Reflections of a police officer first year PhD student

As I head towards my first end of year review in my PhD, I felt the need to share what I had learned so far on twitter. The thread gathered some interactions and drew out some great comments and DM’s, with a few asking me to draw the content out into a blog. Well, here it is! The tweet here vvvvvv is the original and if you click through to it you can find the original thread. If you aren’t a twitter user, I hope you enjoy my reflections on my first year in PhD study.

Studying at this level whilst working as a police officer has been both an eye opening and an eye widening experience. I feel like I need to clarify the difference, as they are profoundly separate. Before starting to study as an officer I was fully locked into practice, and by that I mean that I bought into the culture. I made plenty of arrests, chased drug dealers, knocked on target’s doors, and spent many enjoyable duties dealing with public disorder in Blackpool Town Center. When I look back, I can see now that this time immersed in practice was actually some of my happiest times in the job. I didn’t question the practices, I just got involved and did what was asked of me.

I studied for my second degree whilst on 999 response and working as a Community Beat Manager. As part of this degree I learned about transactional analysis and studied some Foucault as part of a dissertation module. I studied the use of language in text messages between drug users and drug suppliers, and began to increase my self awareness about our tactics and processes.

I continued into higher education and ended up completing two Masters degrees, the first in Research (conducting research, as well as some of the theory of research), and the second in Strategic Management and Leadership. Both of these widened my perspective further, and began to cause me some problems at work.

I say ‘problems,’ and ’cause,’ because work became more difficult. I began to see that our answer to all problems appeared to be ‘more resources,’ and in most cases whoever shouted the loudest or made the most persuasive argument won (please read Jerry Ratcliffe’s latest blog on this here). I began to see that the way we measured performance was hugely flawed, with binary comparisons ruling resource deployment and some very dodgy practices around crime recording (all thoroughly wiped out in my force now – thank goodness). The personal issues these create aren’t pleasant, because you begin to see that the practices you have fully bought into and have been immersed in represent something unpalatable. In other words, increasing your awareness and education in an environment that has never really valued education puts you at a disadvantage.

This is what I mean by eye opening, and eye widening. Simple decisions become less than simple, and the variables that you now consider are far wider than they used to be. Ultimately, you will make different decisions to many of your colleagues, and in an environment where conformity is important, this means you have to double and triple layer your thinking.

This is quite hard to explain, but a decision that used to have an easy answer now has a different one, and no matter how you colour it up, you are going to have to explain in detail why you took that different decision, and have that explanation in mind when you make it.

I really value the telling of stories, so here are two that I think make my point better than I ever could 🙂

Quick example 1:

I came into a shift briefing as a response Sgt and found that one of our very regular missing from home people was once again missing. She was in her teens and was at risk of child sexual exploitation (CSE), and in this case the missing from home log had absolutely no detail on it about where she was and who she was with. Her foster parents had taken her phone from her as punishment for her behaviour, despite the fact that that phone was the single most valuable tool we had to locate her.

I then spent the next half an hour asking to raise the missing from home to High Risk from the level of Medium Risk. My argument was that she was at risk of CSE and that we had absolutely no idea where she was or who she was with. The Insp on duty disagreed, and stated that we had no further information that she was at immediate risk of harm (strict adherence to policy) – from my perspective this would never happen as we had absolutely no idea where she was and she had been gone approaching twenty four hours. I didn’t win the argument, but allocated a large proportion of the team to finding her. After some hefty intelligence enquiries and many conversations with her friends, we kicked the door in of a sex offender and found her hiding in a wardrobe. One arrest later…

Now, at this point, the usual practice is that we return the person home, try and conduct a debrief about where they have been and who they were with, and then file a ‘found report’ on the system together with any referrals we need to make. In this case, we would usually come on to find her reported missing again at the start of the next shift – this is not a rare occurrence.

I was aware of research into adverse childhood experiences, trauma and the gathering of information through rapport, I wanted to stop this child going missing again so I stopped the usual procedure and went to buy her a sandwich and some sweets with one of my team. We sat with her in an interview room for nearly five hours. We got to know her, listened, made her cups of tea and offered support. She disclosed levels of abuse at her foster carers that had never been reported, and highlighted behaviours that put her at more risk than she already was. She wasn’t eating, sleeping or socialising with children her own age and was clearly suffering anxiety. This information allowed us to work with social services immediately and change her home address within that tour of duty. It was more information than social services had gained in months. Whilst I worked at that station, she never went missing again.

