Policing is undergoing changes that are shaking the very foundations of its identity. This blog is a reflection on that from my perspective, having spent some time involved in that change. It may get a little more personal than my usual kind of blog, so please bear with me if you are expecting another based solely on research. It is in there, it’s just hidden 🙂
I’ve just spent a week on a course which discussed the theory of knowledge. This isn’t the best way to start a blog, as many will just be instantly put off by something so obscure – and seemingly – so far removed from everyday policing. But when you really start to understand such a complex subject, you realise that it actually underpins everything we do, every day. In fact, it is so pervasive, that we can’t escape the benefits and the negatives that it produces.
I watched a serving Detective Inspector discussing a study that he had just completed into ‘Threats to Life’ and the way that we deal with them within force. These are incidents where the police come into contact with a threat made to someone’s life, and there is a set of things that we do with regards to these incidents when they happen. He was shocked to discover that the reasons behind ‘why’ a lot of these things were done were based on a ‘tacit’ understanding – which basically means that everyone just understands why they are done, it is ‘implied’ that they are all useful, and that they are just something to complete in every case. If you are a police officer reading this, you will encounter many of these ‘tick lists’ every day. They are usually applied without question and then enforced through compliance management, yet when he began to ask ‘why’ around the local procedures, he usually ended up with, ‘Because we have always done it that way,’ or the even more common, ‘Because I asked you to.’
Even more worrying was the fact that there was no training in managing ‘Threats to Life’ incidents, no consistency between areas or supervision, and no study or research of the outcomes. There were often no recorded evaluations as to why an incident was downgraded/upgraded, and over time the incidents were often downgraded simply because something else had taken priority or there was nothing else to do on the list. Indeed, the usual discussions that took place sat firmly within the story that had created the incident, instead of any data, knowledge, insight, or deep understanding. The way that the incidents were managed often depended solely on the experience of the supervisor – which is of course totally variable.
The reason these things weren’t there, is because there wasn’t/isn’t any data/knowledge/insight/deep understanding. An incident as severe as this is without in-depth research. Are any of the actions taken by the officers involved adding any value to these occurrences, or are we creating action simply because we have to be seen to be doing something? The audit of these instances would certainly suggest that lots of actions is an acceptable indicator of ‘hard work’ to resolve the incidents, but which of these actions are actually doing something? Which are reducing that threat? Which are actually increasing safety?
We don’t know the answer to any of these questions.
These studies are beginning unravel some of the pillars of the policing profession. Experience has always been a by-word for understanding, but as we truly scrutinise our actions, we realise that understanding is often without depth, and the actions related to it are simply ‘filler.’ The commonly (and tacit) understanding in the workplace is often, ‘But if we do everything that we usually do, then surely we are going to be making a difference, and at least our backs are covered.’
During this presentation, the DI related this to medicine. It was a startling analogy. Imagine a patient walking in with a set of symptoms, and the doctor giving them a full sheet of exercises and a plethora of medication. “Here, take all of these. We think that one of them does the job for what you are suffering. There are loads of possible side effects but we know that they’ve worked occasionally in the past.” The patient then asks why, and the doctor – who hasn’t had any specific training in this area – states, “I’ve done a few of these before and they have always turned out OK. You have to trust me because I’ve been doing this a long time.”
Obviously, this wouldn’t happen. The studied knowledge that the doctor possesses allows him to make a far more focused decision, with precise dosages and times of consumption. He often has read in great depth about that particular set of symptoms, and although he realises every single patient is different, he has a set of previously proven medications/exercises that he can prescribe. Indeed, if you asked the doctor why he had made that choice, he would be able to probably describe what the medications did on a cellular level, and how they actually dealt with the problems that the patient was experiencing.
Policing is around 150 years behind medicine in evidence based practice, and although policing will never hand out prescriptions of medication, it is clear that there are actions that can be taken that do ‘work’. They create better outcomes, and as long as they applied within the right context, they are likely to produce the same effects. There is a Hampshire study ongoing (CARA) that is piloting conditional cautions in a domestic violence setting where a process of education is ‘prescribed’ for first time offenders, instead of the usual disposals. The results are great so far, and soon they should be rolled out for people to use as they deal with similar incidents. You might like to think of this as a police version of a drug trial for a particular malady or affliction…
Hopefully this has given you some context for the introduction of evidence based practice, but the theory around this is fine, the application of that theory is another thing altogether…
Policing has several ‘pillars’ or foundations to its identity. In the UK we have the big stuff, like the Rule of Law and Policing by Consent, but there are career based foundations too. These are things like ‘length of service,’ experience, ‘sound common sense,’ a tenured job for life, a good pension, and a lack of employment rights as servants of the crown. These all help to form our job identity, but they also help to form our general identity in life. We are all – in parts – our job. But police officers tend to become absorbed into policing far more severely than in other professions. Social isolation is a tenet of police culture, so as officers often become isolated from ‘non job’ friends, the ‘job’ friends become ever more important. The shared experience becomes a glue that knits cops together, and the pillars of it have been unshakeable for many years.
