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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Resetting diversity

Always one to dip my toes into controversial waters, this blog may read as quite challenging for some. It isn’t my aim to muddy those waters, or throw controversy out there and stoke the rhetoric, this blog is about getting back to basics.

What do we mean when we talk about ‘increasing diversity‘?

I mean, right back to basics.

  • What does increasing diversity do?
  • What is it aiming at?
  • Is what we are after going to do what it should be doing?
  • When we are ‘diverse’ (whatever that means), how will we know?

All of these questions are difficult to answer, but before we put any efforts into trying to improve diversity in our constabularies we absolutely have to understand what it is we are trying to do…

You may have heard about a number of initiatives in constabularies up and down the country that seek to address diversity based issues. They are usually lined up with figures, and these usually illustrate that forces up and down the country are unrepresentative. This term tends to mean that the proportion of employees that they have do not mirror the proportion of population that they have in the community. As an example, 30% of the community may be black or asian, but the proportion within the constabulary may be 4%. This is the usual framework that dictates discussion around ‘diversity’, and indeed many departments are actually created in order to deal with this issue.

Framing diversity in this way makes it a really simple idea. If we reach a particular percentage, then we are diverse! Yet, hold on… are we? Why do we have these figures? What do they mean? How do they ‘deliver’ diversity? What is it we are really seeking?

I argue when I’m speaking at events that there is real danger to be encountered when we reduce really complicated issues to ones of figures and sums. Systems Thinking approaches talk at great length about the measures that ‘define’ our work, instead of measuring them. Follow the targets and all you get is numbers, and you can bet that numbers don’t go all the way towards solving what has become the ‘diversity problem.’

To understand the problem a little better, you have to go back to when diversity started to become something that affected the police. It goes without saying that the police had entrenched practices that actually ironed out diversity for decades. Recruitment was very prescriptive, with height measures, gender disparity, and even lifestyle and income checks. There were restrictions on where to live and who to marry, where you could socialise and who with, and home visits from senior officers to check on the ‘decency and fit’ of the candidate’s social background. To see how far we have come, some of these were still in place when I joined (approximately 15 years ago).

So in context, we have come a long way.

There is some great research starting to emerge around measuring fairness in police forces, focusing in on race and background. One study in particular shows that senior black officers in the US have differing values to the rank and file, and this can result in conflict internally. In other words, diversity isn’t all rosy. Diversity can lead to conflict in the workplace, but this in itself can lead to improved decision making. Tension and disagreement in these areas force us to consider alternative viewpoints – a potent weapon in combatting groupthink (see Maskaly et al. (2017) for further).

The riots in the early 80’s, along with Orgreave, Stephen Lawrence, and Hillsborough began to expose some real issues with these methods of recruitment. They illustrated how tight the culture became, how much dissent was discouraged, and how pockets of really poor attitudes and behaviours were left unchallenged. Some of the recommendations from the Scarman and Macpherson reports addressed the uniformity of the police workforce – quite rightly pointing out that diverse views and thinking were distinctly unwelcome.

New Public Management then stepped up to the plate, and after a lack of progress on the recommendations, they obliged with a collection of targets and measures that began to represent diversity. Throw in performance culture, and everything that went along with it including bonuses and competition in the workplace, and a police officers job was reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet.

Diversity can not be about numbers on a spreadsheet. They may be a measure, something we consider that points us in the right direction or gives us extra information, but let’s be clear, diversity is not percentages.

My research indicated that during a single recruitment in Lancashire, 93% of recruits already knew someone in the police. Most of this 93% were friends and acquaintances. We know that jobs can often be spread through word of mouth, but it’s not just the awareness of the jobs, it’s the information that assists the applicant with choosing to apply and taking part in the recruitment process. If our current officers are helping their friends and associates out, does that make the majority of our successful applicants friends and acquaintances of the current demographic of police officers? My research would indicate that it does… And that has important ramifications for what we consider to be diversity inside our forces now.

Firstly, candidates who have no contact with existing officers are immediately, and unconsciously disadvantaged by the existence of a social support network that they can’t access. Our internal staff support external ones, and obviously these tend to be people that they know or share time with. Other research tells us that we are likely to socialise and spend time with those that have similar values and world views to ourselves – if you do the math, it tells us that we may be unconsciously closing the door on external applicants, especially ones whose communities do not tend to have much police contact. (There is supporting theory in Homophily and Ethnocentricity for further reading in this area.)

Secondly, our culture is wired to do this ^^^^^ We tend to favour internal routes to selection. If you want to be a cop, become a PCSO, a Special, a Comms operator, or a Custody Detention Officer, and the work your way in. I realise that this is tradition and that it pays to have established career pathways, but more complicated questions around these traditional routes must be considered. If we are constantly recruiting from our comms room, what is the knock on impact on resilience in there? How do we pay for the constantly rotating training and development? How do we develop deep skills and consistency?

Moreover, on the above point, they are very different jobs. I have worked with PCSO’s who weren’t really interested in community work, but instead were there to gather experience to become an officer. Does this really lend itself to problem solving and long-term relationship building?

And thirdly, we spend so much time talking about how our recruitment processes filter out 3% of candidates from other backgrounds at point B, but rarely do we actually address the underlying problem of a lack of applications in the first place. If we spend a huge amount of money ironing out processes and ensuring absolute proportionality in our operational exercises, what is the knock on effect if only 4% of applications are from diverse backgrounds in the first place? We may not ‘need’ to put effort into gathering more applications because each post is way over-subscribed, some have over 20 applications per officer role in some recruitment windows. Why on earth would anyone want more? Well, the answer to this question depends on whether it’s worth considering the value that could be brought to our constabularies by those that do not apply/are not aware/have no existing social connections with current officers?

 

Towards an evidence informed approach

Having spent a lot of time in this area of research, what can we actually do to make a real difference? The first is to take note of Einstein:

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We really need to step away from numbers as an outcome, and treat them as a measure. We need to address underlying issues with our recruitment strategies, such as the fact that the majority of applicants find out about constabulary jobs via word of mouth or by religiously checking the website. How do we reach those people who are fantastic advocates for their communities, but simply have never considered becoming a police officer because they’ve never been exposed to the profession?

The answer to this question lies in focused community engagement; the building of relationships in communities where we have little to no representation. Our staff and officers are role models, they are just often sucked into the system, with little time to invest in doing the more traditional police work of building relationships and cultivating trust. In many ways, this is actually a part of the evidence for the existence of neighbourhood policing. Building relationships in the community will create social connections, and these may lead to new lines of recruitment and new flows of information. In other words, if social connections are important for recruitment, let’s go and make some where we need them.

