The term ‘knowledge is power’ is a compelling statement in the context of policing. Knowledge impacts on everything, not just within the police and amongst officers of all ranks and roles, but also within every partnership they attempt to build when doing the complex job that they do and the complex issues they deal with. Partnerships with for example, other agencies, communities, victims and dare I say it the academic community.
I remember when I was working as a researcher in the MPS, not long into the start of some complex analysis exploring public confidence in London, a group of community officers and PCSOs asked us – ‘go on then, you tell us how to get our confidence up in this difficult community’. ‘Information’, I recall my colleague saying back to them, ‘information is one of the biggest drivers of confidence, your community want knowledge from you about what you are doing to address their problems’. Its true isn’t it? That knowledge coming from the police as an agent of social control can empower people, give context to people and help build trust between them and the police – it provides, for the police, a method to gain social capital and capacity in their working localities.
But and there is a but…. in order to ensure the police are dealing with the right problems, they need reciprocal knowledge exchange from those communities. They need intelligence and knowledge about what is going on. Effectively this relationship is cyclic for the police because if they don’t get this local knowledge they cannot plan actions and give the subsequent feedback required to gain the confidence that they need from their communities to do their job…. Confusing huh?
This memory came back to me after reading the most recent PEQF conversation on social media. After just two days of our CCPR conference and what do I miss? #Degreegate and more #degreegate… well actually this time it is timely and it is with no shame that I use the hook to write this blog, based on the paper I gave in Canterbury last week. Because, at the end of the day, this debate is predominantly, it seems to me, about knowledge.
I have a string of blogs in my head from the conference (which seemed to be a great success). I will slowly get to writing them all but given the continuing contention circulating about the PEQF I am putting some of my recent thoughts on this debate down on paper. It came to me as myself and Dr Nicky Miller, from the College of Policing, talked through the conference plans for our joint panel, that when we talk about ‘academic partnerships’ we nearly always assume the focus to be on research partnerships or partnerships based on how to deliver education with forces, particularly in relation to developing the police degree apprenticeship. What is rarely discussed is the need for a partnership between police officer students and their chosen universities when it comes to taught knowledge, the development of that knowledge and the way in which that knowledge is applied and used in the workplace. That is why I called my paper at the conference ‘learning cops, learning organisations and learning academics’. It is essentially a relationship of knowledge exchange which should be a three-way process between the academic world, the organisation and the student themselves. This is about knowledge, the perceived power and capital attached to differing types of knowledge and the power that knowledge gives individuals themselves within the workplace.
If I ask the question (and I have often) – ‘what does degrees for police officers on entry mean to you?’, the range of diverse assumptions and perceptions would go something like this.
- ‘Policing is changing – we need to encourage more critical thinking and different forms of knowledge around diverse issues to problem solve more effectively’
- ‘In times of austerity we need to make sure we are focusing resources in the places of need and deploying people to the most intense problems – that should be grounded in evidence’
- ‘Using education and encouraging reflective practice can help with the development of innovation and new ways of working and learning’
- ‘It is all about professional development and giving a qualification to make things more professional’
- ‘Off the shelf taught codified knowledge will lead to us being like robots, that is what they want – a bunch of clones’
- ‘It is all about managers being risk averse – the courses will encourage prescriptive working and toolkits which we will have to comply with’
- ‘The PEQF undermines our professional knowledge and discretion’
This last statement is key and essentially refers to the development of, what is perceived to be, a top down degree being delivered by ivory tower residents who have never ‘done’ policing and quite frankly don’t get it. It undermines the value of knowledge learnt on the job and quite frankly the type of knowledge that is held in esteem within the organisation. Cultural knowledge in policing is key, an officer’s length of service, what jobs they have done, what stories they can tell are all a core part of the ability to gain credibility in the police. This debate about the hierarchy of knowledge and the contribution that knowledge plays to the hierarchy of power and police identity in the police is central to this debate. Might I say, just for good measure, the concept of knowledge hierarchies features in the academic world too – both in terms of research methodologies, curriculum development and places of work. This statement from an academic colleague when I delivered the news of my exciting new role as an inside researcher in the Met Police went like this – ‘oh well you’ve crossed into the dark side – goodbye objectivity and research integrity’. So let’s face it we ivory tower residents are no saints either.
Anyway …… For the purpose of the conference last week I put together this table (with caveats) outlining the power of the three elements involved in this debate (see below).
Perhaps the considerable impact organisational structures and processes have on this perceived hierarchy are for another blog but the way academic knowledge is interpreted by many officers is influenced by their perceptions of the degree level entry’s programme PURPOSE. Indeed, from my reading of the extensive #degreegate input many concerns relate very much to the purpose of this new degree requirement – much of it relates to their own sense of professionalism which is grounded in their experience and learnt craft knowledge. Or moreover the perceived undermining of that knowledge. Actually if I am totally honest, having conducted my own (brief) research on this with our own students and, through reading my colleagues’ Tom Cockcroft and Katja Hallenburg’s excellent work on the experience of ‘in service degree’ officers, I can kind of see where these perceptions are coming from – because at times this is exactly what happens.
So is there another way? How can the academic community quite rightly recognise the knowledge held by officers as vital in the process of learning? And more importantly how can we actively publicise that this is what many of us want to achieve? Not to sit as the powerful knowledge holders providing information about what to do when faced with certain situations. Rather we want to integrate the knowledge we hold with the reality of police life and experience which is also vital knowledge. Learning works both ways – and just like when the police deal with the community this has to be a reciprocal relationship of knowledge exchange and co-production.
When it comes to the degree I work on, I cannot control how much the officers on our programme get to apply their learning. We believe in embedding learning in practice and trying new things but we as an institution cannot make that happen. I am not talking about conducting cost saving evaluations here I am simply referring to officers talking to a colleague about their further understanding of why community engagement is so important for the reciprocal exchange of knowledge, why it might be important to consider the role of the police when thinking about the rise in mental health demand, asking questions about the way the police and other agencies involved in social control deal with young people and issues of social exclusion, the way the police measure performance….maybe just saying ‘why are we doing that like that’ on occasion, based on their learning.
Actually policing is a naturally reflexive job – it is, as a well-known academic said back in the day, – a job where you essentially need to be a ‘street corner politician’. The need to apply different decisions based on individuals, contexts and localities is key to this. Not one taught method will work in every situation and to ensure this the knowledge of a local officer is invaluable and indeed to be learnt from. Similarly, academics need to understand the moving nature of policing and to constantly update their curriculums. The way we transfer knowledge into relevant and practical formats to make it current, relevant and effectively more usable is important and indeed challenging for some us.
The only way we can do this is by reflecting together on theory and what it means in the reality of the police world. I do believe there is a middle way in police education which celebrates the knowledge held by all officers regardless of rank. The power dynamics in operation in the police organisation itself (partly related to this hierarchy of knowledge) is not something we need to recreate in a different police educational context. Respect for knowledge – all different types of it – is vital. Police academic knowledge development is utterly dependant on the voices and reflections of officers, the data collated by officers, those dealt with by officers, the local knowledge officers hold about their area and force. Actually at the end of the day the data and theory we teach and love is generally dependant on the collection, analysis and translation of knowledge held by the organisation – this is forgotten sometimes.
There is a middle ground here for us all to learn – learn to do things differently, apply things differently and encourage work places to let their staff use the learning differently. But that blog is for another day!
 Available here https://academic.oup.com/policing/article/11/3/273/2965271