Now, whilst that example may seem relatively benign, the point is that I had to buck the usual system/custom to get her the help she needed, and whilst ‘booked off’ for that five hours I was pestered constantly on the radio to check logs and update logs and run handovers to the next shift. Whilst all of this is important, it wasn’t as important as helping that teenager break out of her cycle of going missing. I needed to invest the time in an intervention that was guided by knowledge I had picked up in education.

Now, as you continue your journey as a practitioner, these events crop up more and more. You become aware of the fact that dropping patrols on every problem, rarely solves the problem. You also become aware of practices that may be ‘normal,’ but may also be harmful. You will also slow the process of decision making down, and this is cultural anathema. You have to survive with this knowledge and operate in a way that doesn’t put you at risk, and this is harder than it sounds.

2nd example. 

If you have ever chased burglars as a job (I did it for nearly two years), you will know how exciting – and how boring – it can be. One day is spent leafing through forensic footprint records to match against a partial lift of a print from a crime scene, and the next is spent hunting forensic matches and chasing charges for your arrestees. It’s a fun job to do and it was always seen as ‘gucci’ work. You get to know burglars and learn their patterns of behaviour, spending days in cars with offenders produced from prison so that they can point out the other houses that they have burgled – a process that when done properly can be immensely rewarding for victims.

One of the tactics that was used was called ‘target hardening.’ This is essentially where you make life very difficult for prolific burglars by knocking on their door at all hours of the day, and stopping and searching them at every occasion that your powers permit. This can mean three to five visits a day (perhaps more), and constant stops on the street. The intelligence from these stops can result in a conviction if clothes match that of a description at a nearby burlgary and may direct forensic submissions of footwear or fibers at a later date.

My current studies revolve around social identity and social networks. Without going too much into detail, my method of research is based upon methods used in the study of drug rehabilitation in prolific offenders. The research says that to become drug free, people have to ‘move’ from one identity (that of a burglar) into a healthier identity, one that works, is supported socially and belongs to groups that do not contain the usual groups that burglars associate with. Practically this often means renouncing their current friends and making new ones, exploring a more stable life and engaging in social activities like Alcoholics Anonymous or therapeutic drug treatment communities.

Why am I telling you this?

I am telling you this because the ‘Target Hardening’ I discussed earlier frustrates the above happening. Knocking on the door of a recent prison release four or five times a day inevitably annoys the other people who live in the property (it’s always a house of multiple occupancy), making it an unwelcome home for that person. Within a few days, they will be having to socialise with their old networks in order to find sofas to sleep on, cementing the conditions for them to re-offend.

If you follow the theory down the rabbit-hole, the police behaviour is likely to be creating victims. Imagine knowing that and being asked to ensure your patrols conduct those door knocks???

I am hoping that these two examples illustrate why I made the tweet thread that I did, and illuminate how gaining this knowledge can make surviving or thriving at work more difficult. Normal practices, behaviours and interactions that you took as ‘normal’ take on a different light, and navigating decisions in areas that were previously very comfortable becomes far more fraught with personal risk. I have strong values, so knowing this stuff but ignoring it becomes impossible for me personally, opening up the door to rapid – and often uncomfortable – personal development.

I’m also not saying that the decisions that I made are ‘right’, just trying to illustrate that they are different. It is the ‘different’ that creates the risk, not whether the outcome is ‘right’ or not.

So, onto the tweets about whether there should be more practitioners who pursue this…

I personally think that engaging with this level of study is unnecessary to become a competent or effective police officer, but – and this is the kicker – who is going to ask the questions about the above practices that really need asking? External advisory groups or studying academics might, but what is their likely exposure to all of the processes of daily business? As a practitioner, you don’t just see daily business, you engage in it. You know all the nooks and crannies, the perils and the pitfalls, and you understand the social context that surrounds it. Who better than to work on improving the service as we now know it?

This element of deep learning is present in many other professions. Practitioners with PhD’s exist in many other areas of public service. I don’t know one senior police officer with a PhD, but I’m not surprised by that because of all of the things discussed previously. To be considered a top operator you have to do as your told and do it well, right? Until that changes, and the criteria for success becomes something more than the supervision of door knocking or misper (missing person) finding, then the successful execution of practice as we now know it will always trump the questioning of practice as we know it.