How do we look to address the value of information passed between our existing employees and potential candidates? This innocent practice has great influence on who becomes a police officer, and whilst changes here may be culturally painful, it may be time to totally rethink how we approach recruitment. The more we propagate existing recruitment strategies, the more value there is in knowing someone who has been through it.

And finally, we have to look beyond the numbers and look instead at why the numbers are there. The original problems identified in the Scarman and Macpherson reports centred around legitimacy; they were about fair treatment and mutual respect. They were about procedural justice, improved connection and communications between the police and our diverse communities, and they were about dialogue – making sure that forces actually listen.

We see departments up and down the country chasing increased percentages, whilst underlying causes like unconscious bias are left relatively unaddressed. We remove internal groupthink from the debate, and instead focus on whether we hit 6% or 7% in the latest round of recruitment. And finally, we fail to consider what success looks like. When we hit 7% do we go back and pretend like the ever-present issue of diversity is done and dusted?

The issues above are being addressed by the College of Policing and HMIC, and despite being told on many occasions that they speak a different language, they are persisting with issues such as unconscious bias and valuing difference. The problem is that these haven’t yet been linked up in the policing psyche. Diversity is about percentages? No, it’s legitimacy. It’s always been about legitimacy. It is what it was about when the conversation started, and despite being rudely hijacked by New Public Management techniques, it is still about that today.

It’s time to reset what we mean by diversity, and stop relegating important underlying causes like unconscious bias to the back burner, whilst we recruit from our own social connections and focus on spreadsheets. Diversity is far wider than numbers and it always has been, can we focus on what matters, instead of what’s counted?

Direct Entry

This is difficult for me to write. I know that many officers will read this and feel angry. If you mention direct entry (DE from here on in), there is an automatic and visceral dislike that shows itself, even when some try to conceal it. Not everyone feels like this, but I would say that this is a majority opinion – and one that I held myself several years ago.

There are some great people in the police service, and I think they show a great deal of integrity when they say to direct entrants, ‘I don’t believe in the scheme, but I will support you wherever I can, because I would do that for everyone else.’ It’s difficult to intensely dislike a particular initiative, but then actively support the recruits that become the result of it. It takes courage, resilience, and an ounce of critical thinking that allows judgement to be suspended whilst a level of support is provided.

This aside, I’ve also heard stories of a physical lack of support for these recruits, and this includes those that enter the service under Police Now. This sets up the schemes to fail, as very tight cultures (and the police has a tight culture) can reject quite violently those that don’t ‘belong.’

Why is this ‘belonging’ so strong? There are many different reasons, but several really strong ones, and before I start to talk about them, let’s just go over the ‘evidence base’ conversation.

This is actually happening:

We don’t believe in this fad that is evidence based policing and to be honest we can function without it. We don’t need academics telling us how to do our job. It will pass.

*DE introduced*

Where’s the evidence base for this?”

And this is also bolstered by:

Direct Entry is progressive, and we can bring in new ideas and approaches using this new approach to recruitment.” With regards to Inspectors and Superintendents.

*DE introduced at chief constable level*

Where’s the evidence base for this?

I don’t want to cast judgement on this. What I can see though, is a desire for the rationale behind the changes that are happening, and I think that desire is justified, rational and deserved. Procedural Justice Theory tells us that the outcome of a decision is often not as important as the understanding behind the process of coming to it, and the sharing of the rationale and the ‘evidence’ behind it. Maybe officers and staff would be more accepting of these changes, if the rationale for them was shared and discussed in an open way?

So, why do we have Direct Entry? I can’t tell you what was in the minds of the people making the decisions, but I can possibly discuss some of the structural issues behind its introduction. Maybe this will help with the rationale part.

Police Employment

The police have a very strange employment arrangement. You can’t make a police officer redundant. When I speak to people outside the police, this is the strangest thing to them. Short of gross misconduct, illness or injury, or committing crime, police officers are set for their career, which is now up to and over 38 years long. If you are a cop and this is your normal, realise that this is anything but normal for everyone who isn’t a police officer.

This employment arrangement makes for organisations that have very static work forces (backed up by official turnover rates). When austerity hit, forces up and down the country had to cut higher percentages of police staff, because they couldn’t lose officers. Officers in turn often filled staff positions, as the function that was performed by those staff members was still essential. Officers are often a lot more expensive than staff, so this made for quite nasty efficiency figures in some positions.

Now, movement between forces is also quite rare. Transferee programs are often in short supply and carry low numbers. Freeze recruitment through austerity and this means even less movement. You are left with relatively large organisations that carry the same staff, for many, many years, up the same linear rank progression, who rarely leave their constabularies, and rarely receive perspective from other forces. To compound this, outsiders who transfer in are often returned to uniform constable and their prior experience disregarded – ultimately having to start again. Relationships are very, very important in this environment, you are working with the same people in the same surroundings for decades.

Leadership

What does the above tell us about the physical structure of police forces? It tells us that they are insular. And when you look at how officers learn to lead within these structures, this insularity is further reinforced.

Within the UK policing landscape, there is an under-developed leadership infrastructure. The MOD, the NHS, and Education all have leadership programs that are decades old, with bespoke academies, programs and career pathways. Despite the odd course, and a singular fast track, or high potential track that used to carry around 50 officers nationally per year, police leaders (by and large) learn to be leaders from current police leaders. And until you hit senior level (NPCC), the leaders you learn from are usually within your own constabulary.

If you also look at the custom and practice around police promotion, you will see that current leaders always hold the keys to the promotion of future leaders. This even includes ‘allowing’ officers to apply for promotion, and when you look into the training required for this responsibility, in most forces there isn’t any – at all. This is reversed at PNAC (Police National Assessment Center), when often for the first time candidates are externally evaluated – anyone looking at this structure from the outside could understand why PNAC was such a big deal, it’s often the first time that police leaders step outside their local leadership support systems. You need personal backing to apply for this too.

Now, if you couple the above paragraphs with the research around unconscious bias, which illustrates that we show preference for those that share the same values, opinions and behaviors as us, it creates a system for the propagation of leadership that looks like the current leadership… Without external influence, professionalisation in selection, or checks and balances, people will naturally gravitate towards supporting those that behave as they do, it’s what our brains do, it makes us comfortable.

