Being a Pro, the oldest game in town: Fate, State and Trait – an analysis of police. Emma Williams and Dr Ian Hesketh

This appeared in Policing Insight last week…..

As a result of burgeoning interest created by the College of Policing’s mission to professionalise the UK police service, we take a look at the occupation of policing. Our lens does not focus merely on officers, but the entire policing family and the function they perform within the public sphere.

We propose that there are three descriptors to actively consider when unpicking the thinking behind this radical ambition to revolutionise policing.

  • An occupation as a PROFESSION – who wants it, why, and how will this transform the service?
  • The PROFESSIONAL working within the profession, delivering different roles within the profession and what counts as a professional?
  • PROFESSIONALISM – what behaviours make up a professional, and how are they viewed, both internally and externally?

The fate of policing – The justifications for the move to align policing with other professions are wide-ranging and certainly not mutually exclusive. Reasons range from standards of recruitment and promotion to public perceptions and trust. Perceived legitimacy in the police, consistency of service delivery, ethics and doing the right thing, professional development and community engagement are all vital. None so much as leadership, and ensuring that officers have the right tools and skills to deliver policing in a volatile uncertain, complex and ambiguous landscape, a VUCA environment as described by Casey. In support, Chief Constable and CEO of the College of Policing, Alex Marshall noted, “the leadership review identified the fast changing and challenging future context for policing.”
These factors are strongly linked, both in relation to how they impact on each other, and the outcomes. There is fortunately a wealth of literature available that can help explore these links, bringing in notions of evidence-based policing (EBP). Our own recent publications on discretionary effort, engagement and leadership shine a light on some of these concepts. For example, leadership (knowing your staff, stuff and self) and the relationship this has with officers’ wellbeing is proven to link with engagement and police workers willingness to put in that extra mile. It would seem as almost common sense that this would, in turn, result in greater public confidence and trust?
Developing this, one might assume that the professionalisation agenda is aimed at improving the experience for the public as well as those working within the profession themselves. Strands of work being driven, predominantly by the College of Policing, are focused on improving and standardising police training, furthering professional development and enabling a more effective and fair system of selection, development and promotion, via the continuous improvement of staff.
The implementation of the code of ethics, which seeks to ensure that the police do the right thing, act with integrity and treat people fairly during encounters, is an example of this. Leaders in organisations should arguably own these areas. These leaders should be encouraged to seek to promote an ethical workforce, aimed at valuing staff and creating an environment and culture that fosters achieving the ‘right thing’ for staff and the public.
The state of being a professional – Arguably those most directly affected by the move to make policing a profession are police officers and police staff themselves, those delivering the service to the public. Over the past year or so there has been challenge, cynicism, reflection and questioning of the College’s plans – who, some officers have asked, wanted us to become a profession and does that mean we are not professional already? However, there has also been some significant positive commentary about the chance of gaining transferable qualifications and recognition for the work officers and staff do on a daily basis.
It is evident that there are some fundamental differences in how different individuals both define a profession, and what makes someone a professional. Paradoxically, these discrepancies operate within and between different agencies, including academia and the police themselves. What we need to explore and develop is how these differences may impact on the individual’s sense of being a professional.
A number of academics have written about these differences in terms of the definitions of what a professional is. Whilst these definitions are not interlinked, there are a number of subtle differences that impact on the way professionals inside the police consider their own roles. Reviewing these definitions, there appear to be a number of aspects that are common, and we highlight three:
1. The involvement of ethics
2. Expert knowledge
3. The importance of self-regulation
Ethics – The code of ethics has been implemented. Professionals doing the right thing are a critical part of a profession, and the code was implemented to address this. However, the ownership of the code in many forces is within the professional standards department, rather than in human resources or learning and development. Therefore, the internal interpretation (identity) is viewed as punitive and imposed. And as such the code of ethics may largely be viewed as controlling behaviour, to be complied with and be warned against. This, rather than being an extension of moral philosophy, and the links to leading a good life, drawing meaning and purpose from our work, and so on.
Expert knowledge: The expertise held by the professional is vital in any profession. Officers and staff describe the need to understand the context of their force area, their ‘manor’, their offenders and their victims; in order to properly consider relevant methods that might have an impact. It is unlikely, if not impossible; that a one size fits all policy will work repeatedly in any given situation. This professional knowledge must count.
Evaluations of work in Australia on professionalisation via academic relationships found that new officers found it hard to maintain a commitment to the taught aspects of professional behaviour when entering the police field. This field is littered with narratives of long serving officers, individual context and sustained internal working processes that can restrict the use of taught ‘expertise.’ Therefore, as new professionals it was complex for them to decide what type of expert knowledge gave them more capital once in the ‘job.’ Did they listen to the taught rules of the academy or to their supervisors and peers who held the narratives to make this ‘real?’ It seems that there needs to be more understanding of how to reduce this gap, or the impact on the professional will likely be ineffective and negative.
Self-regulation – A trust-based environment is required to ensure that professionals both act accordingly and feel professional themselves. Research suggests the perception of many practitioners is that they are over regulated, restricted to make operational decisions without referring to a tool kit or model, and at risk of reprimand if they do not refer to that more objective or abstract expertise created via these prescriptions.
The other vitally important issue that seems neglected in the current landscape is the question of what makes a professional appear professional inside the organisation? The reasons for the ‘policing as a profession’ drive is focused on building a learning environment, reflective practice, better problem solving and understanding of problems. However what research continues to show us, our own included, is that policing continues to view some professional behaviour and indeed certain types of roles within the organisation, more credibly than others.
The traits of professionalism – Accountability has been a huge part of police work for a long time. The debates about this have been reproduced over time since the implementation of new public management methods in policing. We are not here to argue again that what gets measured gets done, but simply to highlight that when referring back to the publically discussed aims of this agenda there are some clear gaps in what the police are currently held to account on. Questions about how to measure good leadership, whether officers make the right ethical decisions, and what constitutes ethical behaviour are all issues that practitioners feel are not effectively addressed in the current culture. Therefore, whilst the traits of professionalism are articulated in the aims of the professional agenda, do the current methods for reviewing the police recognise these traits?
Research shows us that rather than capturing what ethical behaviour might look like, the guidance and toolkits, and performance processes that are currently in place to measure or assist professionalism in the police might be having an adverse effect. Hence, potentially undermining both the identified traits of what professionalism should look like and the sense of professional identity of the officer or staff member themselves.
Those involved in policing have to provide enough information to assist the professional make professional, ethically right and informed decisions, to encourage a learning environment built on trust, and not promote a culture of blame or abstract professional control.
The future of policing will very much depend on the quality of the people within the business. These people will be professionals, equipped with the skills and abilities to carry out the profession of policing the 21st century. The nature of policing is changing radically, with new crime types, old crimes committed in new ways, and technology providing a tsunami of IT dilemmas for forces to wrestle with. A leadership lacuna to police these quandaries is apparent, and there is a need for the service to adopt new and critical skills to combat innovative crime types, and ensure the fate of the profession is in good hands for decades to come.

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