Emma Williams is the Director of the Centre for Police Research at CCCU. Her interests are police professionalism, rape investigation, gender and policing and police legitimacy. Previously Emma worked as a principle researcher in the Metropolitan Police Service.
The Police Education Qualification Framework (PEQF) has fundamentally changed the approach to police recruitment and the conversation about how new officers embark on a ‘professional’ career. Three entry routes dictate that ALL joiners must now have a degree (a College of Policing approved degree no less); or they will undertake a conversion programme through the higher education diploma in policing (DHEP); or the police constable degree apprenticeship (PCDA) which ultimately gives them a degree at the end of three-year probationary period.
I use the term conversation above in the context of the recruitment issues. However, there have been an abundance of conversations about this huge change to policing which have been difficult, controversial, challenging and personal. There have been disputes between police and academics, academics and academics, police and police and policy makers and all of us. Whatever the longer term outcome of this reform, there continues to be a binary conversation about what should and should not be considered as credible and useful knowledge in the practical policing world.
In academia what counts as ‘credible’ knowledge and research in the police service has been debated extensively (Chan, 2003; Charman, 2017; Fleming and Wingrove, 2017; Williams and Cockcroft, 2019). Indeed, the drive to professionalise the police through academic qualifications is certainly not new. Some universities have been delivering police education for many years both within the UK and internationally. However, this is the first time that an organisation overseeing a wider professionalisation agenda in policing has provided a platform to formalise this, standardise it and roll it out nationally for all officers.
There are so many issues that feature within the debates about this decision. They range from the curriculum content being too prescriptive and not academically independent, academic work not being practically relevant, too many cops being involved in programmes and therefore the PEQF being a recreation of police training, de-professionalising serving cops through this process, not encouraging diversity and limiting accessibility to the service: these are just a few of them. This article covers some of my own concerns about a number of these issues.
Essentially the aim of both education and research, in a policing context, is about enhancing reflective practice and informing decision making. It is not about replacing the learnt, tacit knowledge held by officers, it is about incorporating something different to better understand wider context and the complex environment within which they operate. Unfortunately, many have conflated the PEQF with the evidence based policing mantra and the notion of introducing a pure scientific and prescriptive approach to encourage compliance in police officers. The top down curriculum requirements that universities have to sign up to in order to gain COP approval doesn’t help this perception and therefore universities involved in this new era of police education need to ensure that there is integrity in the delivery of the programmes and reflection of where academic theory meets police practice.
Central to all our research and teaching at Canterbury Christ Church University (CCCU) is the practitioner. We use their experiences to enhance and develop what needs to be a flexible curriculum that meets the fast changing nature of the policing world. Yes, part of the curriculum will be focused on imparting knowledge of ‘what works’, originally seen in the application of new public management to policing in the 1980s. However, universities have a responsibility to additionally impart to police students the invaluable work of police sociologists such as Punch, Holdaway, Heidensohn, Muir and Bittner whose insights remain imperative to the constitution of police knowledge and understanding. The topics of their work remain prominent in policing today: Discretion, mental health, community policing, race and gender. Indeed, as Jock Young (2004) argued, the role of criminological research as an administrative method to consider ‘what works’ in crime prevention and reduction reinvented and narrowed the discourse of criminology. We have an obligation to make sure the same thing does not happen in teaching and researching policing studies.
Myself, Jennifer Norman and Mike Rowe (2019) recently wrote an article addressing these issues and one concern we raised was that the PEQF has been perceived by many as a method of de-professionalising the personal identity of police officers by teaching a curriculum that is about compliance, risk aversion and prohibiting innovation. There are police officers who firmly believe that the PEQF is trying to drive a future of cloned police officers who will all leave university with exactly the same blueprint of police knowledge ready to deliver a certain ‘type’ of policing when they enter the working sphere. It is vital that higher education institutions offering the PCDA, DHEP and preservice degree maintain some independence in the design of their courses. It is the WAY they are delivered that is key. It is our role as academics to give officers the tools to think critically, problem solve and be reflective – it is not to give them information about what they should do and when, or, as some commentators believe, turn them into managers by Mcdonaldising police knowledge (Heslop, 2011).