In private industry, tight groupthink leads to organisational failure. Competition keeps organisations innovating and changing, or they are quickly left behind and become forgotten. There is a constant pressure to learn. In public service the operating model is very different, but the pressure to push to change is absent, there are no boards of shareholders eager for profit. There is a complex accountability system, and it does have the power to drive reform, but events that are playing out now show how difficult this system is to navigate.

Recruitment

My research (blog here) illustrates that there is a lot more chance of success in the police recruitment system, if you already have police connections. I am currently studying social isolation in policing for my PhD, looking specifically at the range and number of external connections that officers keep following joining the police. I can’t presume the findings of my research, but I can discuss my own experience.

I lost many of my external friends when I joined the police. A small number happened quickly, but the majority were lost over time to the shifts, and the cancelled rest days, and the tiredness, and ultimately the values that I had to uphold. Anecdotally, this is normal for many officers, and the job itself often becomes a ‘family business.’ I have worked with many officers who have had parents, siblings, or extended family in the job. The camaraderie, the support networks and the friendships made because of this are – I would think – unique, and very, very strong.

If you put the above two paragraphs together, the end conclusion is that recruits often know police officers, and police officers often have quite tight social circles. This can lead to a tight recruitment pool, that we may struggle to break due to the passing of information between tight social circles that sustain themselves passed the point of police recruitment.

 

Putting it together

When people ask for an evidence base for direct entry, one only has to look at the systems that maintain the profession. We have special employment conditions that ensure the longevity and stability of our workforce. Leadership within the workforce is developed through contact and development with the current leadership, rather than any external exposure or formalised career pathways/structure. And our recruitment is sustained by the tight social circles that we maintain through the nature of the work that we do.

It’s a potent combination of factors that create a unique brand of insularity.

Direct Entry directly challenges the above structure, ultimately breaking the insularity by injecting new experience into the leadership structure. All of the ‘learned’ leadership is challenged by an approach that is distinctly un-police – the intended result being forces that approach policing in a different way. This ‘different way’ may be down to behaviours, for instance the hiring of leaders who were not developed and created through a strict command and control based hierarchy, different world views, or it may be down to bringing in new skills and capabilities. The aim is to ‘add to’ the current police leadership offering, not ‘subtract from.’

Aside from all of the above discussion, it is very, very important for serving officers and staff to realise that their ‘normal’ is far from normal. Direct Entry isn’t direct entry in other organisations, it’s just normal. People can re-train and apply for any job they want, at any level of experience that they want. It doesn’t mean that they will be successful, but it does mean that the opportunities for change and external challenge are open. Continuing professional development allows access to progression externally, and this weakens the strength of existing social ties and the gathering of ‘backers’ to traverse gateways that just aren’t there (or are considerably weaker) outside the police.

Police rank is a structure peculiar to the police, and the way that we see the world is filtered through the epaulettes that people wear. Direct Entry challenges this construct, and linear progression, and time served, and those are 3 incredibly established pillars of our culture. The challenge to these structures challenges the way we see the world, and that results in that pit of the stomach unease when schemes like these are discussed.

 

Concerns

There are some fundamental philosophies behind direct entry that bother me. I’m passed the concerns of safety or risk, I just can’t see any officer accepting an order that they think is unsafe without challenge. Direct entrants don’t exist in a vacuum, and there is a large system around them that they will learn from quickly, and also receive feedback from. I also understand that bringing in new experience, world views and skills can benefit policing. There is a fundamental assumption however, that the employment market is one of the silver bullets for culture change – and I think this under-estimates the efforts needed to bring about impactful reform.

I think Direct Entry challenges the police world view, I think it exposes the police to elements of competition and challenge that have been present in almost every other labour market for decades. But, I don’t think that the small numbers on the scheme can overcome the leviathan of stability that represents police culture. This puts the entrants at risk, but it doesn’t presume failure. With significant resilience and internal support, candidates can do great things, and I personally hope that they do.

There is something distinctly neoliberal about direct entry: Expose the police forces to the labour market, and the market will provide the reform through increased competition…’ There’s a big assumption there, a BIG one. It presumes that external candidates will have the influence to really break that insularity. It is possible, that the tight insularity – which let’s face it, may actually be necessary for mutual support and wellbeing – will simply absorb Direct Entrants into the functioning system, with all those external skills and capabilities rendered powerless by social structures that are hugely entrenched.

 

The Future

I would point out at this point, that insularity does not equal poor performance. But, there are some ideological discussions to have here. ‘The Police are the Public, Public are the Police’ perspective would state that in the case of employment – the police are very much the police. Again, this doesn’t presume that we do a better or worse job, but in terms of some of the fundamental bed rocks of UK policing, we are out of kilter with the public’s employment model. Who’s to say this isn’t necessary? Not I, but I would open my mind to having it tested – which is essentially what DE is.

I wrote this blog because I understand that people will want simple answers to why direct entry is here. There isn’t a simple answer. There are reports into senior officer misconduct, several notable policing scandals, poor diversity, and an employment and leadership system that develops very tight views of the world. All of these contribute  to the environment that has led to changing the structure of police employment.

Can we prove it ‘works’ before doing it? Well, this is a good question, but the answer is a resounding no. You can’t prove anything like this works without doing it. There is no test constabulary, where we can drop external candidates in and see how they perform in comparison to control groups. There is also an abundance of evidence that it works elsewhere, with forces across Europe and the world using their version of direct entry over many years. Let’s face it, it is the employment model used by almost every other occupation, so it is highly likely that it will ‘work’ to some degree. However, the evidence for this change doesn’t lie in whether they work, but why it was considered that this change was necessary.

The question should not be, where is the evidence that this will work, it should be what was the evidence that led to this becoming an option. This in turn leads to questions about whether DE will go some way to solving, or contributing to wider solutions that work towards mitigating them. Will it work? Only time will tell, but I do know that the louder the service protests the changes, the more it evidences the insularity. There’s a fine line between appearing defensive and insular, and raising worthy concerns whilst keeping an open mind.

I for one don’t think this protest will stop, slow or even affect the instigation of further reforms in this area – only very different approaches to the way we police, and a concerted effort to reform ourselves may do that…

Braveheart Leadership: “Freedom” or shackle?

I’ve been working in the police leadership arena for several years now. It’s been an interesting time, and mixed in with several jobs at the College of Policing and now HMIC. I’ve had the privilege to look at what the future of leadership for the police may look like, and that’s from a structural, developmental and behavioural point of view. I must have had hundreds of conversations with frontline officers, academics, and senior leaders about what leadership means to them, and there’s a common theme: Leadership in the police conjures up a very specific image in people’s heads, and this image presents both challenges and opportunities.