I do however, know which one I prefer – and that is why I know I made exactly the right choice. If you have the drive, and the passion for your subject matter, I would recommend it to everyone, even if it would come with a heavy dose of salty realism. Studying at this level may not be the easiest path to tread, but my goodness the results of that insight are rewarding 🙂

The workload is manageable, and you have to be prepared to read, and read a lot. I also spend a lot of my time with my kids in play areas whilst I sit at a bench with my laptop out writing. Other advice that I received before embarking on the PhD revolved around the finding of a really good supervisor who you get on with and can bounce ideas and work off without fear. I found that, and the advice was spot on (so thanks Steve Tong and Katja Hallenberg from the Canterbury Christ Church Police Research Center!).

If you are a practitioner, and you are considering a PhD, I would advise to go into the process with eyes wide open. It will not be easy, and that is in terms of both volume and the change in your decision making process. Having had some tough experiences at work though, I would still decide to continue with my studies despite the cultural issues that present themselves. As a last tip, it is hugely important to describe the motives for such study. As detailed above, it is unlikely to earn you plaudits or promotion, simply through the increased awareness that causes a difference in decision making. If you can accept this, and are passionate about your subject matter, I would say that it is well, well worth it. The personal development alone is worth every penny.

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3 thoughts on “Reflections of a police officer first year PhD student

  1. Thank you for your thought provoking blog Stubbsy. It all makes sense to me and is so refreshing to read. I can especially relate to the two examples you cite. My experience in the job (although long retired now ) reflected the police culture who were not interested in the ‘whys’ and only interested in the quick fix solution. Asking the question ‘did you break that window’ as opposed to ‘why did you break that window’ will provide two different answers- one shallow answer which reflects a detection tick box and the latter addressing the bigger picture problems (much like you when you listened to the young Misper for five hours – probably the first time she has been ‘heard’.)

    The ‘job’ invariably said to me ‘thats not our job’ and it was hard to convince them it is our ‘job’.
    I have been in a male prison (as a volunteer) for eleven years now as a clinician helping men with addiction. Education as a mature student has given me two Masters – one in Science and the other in the Arts. I was the only 11 plus failure in my family which sat heavily on my shoulders, as a driver on one and a nemesis on the other.

    My science degree is in Addiction Psychology and a lot of my work is around social identity and a sense of belonging. As a point of reference I use the work of the sociologist Susan Fiske relating to Social Identity. In 1-1 sessions, we discuss their early childhood experiences and where they first felt a sense of belonging, how they understood their environment, how they controlled their lives, in what ways they got their self enhancement and whom did they trust. We do written work on chapters of their lives in each area at different ages. This enables them to see their chaotic lives and how they internalised those early learnt experiences which mirrored in their adult lives and becomes hard wired.The prisoners, in the majority of cases, tell me that underpinning it all is fear. – their sense of identity is the mask they wear and the journey I do is to help them reach their authentic self and help develop new neural pathways in their brain re recovery and a new sense of identity and belonging. . It’s a real privilege Stubbsy, much like it must have been for you to listen to the missing girl for five hours.

    Education has given me so much – if I was younger I would definitely do a PhD on Social Identity and develop myself further academically. As it is now, it can’t get much better to be trusted by these men who reveal themselves to me – their authentic selves. The fact I was a detective and in recovery, ironically helps the process because they trust me and the boundaries we uphold.

    In order to change we have to make the unconscious conscious- education helps with the process because as you say, everything becomes magnified and widens our perspective.

    You are a game changer Stubbsy… believe in your authenticity and don’t follow the herd.

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  2. Yes, very interesting. My son applied to Nottinghamshire Police but was not impressed by the calibre of senior officers he met. But it is not just the police that suffers from “groupthink” and an inability to challenge the system. The armed forces are riddled with it as are many public sector organisations.

    It happens less in the private sector because people there tend to be more mobile but there is still a lot of it about.

    I always think of HMS Pinafore – Sir George Porter (based on the real life WH Smith) – “I never thought of thinking for myself at all, they rewarded me by making me the ruler of the Queen’s navy”

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  3. Well done !!

    So far so good but you will eventually want to move upstairs to change the system from the top or bail out and go privately or into academic life. There are similarities with poor working class kids going to university and the problems of adopting middle class academic culture and finding it difficult to be accepted back into the working class home (“You can’t get everything out of a book -I;ve been to the University of Life or “with all those fancy ideas and you still getting it wrong!”). But keep to the dream and enjoy smelling the roses on the way.

    By the way a bobby called Tony Butler obtained his PhD in the late 1970s from Aston University and went on I think to become a Chief Constable!

    Mike Berry

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