As Brown et al (2018) argue policing is a social institution that deals with both developing legitimacy and public trust and with processes such as deployment, operational practice and workforce planning. The latter and its association with accountability, targets and rational process is just one part of what officers do. Innes (2010) described police research as either being focused on the ‘motors’ that drive change and reform or on the ‘mirrors’ which deepen contextual understanding of ‘real’ police work through reflection. Those who perceive the PEQF as offering only a tightly defined curriculum with the research components being focused on efficiency and understanding ‘what works’ argue that the importance of richer ‘mirror’ research is diluted down. Arguably, it is this contextual knowledge that will aid officer reflections when they make decisions about their behaviour and actions: this is what is ethical and moral here for police legitimacy.
I am not suggesting that these concerns will play out in the delivery of all programmes nor am I suggesting that it is simply the content of the programmes that need debating in this conversation. Indeed, our own research at CCCU with our police students found many organisational factors that inhibit officers even being able to apply their new knowledge in practice (Williams et al, 2019). However, the fact that these structural issues are reported to relate to factors such as hierarchy, risk aversion, performance measures and prescriptive tool kits does leave me asking: Is the critique of the curriculum actually right and does it actually reinforce or justify current police processes? Our respondents saw these organisational factors as obstructing discretion and limiting the use of the reflective methods we encourage in our classrooms. If we as academics delivering these programmes want to change this, we need to be creative in the way we deliver the content, and diverse in the approach we take to covering notions of ‘good’ police research. Indeed, we need to not recreate the status quo but influence officers’ ability to challenge it, be different and furthermore, work with organisations to develop environments where they staff feel safe to do so.
Finally, and I guess this is the most controversial part for us all, is my hope that universities don’t become driven by the commoditisation of police knowledge. We need to ensure universities do not deliver prescriptive courses which do not make translatable the important theoretical criminological and sociological perspectives that are so critical to understanding police business today. This also relates to how the PEQF may impact on current officers’ sense of professionalism and the value placed on their own experience. Reinforcing the application of top down processes within the police organisation through top down learning and tightly defined notions of knowledge may constrain the use of new ideas and personal expertise. We must not deliver ‘off the shelf’ teaching which restricts understanding and the application of the type of situated knowledge that is so pertinent in the police environment. We do need to capitalise on the ‘diffused and seminal intelligence of the rank and file’ (Sklansky, 2008:11), allow for their reflections and the wider use of various forms of academic knowledge.
I very strongly support the drive to encourage further collaborations between 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. They are not about delivering teaching methods that promote a equals b – in fact we should be problematising those notions. If we really want to recognise and support the role of the professional here we need impart rich knowledge that allows them to apply their own professional knowledge to a wide range of situations alongside the reflection of academic learning.
The PEQF has a real opportunity to instil new knowledge in the police organisation. Qualifications are not in place to deliver an army of ‘narrow minded experts or scientific freaks’ (Jaschke and Neidhart, 2007: 306). If the content is not delivered ethically and in diverse ways, it might be that the PEQF becomes viewed as yet another prescriptive tool to govern officers’ behaviour and confirm the status quo.
Brown, J., Belur, J., Tompson, L., McDowall, A., Hunter, G., and May, T. (2018). Extending the remit of evidence-based policing. International Journal of Police Science & Management Volume 20 (1), 38-51.
Chan, J. (2003) Fair Cop: Learning the Art of Policing. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Charman, S. (2017) Police Socialisation Identity and Culture: Becoming Blue London: Palrgrave
Fleming, J. and Wingrove, J (2017) ‘We Would If We Could … but Not Sure If We Can’: Implementing Evidence-Based Practice: The Evidence-Based Practice Agenda in the UK. Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice, Vol 11 (2): 202–213. https://doi.org/10.1093/police/pax006
Heslop, R., (2011). The British police service: professionalization or ‘McDonaldization’? International Journal of Police Science & Management, 13 (4), 312–321.
Innes, M. (2010) A ‘Mirror’ and a ‘Motor’: Researching and Reforming Policing in an Age of Austerity, Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice, Vol 4 (2): 127–134, https://doi.org/10.1093/police/pap058
Jaschke, H.G. & Neidharte, K. (2009). A Modern Police Science as an Integrated Academic Discipline: A Contribution to the Debate on its Fundamentals. Policing & Society, 17 (4), 303-320.
Dr Emma Williams, Canterbury Christ Church University
Images: courtesy of the author and Unsplash