I have had the chance to take several training sessions over the previous weeks, and I asked the attendees:

“When I say ‘Police Leadership’ to you, what image does it create?”

The answers were as follows:

  • Male
  • Late 40’s, early 50’s
  • White
  • Has ‘presence’
  • Authoritative
  • Imposing
  • Commanding
  • Confident
  • Makes decisions quickly
  • Tall
  • Athletic build

There were some more, but these formed the general themes across most of the sessions. Now, the interesting thing to me, was the level of consistency that these answers seemed to generate. It suggests that we all may have a very strong image of what a police leader is in our heads.

A good friend who also works as an Insp in a county force discusses this as ‘Braveheart Leadership,’ and he allies it with strong command, charisma, and courage. He also talks about going, ‘over the top,’ showing some dash and some daring. He’s an introvert, and often points out the war stories that people tell, pointing out that it is often those with loud, authoritative voices and quick decision making that seem to find favour, whilst those more thoughtful and quiet seem to be given the back seat repeatedly. You could say that the media has a pretty strong hand in developing this idea too, and if you look at the content of most ‘fly on the wall’ police documentaries, there’s a type of work that seems to grab the headlines and the camera – and it’s not being sat with a vulnerable 15 year old in hospital awaiting a mental health assessment.

As an officer who has sat through many ‘refs’ (that’s a meal break for those not in the police) breaks with my team, the amount of ‘war stories’ that officers tell increase over level of service. Discussions of big public order incidents, or frightening confrontation and fighting feature regularly, as do discussions of how particular incidents containing conflict shape the way that we view the world. ‘Us vs. Them,’ ‘Holding the Line,’ and being ‘up for it‘ or ‘handy’ in terms of handling conflict are common references/ideas, drawing influence from the military and times of war.

I don’t think this is too much of a suprise though, it’s very emotional when you’re in a physical fight. It’s scary, it can obviously affect your ability to work, and the thought of how close your back up is, is always at the forefront of your mind. If I could guess (and I worked Blackpool Central on Response for many years and have seen my own fair share of conflict), I’d say that these incidents build up a fairly solid veneer of trauma in most officers, so it doesn’t surprise me that this veneer shapes the way that we view and see the world – and leadership in particular.

It is also worth thinking about how the work that officers do has shaped their idea of leadership over the last few decades. We have had a mixture of New Public Management Leaders who discuss ‘the business,’ our ‘resources,’ and lots of things to do with ‘demand management.’ These terms have been reinforced by ‘war cabinet’ meetings that are sometimes still ongoing daily in some forces, where how many burglaries we had the night before need an immediate ‘action plan‘ and ‘diversion of resources‘ to ‘maximise potential detection probability…

This type of work lends itself to command based leadership. Operational decisions are made in the short term, to short term spikes in crime. Long term decision making takes a back burner, as do strategic infrastructure things like IT and our estates. The end result is an environment where a particular ‘kind’ of leader can thrive. It’s group think at its best:

groupthink-400x280

credit: http://leaderslab.co.uk/

So, as we speculate on what may ’cause’ our idea of leadership to emerge, it’s time to put that idea into the current context of what’s going on around us.

The Police are seeing huge changes in demand, facilitated by an external environment that is changing so rapidly that even experts in technology can’t keep up. The internet is changing the way that we investigate even the most basic of crimes, not because it is an ‘essential part of any investigation,’ but simply because it is now an essential part of life. Across the Western world, crime types are changing. Traditional property based crime is falling, and we are seeing the way we view and deal with vulnerability revolutionised. These changes are causing huge pressure on the frontline, and in the context of austerity, they are compounded to the point of making officers feel almost left behind.

If I were to point towards where the police need significant development, I wouldn’t be pointing towards places that other people can’t see or feel when they are involved in police work. We will still face public disorder, burglary and assaults as a matter of course, but these will be inter-mixed with child protection, mental health and social deprivation. No matter how much these areas of work present as alien to officers long in the tooth or favouring traditional types of police work, they are here, and we must adapt – because the police do not dictate the requests that the public/society make of them.

Now I’m not saying that drawing a defining line defining what we do isn’t useful, I’m just saying that that line will not be where we may prefer it to be. The problems facing police are complicated, and they require fundamental changes in infrastructure of forces and re-investment in areas previously left untouched. I remember being sat around a table at a conference with a chief officer, who stated, ‘We don’t have the resources, I’m not even turning that stone over…‘ Now whilst this may be admirable in terms of protecting current levels of service, it presents an awful strategic approach, mired in the short term. Basically, ignoring hidden demand will only bite you in places like officer wellbeing and the ability to respond to 999 calls within a few years – ignore it and the short term benefit will be greatly outweighed by the long term cost – especially in terms of looking after our officers.

So what does all this mean for police leadership?

Whilst we may still need our police leaders to protect the ability to respond to public disorder and traditional crime, we also need leaders who will look to the future and make difficult decisions about what a force actually looks like and how it responds to varying calls demanding lots of differing levels of service. Demanding omni-competence of our officers may mean that we create a perfect storm of pressure, where every officer has to be everything, to everyone. This is not sustainable, and we have to recognise that our people have strengths in particular areas, where they may serve the public at their best. Not everyone on a team can be a digital investigation whizz or a vulnerability expert, just as not everyone can be public order die hard or a ‘handy‘ thief catcher. This is the start of acknowledging that we need to be more sophisticated in the way that we send our officers to jobs, and ensure that we have high levels of skill in particular people, rather than average levels of skill across the board.

We need a selection of leaders with different strengths, some of whom can manage difficult partnerships with IT companies over time, developing tools that mix operational need with managing public value. We need leaders who can work in long term collaborations, developing approaches to vulnerability that concentrate on prevention and protection, not just catch and convict. We need leaders who can spot the changes on the horizon and put in places long term plans to transform police organisations into something that roll with the times, rather than respond in atrophy to demand that we saw coming a long time ago. And, we need leaders who can confidently lead large incidents of public disorder, and command critical incidents with skill and care.

If you can find me a leader that can do all that with equal skill and ability, I shall eat my hat at 2am refs… So if we bear the difference that we need in mind, it makes sense that we consider how we select and develop our leaders now?