Social identity is individual, as who and how you identify with those that you work with can both suck you in, and spit you out. If you don’t buy into those accepted pillars, or you have opinions that differ from the established majority, then there will be a spitting out on the cards. Imagine a government then comes in and begins to question all those pillars? In fact, they go further than questioning, and they begin to dismantle the stone pillars, whilst simultaneously erecting a steel framework. This framework is far more accessible and bits of it can be replaced if necessary, but those big stone monoliths, they are coming down – one by one. There are a great many cops stood on top of those pillars, and in many cases, they may have joined the job – in part – because of them.
If you lived in a house where this kind of construction was taking place, chances are you would go to a hotel or go and stay with a friend, because living in a house that is having it’s foundations removed and replaced is going to be a pretty unpleasant experience. Indeed, I read a really good blog from @NathanConstable here that pretty much describes this experience, and it is certainly a shared one. There are a great many feeling this way, and it would go a very long way if this feeling was acknowledged and understood, instead of steam-rollering, digging and welding away under them regardless.
How do these two sections meet? They meet in a great amount of indignation, resignation, unhappiness and in some cases, hostility. No one likes to have their identity – or what makes them, them – taken away from under their feet. It’s horrible, it’s unpleasant, and it results in feelings of irrelevance (this is the worst in my opinion).
But, as we watch demand shift into very complex waters, is there any doubt that we need to be able to go deeper than, ‘but we’ve always done it that way?’ We can’t employ check lists based on a few dodgy jobs to deal with incidents that have the propensity for people to lose their life. We can’t expect the pillar of experience to deal with new kinds of jobs that simply haven’t been ‘experienced’ before – think cybercrime. We also can’t expect the pillar of ‘common sense’ to root out child sex offenders – we have to be increasingly sophisticated. All of these changes means changing the very way that we see the mode of ‘accepted’ knowledge within policing. It can’t be enough any more to have ‘done a few years,’ within an area to prove that you are the best person for the job. You need that ‘new’ knowledge, the stuff with depth of understanding and an ability to question ‘what we have always done.’ You need that drive to constantly learn about what is going on in your area of business – and this does not mean just by ‘doing’ that area of business. It means continuing, self-driven, professional development. It means asking the right questions about how to make things better, and then actually empowering people to change it.
Caretakers sat on pillars of experience ensured that the profession remained solid for many years, but the world has moved faster than we have, and renovations are under way. I feel – working in this change as I have – like a complete alien, uncomfortable and totally unaccepted by the majority of policing culture. I’m interested in giving the best possible service for the public, and I believe that there is a better way. I’m also really uncomfortable with the removal of some of these pillars, as I personally think that some were actually a good thing and need to stick around, with a steel frame built around them. I also think we should be shouting up to the people inside the house, and increasing the understanding around what is happening and why, by inviting them down to design the new framework. And the last thing I will say is that the replacing of ‘professional experience’ with a steel construct of evidence based practice is NOT the way forwards. They both need to compliment each other, so we can appreciate the craft of the artisan, tempered by the knowledge generated by research. A doctor will always use professional experience AND their medical knowledge before prescribing a drug. In the future a cop could use copper’s nose, together with the learning around ‘Threats to Life’ to ‘prescribe’ intervention that is both likely to work, AND does not result in many, many hours of wasted activity – that actually may be causing harm.
This is not an ‘either, or.’ It’s a ‘together.’ And no one should be evicted.
This whole ‘change’ business has gotten personal. I love policing, I just see it slightly differently – as many do. As I come to the end of this, there is no ‘irrelevant’ or ‘yesterday’ to anyone within policing in my opinion. If people are feeling like this, then there’s some big mistakes that have created some horrific pitfalls from the Home Office downwards. There’s no point in dwelling on that though, because the future is coming fast. We need those that are feeling like ‘yesterday’s’ police officers, to both temper and develop a service that best uses their experience, together with a new mode of learning. If we get that bit right, without pushing anyone out of the door as the builders move in, then there’s hope that the future will be one built with the best of both worlds.
Our ‘accepted’ knowledge can no longer exclude research knowledge, we have to accept that ‘the way we have always done it’ hasn’t always been the best way. But, nor can we throw that immensely valuable experience into the irrelevancy bin. Not just because it is still hugely relevant, but also because it should still form the base for delivery of our service.
I wouldn’t want a research based computer prescribing my medication, would you?