Is policing a closed shop?

I’ve been quite worried about posting this, as I watch as other good people on Twitter take abuse and nastiness for no other reason than they represent something different. I’ve been through it, and I pretty much ration my time on here because it’s not worth the angst. This stuff is important though, and it scales up from the smallest processes, right into organisational behaviours.  The reason that it is controversial, is that the shop being closed is a pretty comfy way of operating. There’s less conflict, people maintain existing strong familial and friendship based relationships, and we always do what we’ve always done.

This stuff needs discussion, because it lifts the lid on some of the micro interactions that shape the service. It illustrates some of the need for change, and it also prys open the lid on all the speculative conversations about representation in the cops.

Before I start, this blog rests on the assumption that increasing diversity in policing is something worth achieving. I wholly believe this, but the reasons for that belief probably don’t stack up with the ‘accepted’ reasons. Chasing particular strands of diversity to reach targets that have little meaning is counter productive  (in my eyes). Encouraging difference as a means to challenge group think and bring about dissent and change? That’s my bag right there.

This research relied on some theory that was around in the 1970’s. The studies were on the labour markets of professional, technical and managerial jobs, they essentially studied how people got into those areas of work and why. Mark Granovetter was one of the pioneers in this area, and his research showed that people got work in these areas via knowing someone who worked within them already. He makes a distinction between ‘Strong Ties’ with the profession in question (family etc.) prior to joining,  and ‘Weak Ties’ in the form of friends and acquaintances. He found that in those particular areas of work, friends and acquaintances represented the ties that got people jobs. In other words, organisations often recruited through personal connections with people that already worked there.

I took this method of research, and used it to analyse the last period of recruitment in my Constabulary.  Just under half of the people (about 1000) who applied filled in the survey, and this means that it’s pretty good to generate some conclusions from. The results showed very clearly that the Theory of Weak Ties from Granovetter transferred over into policing very well, with Ties proving very significant in the success of candidates.

In total, only 8% of successful candidates had no prior ties with policing. The testing of the stats showed that the difference between having at least one tie, and having none was highly significant. For the remaining number of candidates, the below was found to be the case:

The orange bars are the successful candidates,  and you can see the difference in proportion between those that applied, and those that were successful by looking at the differences between the blue and the orange bars. The survey proved that Weak Ties were very significant in police recruitment. 

In other words, if you know a cop socially, you’re far more likely to be successful during the recruitment process.

I don’t want to get into discussing the technical aspects of the research as this is a blog and is meant to be readable for everyone. For this reason I’ve left out some important detail that researchers may want to ask questions about (happy to be contacted if so).

What are the implications of this research? It all looks a little abstract doesn’t it? Well in reality it raises some very important questions about the profession. Are current cops more likely to socialise with each other? I would look at previous research on culture and guess that that is the case for a large number of reasons. This will mean that they will have quite a close circle of friends and acquaintances, and in turn this means that cops mix in circles often populated by those in the same social strata.

This makes sense to me. I can’t associate with any one who commits crime, including the taking of drugs, I struggle to interact with people who don’t work my shifts, and there’s a peculiar pessimism that follows cops around wherever they go. Cops are often comfy with very strong childhood friends, or people that they meet through work (this is my experience talking, not my research – yet). If we take the ‘social isolation’ evidenced in other cultural studies, it suggests that the ties that cops build, may not actually be very diverse themselves.

The science also tells us that your close friends, often have the same close friends, and they lack what are called ‘bridging ties.’ These are ties that allow you to access another area of life experience, like those in very different jobs or communities. These bridging ties are very important to job hunters, and the research above tells us that they are important for the police.

What does this research lead me to think? 

This research leads me to think that the police suffer from something called ‘ethno centrism,’ fancy words for the ethnicity of your employees, passing information to people of the same/similar ethnicity, which in turn holds value in recruitment processes. Examples of this would be a serving officer having a conversation about the assessment center with a prospective candidate, or passing information about the current priorities of a particular force to a candidate. This information holds value, and it allows prospective candidates to prepare far more rigorously.

As someone who has conducted recruitment interviews, you can spot the person with officer contacts immediately, they are savvy on the new areas being discussed in the force and use the right structure for answering the questions etc.. The various coaching companies that offer advice to prospective candidates take advantage of this benefit that particular information brings, and that is then accessed by candidates too – usually off the back of advice given by a current serving officer who has used them themselves.

This is all very fancy Gareth, but what does all this mean?

There are some who would say, ‘It makes sense for someone to get all the right information about a job before applying, the advantage is a result of their hard work.’ This is to some extent true, but the big question remains: ‘Does everyone applying have equal access to that information?’ If the answer is no, then we have a system that relies on current ties with police officers to select its recruits… and I would suggest that this is why there has been no step change in diverse recruitment for many years.

Of course, this isn’t the only answer to the issues faced, there remains a huge list of issues that also need research, but the knock on effects of the above results could be very damaging, and create questions within communities as they are disadvantaged unconsciously by the current recruitment system.

What can we do about it?

This is a good question. As a researcher,  the first answer is ‘more research.’ I am currently looking at exactly what kind of information is passed, and why does it make the difference that it does within recruitment. There are however two things that could take place to tackle this:

  1. The recruitment system within forces is changed to prevent the passage of this information holding the value that it does for prospective candidates.
  2. The information that holds value is given to everyone at the point of application.

Both of these solutions do of course require the information that is within the forthcoming research to be wholly effective, but steps can be made right now that are practical and relatively easy…

  • Questions that measure current knowledge of force priorities that are not competency based should be reconsidered, as the likelihood is that they measure access to information and not any sort of personal quality.
  • Strict ‘policisms’ and jargon should be removed from all internal application processes.
  • Increased use of psychometrics and evidence based situational judgement tests should be considered to replace application forms.
  • Interview questions should be non-police scenario based.
  • The selectors of recruits should be thoroughly trained in unconscious bias and recruitment and selection – and this is time dependent, if the training was 15 years ago, it really needs looking at.

The above suggestions are not exhaustive and can easily be built upon, because underlying this research is an internal bias that we don’t know is there, that we can’t see, and that we are convinced is objective and fair. The research shows that this bias is present, but how we choose to then deal with this information is wholly within our control.

Is policing a closed shop? In this example, 8% of candidates would illustrate that the door is slightly open. The question that now needs answering,  is how much more do we need that door to open to prepare us for the future?

I would suggest it is a little more than  8%.


2 thoughts on “Is policing a closed shop?

  1. Speaking in general terms, patterns run in families and issue from strong, honest parents tend to be likewise. There are always exceptions but these are a small percentage. Criminals tendencies generally run through some families who carry on their ‘chosen’ career based on the influences and persuasions they grew up with. Likewise some families are prone to doing good, are honest and caring of others and their issue grows up under an influence to help. If Policing seems to run in families or close acquaintances it makes sense as generally people who care and want to help others would naturally be attracted to a profession which has a means of fulfilling their aim to help/protect. Not a closed shop but an opening for members of the community who want to make a difference.


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