We still need command based leadership. We still need levels of process and management. We still need leaders who can work with others and plan for the long term, chipping away at entrenched societal problems. The trick – and not just for constabularies – is to recognise that the stories that we tell, and the stories that we hear, may not be the stories that we need. The romantic idea of the police leader, isn’t in kilter with the forces that we now need, and at its basest level this is abundantly clear just from a diversity point of view. Taking it past protected characteristics though, and into diversity of thought, what we really need is an acknowledgement that the ‘stories’ that create our idea of what a leader is may actually be creating issues for our organisations long term.

I spoke with an officer during a lecture several weeks ago, and the discussion captured some of the risks around the impact of our ‘idea’ of leadership:

I met one of those Direct Entry Supers the other day. They just… didn’t come across as a leader. She was small, not imposing, there was no… gravitas...” (paraphrased)

We spoke about this comment in the lecture, and as we delve under the surface of ‘gravitas’, we arrived at the current ‘idea’ of policing leadership. That idea had caused a judgement to be made in a moment of interaction – something that we cops are very good at. It illustrates how our ‘idea’ of leadership informs our judgements about what we are looking for – whether the organisation physically needs it or not.

Each constabulary will have its own idea of what a leader is. This is fine, as long as that idea is sufficiently wide enough to meet the service that we propose to provide. It’s no longer good enough to rely on a ‘type’ or an ‘idea’ of leadership that only fits times of crisis – mainly because over 95% of what we do doesn’t function in crisis. We have moved on from that, and the service we offer is wider and more complicated than ever envisioned even a decade ago.

It’s time to develop what we think of as leadership within our constabularies. Allowing leadership to become a particular ‘thing,’ or come from a ‘particular pathway’ can cause problems for the way that we approach even the most seemingly insignificant call. In fact, as we delve into many incidents that we haven’t previously considered to be ‘police work,’ we see shoots of warning that indicate on repeat offending – sometimes of the most serious kind. If we really want to get serious about developing our understanding, we need to change the idea of what constitues a police leader, and if you were going to ask me my advice on how to start to ‘open’ the idea up, the first thing I would say, is:

Change the stories. They are more powerful than you think.

Identity challenges ahead…

I’m beginning to do some heavy reading about the way that we interact and ‘fit in’ with each other as the basis for my next stint of study. Having been a police officer for quite a while now, questions of how I fit into the organisation have persisted since I first joined. They are still there, and the questions around what ‘fit’ means, and what it does and doesn’t do, to those who may or may not ‘fit’ has driven this personal area of research for me. This is just me sharing some thoughts on the changes in perception of policing off the back of my reading.  

 

My last blog here discusses the fact that the service may be selecting new recruits that have active exposure to the organisation. So, the bulk of the recruits come from specials, PCSO’s, staff and people who already personally know police officers. The research already done into this suggests that a lot of what is going on is just information sharing between people who know each other, but this information holds value in the recruitment processes, and in turn the use of this information then provides overly robust competition for those without it.

So… an example. Many people in my family for their view about policing by what is portrayed on television and online. They are always happy to discuss the latest episode of ‘Interceptors’, and are often quite disappointed when I mention that fact that that work represents a very small part of policing. The ‘cops and robbers’ story is one that as a society we know well. Films, TV, books and online communities discuss the chasing and catching of bad guys like it’s the holy grail of policing, indeed, a lot of officers feel that way too.


When I speak with my family, I often break this perception, and discuss how the work actually is. It isn’t like those programs for most of the time. In fact, most of the time its quite tough emotionally. But those 24 hour shifts have their benefits and it’s not as scary as people think, and you always have back up close by and an emergency button, and you’re one big team and you look after each other… this conversation is important,  because it breaks their preconceptions about the job, and ultimately it informs on whether they would ever see it as a potential career. Without me having this discussion, it’s all about fast cars, fighting, and kicking doors in.

The research tells us that a lot of police work is actually very boring and party to high levels of emotional labour. What does this mean? It means that for every bad guy that gets caught, there are hours of generally pointless patrol/graft and lots of time spent dealing with upset victims of crime and administering process. That 5% that you see on TV, that reinforces and develops a lot of the police ‘story’, the cops and robbers, the heroes and villains,  the romantic saviour and macho fairytale warriors… all of that is woven into the fabric of society, and people believe it to be true.

This cops and robbers theme is apparent within policing. Commendations go to people fighting with violent and unpredictable people, people risking their lives, and those who deal with horrific calamities. All of these people, are of course especially deserving. What you rarely see, is the reward for exceptional empathy with a traumatised victim, a lengthy and protracted partnership initiative, or the dogged pursuance of that case that everyone thought was dead. The balance is out. The vast majority of very difficult emotional work is under valued and under rewarded, whilst the slight minority of bravery based incidents receive worthy plaudits.

Now, I shall repeat, as often is the case when these blogs are read, someone caught up firmly in the cops and robbers story will say this is about belittling bravery or some other such nonsense. I’m not decrying what we do, I’m decrying what we don’t do.

The future of policing is not policing as we know it. The fairytale version of crime is diminishing, along with the crime types that propagate it. More exposure was given to projects/comments about burglary in the media this last week than the rise of modern slavery and hate crime. We like what we know, and we know cops and robbers. Crime is becoming more complex, the emotional labour for officers is rising, and people who are sold on the story of catching bad guys and keeping people safe see the rising tide of mental health incidents, social problems, and complexity approaching. It’s not comfortable.

So what about cultural fit? The service has to begin asking itself if its image reflects its future demand. Are people joining the service ready for the content of the work that they will be facing? How are we changing what we do to meet these changing needs? What are we doing to build a ‘new story’ about policing? Where in the media is the team following a community officer as they work through the very difficult social problems that they deal with? Where is the story of broken police officers caught under high emotional strain, and receiving amazing support from the organisations where they work? Where is the story of accepting new skills and backgrounds into the service without constant references back to a time when we were hiding in back alleys and catching people carrying swag bags? Where are the stories about supporting and developing and empowering the vulnerable?

I know that people don’t like change. Right now we are in the middle of a seismic period of it. Austerity has ripped capacity away to the brink of reactive capability. Our terms are creaking across the service, from back office to frontline blue light response. One thing hasn’t changed though, and that is the story that accompanies policing. There’s a big question here around cultural fit… what does and did that ‘fit’ look like? How has it been propagated? What amazing things did it bring to our workforce?

