was a promising idea for sharing a range of views on research PLUS offering a way in to the ivory tower of academia. Let’s face it this has been (and I don’t deny this is changing) perceived as irrelevant, purely theoretical and closed to the practitioner voice. Reflection in policing is vital, whether it is connected to education or not, critical discussion about actions, decision making and behaviour are vital both for us as academics to learn from, for improving the service delivered to the public and indeed should be the aim of any academic institution involved in the police world. We need reflective practitioners over this perception of professional clones that all think and say the same thing.

So back to point one. Robot officers and automated systems for policing. I cannot say much about the development, in the US, concerning robots ‘policing’ shopping malls – I do not know enough about it and it honestly fills me with dread. I do concur with Susskind and Susskind’s interpretation concerning the role of technology and the threats it has on ‘professions’. However as Muir states, this in the current climate, may seem ironic given the push for professionalisation but ultimately a law enforcement agent has to make judgments and use the discretion that algorithms cannot achieve. This level of responsibility when enforcing the law, he states, has to involve an element of reflection and considered decision making. I agree with Rick that the use of technology needs transparency for the public and an assurance that its application for efficiency is ethically applied. I guess what I am most interested to hear in this debate is that some officers think the PEQF is trying to achieve just this – clone police officers who all leave university with the same knowledge / training ready to deliver a certain ‘type’ of policing when they enter the working sphere. This is complex and linking to my second point about the development of the curriculum, it is crucial that higher education institutions who do decide to deliver a degree or a masters level qualification for police officers maintain some independence in that design. Whilst there may be certain issues the College of Policing want to see covered in the development of police programmes, the WAY this is delivered is the key. It is our role as academics to give officers / future officers the tools to think critically, problem solve and be reflective – it is not to give them the information about what they should do and when. And in fact to produce research outputs that tell them what they want to hear. We have to remain objective. I personally wouldn’t want to be associated with developing a clone – in fact as said before I learn as much from our students as I hope they do from us. I sense I would learn little from a clone.

Innes (2010) describes police research as either bring concerned with the ‘motors’ that drive change and reform or, he says, research on the ‘mirrors’ which further understands the context and reality of police work through reflection. Those who critique a pure what works camp might suggest that the mirror research which requires the reflection and thought is often ignored in the former type of research which is focused more on input and output. Reducing policing to quantifiable data cannot support the need for reflection. Reflection on behaviour and actions – this is what is ethical and moral here.

So with this in mind I was disappointed when gathering my research about internal policies and support for officers in force who want to do a degree programme. I haven’t assessed this across the country but certainly there seemed to be a large amount of forces funding one programme in particular. Now this I think is where it gets tricky. Variance in skills / knowledge / research methods is critical to the police role. Some schools of thought in this space are very focused, as said above, on the pure science approach and yet some researchers suggest that the outputs of such work can produce the very prescriptive procedures that inhibit the reflections and thought that the PEQF is aiming to achieve – and I do believe elements of it are. I think this is complex and needs thinking about. Small scale work with our own students highlights that risk aversion, performance measures, procedures that they see as barriers to discretion don’t allow for the reflective methods we encourage in our classrooms. If we as academics want to achieve the same things we need to be clear that diverse methods of teaching and doing research are OK as long as what we give officers is knowledge to help them make decisions as the professionals. Not tight frameworks which reproduce outputs without understanding what was done to achieve them.

Finally and I guess the most controversial Part of this is that I hope that universities don’t become driven by the idea of the field of policing as a new commodity. This is one of the reasons why I think accrediting experience needs to be consistent and fair not only to ensure that the officers can meet the standards expected of them but also so that those applying are treated fairly across institutions. I would not think it ethical to take students I didn’t feel were ready for study unless they had the evidence to support it. This will need careful monitoring I think and rightly so.

In relation to research projects, I have attended academic papers about research being funded by the those being researched and the impact this has on the objectivity of findings (particularly as funding reduces). I have seen research recently, criticised by practitioners (who were not involved in the process of the research) stating their informed concerns about findings that may well go on to inform policies. Producing evidence that supports initiatives without raising the nuances, unintended negatives, the issues for officers and the public is not comprehensive enough. We will miss the opportunity for practitioner buy in if we ignore this aspect of research. Policing as a growing market for the academy must not assist with developing policy based evidence and it must remain fair and moral in its criteria for entry.

So this is where I am. I very strongly support the joining together of the worlds of academia and policing but I hope we can remain objective and independent. That is our role. Universities are about learning, thinking differently and testing new ideas not teaching (in a world like policing) that a equals b. If we really want to recognise and support the role of the professional here we need to let them be so and recognise that experience and nuance that I will never have. Their reflections and their craft knowledge needs to meet the science. Science has the role of shaping that professional judgement but not defining it.

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