But with changing demand looming (sorry, it’s not looming, it’s here), what would a change in ‘fit’ look like? What would it require? How will people wedded to the story of cops and robbers face that impending change? How do we change the perception of those attracted to or who are joining the service now? How do we have that conversation as a profession? How would we select for a new ‘fit’? Do we need one?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. I just know that the present service is creaking, whilst in many cases firmly wedded to a demand profile that is changing rapidly.

Is the answer that there is no ‘fit’ anymore? Or is it that there is a new one being developed? Whatever the answer to these questions, the police identity is in turmoil and settling upon a direction (whatever that may be) will require huge cultural shift efforts from forces up and down the country. This is against the backdrop of hugely reduced capacity, creating stress and rising threats to officers’ mental health.

Whether cops and robbers, or protectors and guardians, the future predicts an identity conflict. Whatever the eventual answer, the journey through that conflict represents a huge challenge…

Measuring Leadership: the Holy Grail?

There’s quite a bit of research in this blog, but it’s not cited. If you want references or want to search for the sources of the data, drop me a line and I will do my best to find them for you. As usual, there’s quite a bit of culture stuff in here, but it wouldn’t be one of my blogs without that 🙂

 

I started working on Leadership specifically on the College of Police Leadership Review. Prior to that I studied it at Warwick for two years, and I’m back into studying it now. It’s a complex subject, and usually unfairly reduced to soundbites and catchphrases that people throw around with abandon. Classics like:

“Many hands make light work.”

Go hand in hand with:

“Too many cooks spoil the broth.”

It doesn’t take rocket science to realise that these clash quite significantly. This is true of much of the leadership literature. You can find books about keeping ‘grip and control,’ and place them directly across from books by leadership consultants/gurus like Simon Sinek. Sinek will talk about empowerment, and finding meaning, whereas the grip and control gurus will talk about managing process and keeping tight audit.

This clash makes the whole area of study contradictory, and there are few studies that actually begin to discuss how complicated the area of leadership actually is. When you dig underneath the myriad of discussions about leadership ‘styles,’ you realise that they are collections of lists of behaviours. These behaviours have been found to hold value when researched in particular contexts, but we don’t actually know if it was the context that made them successful, or the behaviours themselves…

Let me give you an example.

An organisation calls the researchers in because the staff survey says that working in that company at that time is pretty awful. They may like the work, but they don’t like the leaders, and they certainly don’t like the environment and culture. Unsurprisingly, a particular set of behaviours is absent, and the workplace needs them to begin to function in a balanced way. So… a really heavy command and control culture, is likely to need empowerment and far more communication up and down. The company needs them, because there has been a culture in place for some time, and that culture has self propagated behaviours in order to function in a particular way.

This happened with policing during the performance era. Performance became the by-word for success, and if you delivered performance you were held to be a ‘good’ leader. Those leaders then entered into positions where they got to select other future leaders, and as performance had always been important to them, it became important to other aspiring leaders too. When this begins to happen, you see a distillation of behaviour. It becomes palpably strong, almost themic.

The trouble is, the police is a pretty diverse organisation in terms of function. You really shouldn’t have command and control permeating through every department in the police, it’s damaging. You need different leadership styles in neighbourhood policing, CID, community cohesion etc.. As Command and Control remained the dominant leadership style, so it did grow into an unstoppable force, and it still remains immensely important in policing to this day.

Command and Control is a controversial subject. Some leaders will swear by it. They call it by all sorts of names and usually attach ‘Operationally Credible’ to its use. The demand stats show that the kind of work that needs it is actually really, really rare, yet it’s sticking around with a vengeance up and down the country. There are good reasons for this, as if the Command had been better at high profile incidents where there has been loss of life, the outcome may have been very different. If you screw up when you need it, the outcomes can be pretty atrocious.

So, what have we got so far? We have the need for Command and Control in fairly rare incidents, but it is of very high importance. Do we need it everywhere? Clearly not. Yet, as with many things in policing, the broad brush is applied, and usually all candidates will have to prove their ability in Command and Control during promotion processes etc.. This results in a very specific set of behaviours being applied as a filter through to areas of leadership.

And, I need to add some comment in here about measuring Command and Control (or investigation, or road traffic incidents etc. – whatever you choose to measure as a filter). If you are being measured on whether you reach the same decisions, as those that designed the exercises, then you are only being measured for whether you think like them. This is designed in group-think. Decisions have to be able to be made that are different to the ‘accepted solutions,’ whilst you measure how candidates got there, instead of where they ended up (this is a whole other blog!). This is Diversity of Thought, and you can allow for it in measuring candidates.

Want to be a leader in the police? Best be able to use Command and Control – and that’s OK, because we need it (in places).

Now, some people are not good at Command and Control. They have a different skill set, and may instead prefer leadership styles such as Collective Leadership.

What happens if someone who prefers Collective Leadership gets put through the Command and Control Assessment? Well, they won’t perform nearly as well as those who are naturally really good at Command and Control. In fact, they may be filtered out here, and all because their strengths in leadership lie elsewhere. It’s kind of like a control mechanism for a particular kind of leadership. It also significantly disadvantages leaders from departments who need a different leadership style – such as people with skills in forming partnerships and collaborations.

It establishes a behavioural hierarchy, and it attaches status to particular behaviours. If you don’t see assessments during promotion that look at problem solving, you won’t attach value to the behaviours that go along with good problem solving. It’s strange that you will see lots and lots of examples on application forms that detail dealing with public disorder or match command, but you rarely see them discussing forming strong links with local charities…

Back to measurement.

Hopefully the example discussed above sets a scene. If you have a strong kind of leadership in place, that leadership will often set the bar for selecting other leadership, and unless they are enlightened enough to look for challenge in their future leaders, they will select people that they are comfortable with. There’s loads of research on this, but here is a very quick run down on how good unstructured interviews in isolation are for selecting future leaders (varies depending on the study, but by and large, they are rubbish). Add to this the other Police favourite of the application form, and you have a combination that looks like this:

  1. Exercises that create behavioural bias in selection (such as command and control scenarios as a filtering method).
  2. Use of application forms (pretty awful in terms of reliability and validity).
  3. Unstructured interviews (again, fairly awful in terms of reliability and validity due to the fact that they are so subject to bias).

The resulting picture basically shows (and if you want a run down on how good particular exercises are for selecting good leaders, have a look here) that the traditional methods for leadership selection within constabularies up and down the country, are riven with bias, unreliable, and often invalid. These are technical assessment/selection terms for being poor quality.

A quick example of the hierarchy of exercises:

validity

So, I hear you asking, if the current methods are pretty awful, what can you replace them with? Well, actually there’s all sorts of things that we could do better, but as an ex senior officer pointed out on Twitter last week, Assessment Centres were stopped in many constabularies because the senior leaders didn’t like the outcome of them. This stands to reason, because assessment centers often look at the whole of the candidate, and single exercise filters are forgone for several exercises that measure the a much wider picture. This means that some Command and Control heavy senior leaders, will be presented with successful candidates that do not have anywhere near as much of a Command and Control outlook as they do – thus putting them out of favour, or making it very difficult for them to succeed.

In short, solid assessment centers with a wide array of exercises, are more likely (certainly not certain) to measure wider communication skills, the ability to process information, and the ability to display empathy/values. They are more likely to select good leaders.

We can go even further into the building blocks of leadership, and look instead at things such as intelligence, emotional intelligence (how we interact with other’s and our own emotions) and cognitive load (how much info you can take in and process). This is relatively simple stuff, but it removes the behavioural bias that is built into many of our internal selection processes now. Serving cops often don’t like discussing measuring intelligence, they also dislike written tests, and they hate psychometric tests (I have direct experience of the use of all of these methods). All of these are far more valid and reliable than current methods though. How do we know? Huge amounts of research tells us, and it tells us convincingly too.

So what gets in the way of better selection and measurement? Well, the truth lies in something that is called ‘face validity.’ This is fancy wordage for how the culture sees the exercises. If the candidates do not feel that the test measures ‘being a good cop,’ then the outcome of the results will often not be trusted or given any value. This makes improving selection fraught with leadership challenges. If you introduce psychometrics as a leg of your assessment center, there will likely be a backlash by candidates who will tell you that they mean nothing and are a total waste of time. The research tells us different, but the people’s perceptions of doing the tests are clearly immensely important.

So, how do we navigate such a complicated landscape? The answer? With great difficulty and lots of iterative work – this means that things will fail, you learn from them, try it again with tweaks, and then learn from the second application, and so on. Eventually you end up with a product that the culture has begun to accept, that does a far more improved job of unbiased selection.

 

If you made it through to here, then you are doing well, because that was quite dry. What are the take-homes from the above?

  • The current way we select people internally is hugely prone to bias and unreliability.
  • There are many better ways to select out there that have been researched and tested repeatedly.
  • These methods may be really counter-culture, so implementing them may be very difficult.

So, finally, what about the ‘Holy Grail?’ Well, nothing is perfect, you could search for the ‘right’ kind of selection exercises for a millennia. Will we ever find them? I don’t think so. I don’t think that searching for the perfect set of selection exercises is actually a worthwhile exercise. Why? Because it is all contextual. It depends on your environment, on your people, and on your culture. What is true however, is that better selection is not only important in order to find future leaders, it’s also immensely important to find different leaders. We will never find the hallowed ‘diversity of thought’ without doing a full reset of how we select our future leaders. Behavioural filters are used almost everywhere, and quite simply, they institutionalise behavioural bias. They’ve got to go, or become part of a suite of exercises that sees far more of the candidate. This means going from a past-the-post system (where each exercise is an opportunity to filter candidates) to a holistic system where a selection of exercises are used to see a wider picture of the candidate as a whole.

Dilbert (as usual) captures the bias that needs to disappear very nicely:

DIlbert-Leadership

Nothing like a good challenge 🙂

Above all, there’s a duty to the people that work in the police, and to the public, to use the best methods that we can with the resources we have. That way, the likelihood of selecting the best leaders for the future will improve, despite the heavy cultural challenges that we may face. And just to finish… the above methods that have been discussed, don’t bring in the Values that put those candidates in the chairs in the first place, and if you don’t measure for that, it just may be possible that you don’t get the leaders that you would like holding the leadership positions… there’s work to do here, let’s get on with it 🙂

 

Skin Coloured Targets

What is representation

This is a personal reflection on research that I conducted whilst a part of the Paul McKeever Scholarship. I am aware that the contents of it are quite controversial, and I am also aware of the fact that the police need much, much greater diversity in their ranks. The results are not presented in a way that seeks to undermine the objective of achieving just that, they are instead there to question the methods that are used to reach them. 

My research journey began in a lecture theatre at Warwick Business School. We were receiving a lecture from Simon Guilfoyle on the use of targets in police performance measurement systems. It totally changed my view on the way that police conduct their daily activities. I highly recommend Simon’s book (Intelligent Policing), where he discussed the use of daily, weekly and monthly targets and whether they actually represent a valid way to measure police performance. I will summarise for you: they don’t.

new public management and performance.png

He also illuminated for me a whole host of ‘unintended consequences’ that come from the targets and how they are realised. This was validated shortly after by the PASC report into Police Crime Recording standards and how they just couldn’t be seen as reliable at all. This report took its casualties, and there has been a slow and (hopefully) inexorable move away from performance management systems that often do the total opposite of what they were meant to achieve.

Whilst this was ongoing, I could see that targets fell away in several areas of police performance, but that they stuck around in others… They were – and still are – used in diversity recruitment, hate crime monitoring, in complaint management, and in sickness (and other HR policies). I found this to be really strange, as we had a lot of research that indicated that targets were pretty awful, yet they were being ignored in areas of business that weren’t directly related to crime reporting. What were the unintended consequences that were taking place around these areas? How were they manifesting themselves and what were their effects?

So, this led to me deciding to research the unintended consequences of the use of targets in BME (Black, Minority and Ethnic) recruitment and selection. I’ve always been passionate about diversity, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity to look deeper into how we are trying to improve it. I interviewed over twenty frontline cops in several Constabularies, transcribed seventeen of the interviews, and then coded (sorted and gathered themes together) in order to form a picture of how they were perceived. I was hoping to uncover the unseen picture of what the targets really did on the frontline.

Research map:

reserach map

The map above shows the themes and how I grouped them. I then began to dig into how the themes came about, and where they came up in the conversation. There were several significant findings.

Good news

Almost every single interviewee stressed the fact that they believed increased representation was really important. They were all sold on having more recruits from diverse parts of the community and could see the wider benefits of it. Interviewees often repeated this assertion throughout the interviews.

Opportunities: 

Questions, Questions, Questions: Interviewees repeatedly questioned the need for targets within the process, and for justification behind positive action (this is activity designed for BME candidates that improves their chances of successful recruitment or selection). It was really clear that positive action was largely misunderstood, with perceptions that it created a positive bias within the process abound. In short, positive action was conflated with positive discrimination. This damages the legitimacy of the process and results in what is called poor ‘procedural justice.’ Those people subject to the processes, do not believe that the processes are fair, and this really affects the outcome of them. Officers weren’t applying for some roles, as they believed that the processes were ‘rigged’ in minority’s favour, with some just refusing to engage at all and mistrusting the people who were recruited/promoted as a result of them.

Competence: The questions and lack of understanding above, then leads to other questions, such as, ‘Why are they not selecting for competence?’ This question worried me, because it implied that the officers did not believe that the processes were selecting for how good people were at the job, and instead selections were based on the targets that were in place. This is the first real indication that the targets were involved in causing harm. They were providing a framework for officers to challenge the validity of the process. There was a perceived uneven playing field, and at no point was there any interaction from management in an effort to explain why positive action made the process more ‘even’, instead of doing the exact opposite.

The result: A combination of a lack of information, no communication from management, and the suspicious and cynical culture (we are paid to be suspicious and cynical in many cases!) then led to the most worrying outcome. This was that officers then questioned the competence of BME candidates that were promoted or recruited, because the use of targets allowed for:

‘Has this person been promoted/recruited to fulfil a target supported by systems that I don’t understand and no-one’s explained, or are they the best person for the job?’

This is a really damaging finding, as it undermines the purpose of increasing representation in the first place. If distrust and cynicism follows BME officers because targets also follow them, they then have a higher mountain to climb upon recruitment or promotion than any other candidate, and this removes a huge amount of any procedural justice that they believe resides within the system. The BME candidates that I interviewed confirmed this tangibly, and it sits with anecdotal evidence from colleagues I know personally too.

What needs to be done?

  • Targets need removing, they rob the subject of the target of their competence.
  • Officers need to be able to understand why positive action is being used in the workplace and how it works (how this is done is an L&D issue up for debate). Ideally, processes that do disadvantage BME candidates simply need fully re-designing, nullifying the need for positive action in the first place. This requires an in-depth knowledge of bias in assessment and recruitment policies (very developed in the College of Policing, not so much in internal constabularies).
  • When managers make decisions that affect the perceptions of those subject to an internal/external process, the rationale must be communicated fully and a space for questions and debate should be created. Without this space, the prevailing culture will fill the gap with speed and ferocity.

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Other questions:

The above research highlighted some issues that need addressing, but what did they do for me? As an operational officer, what did I get from conducting it? These are incredibly important questions that address a wider discussion around what educating officers may achieve in the long run.

  • Our internal understanding of the term ‘representation’ is under-developed and dangerously simple. It rests on the premise that if a certain percentage of diverse individuals are recruited, the representation problem is ‘solved.’ This is a fallacy and incredibly dangerous as it circumvents what representation is actually about (and I believe it to be about legitimacy and trust).
  • This has illustrated to me that engagement as a manager is essential. It’s often seen as a fluffy add-on, but as a manager, if you leave information gaps, you are also responsible for the rumours that fill them. If police managers are making decisions, the communication of the rationale for those decisions is more important than the decisions themselves – and it is almost totally absent in many constabularies.
  • Speaking with frontline officers at length, with whom I had to break the taboo of speaking about BME issues (yes there’s a taboo, and it’s stifling) has shown me that many care passionately about recruitment from diverse populations. They have real concern about ‘how’ that recruitment is conducted, because they care about the quality of service that they can provide and the safety of colleagues and the public. If the targets weren’t there and the perceived playing field more understood, it would go a long way to bridging a trust divide between BME officers and non-BME officers following recruitment/promotion processes.
  • One interviewee spoke at length about the ‘hierarchy of diversity,’ and oh my goodness was she on the money. When you apply a target to a particular demographic, you consciously illustrate that they are more important within that process. She raised LGBT officers, Jewish Officers, Eastern European Officers and disabled officers as subjects that are unconsciously ‘lowered’ in their status of importance. What about thought diversity? What does this hierarchy tell us? It tells us that ‘valuing difference’ as a whole is actually a bit of a fib. If you value difference, you value everyone’s differences, and not just those for whom you have a political obligation. This is a great example of cognitive dissonance, and it reveals some hypocrisy that really needs addressing. It’s necessary to prioritise areas of severe need, but accompanying that with statements that deny prioritisation causes issues with understanding.
  • And off the back of this, reducing people to a label as simple as BME also reduces the issue at hand to three letters that can realistically be ‘achieved.’ The changing demography of London as it stands, mixed with the particular tenure of police officers, makes numerical representation a far flung target that will be forever chased. If the target is unreachable, and we don’t know what ‘achieving it’ actually does, maybe it’s time to revisit the issues identified as causal factors in community trust breakdown instead?
  • Finally, they led me to question, question, and question. It’s made me more of a pain in the backside (I imagine), but I will never accept simple solutions for complex social issues ever again.

To finish, a couple of things. Until we address what ‘Representation’ actually is for a UK police force, we are aiming at fog. When a force reaches 8% BME to match its 8% BME population, can we shelve representation as a ‘job well done?’ I would say that the answer is a very clear ‘no.’ The Scarman and Macpherson reports indicate that persistent problems with community relations and a complete breakdown of trust were significant causal factors of representation breakdown – one could argue that numbers alone won’t address either of these issues (and a systematic review that is about to land shortly will do the same). So why do they seem to be the sole focus in many forces? If behaviour of police officers has a part to play in gaining trust and legitimacy (and research says it does), why does this play second fiddle to numbers without an evidence base?

Culture change and wellbeing development, together with a developed understanding of procedural justice (internally and externally) may be partial answers to these problems. But, change in these areas is painful and complicated (and I know as I’m working on them). It is simpler to hold onto targets, because they are tangibly achievable and fit comfortably with an ingrained behavioural legacy of numerical performance management.

The police need to recognise the complexity of the issue of representation, as the targets are currently acting as a scapegoat for far more difficult conversations about broken relationships and a lack of community trust. Diversity strategies should not be about numbers, they should be about forging relationships and creating sophisticated ‘listening’ functions where forces can judge their respective trust by community and tailor their interactions to address bespoke identified issues. Broad brush solutions do not address nuance and legacy. Without addressing this complexity, we will continue to aim at numbers that don’t mean a great deal, or actually achieve a great deal either.

Numbers and percentages do not solve issues with societal/state relationships. Representation is a wicked problem, let’s start viewing it as such, scrap the targets,  and acknowledge that a complex set of behavioural solutions is the only way to realistically address it.