Police learning: a way to rebuild trust in policing?

By Dr Larissa Engelmann, published: 06/06/2023.

“There is a crisis of confidence in policing in this country which is corroding public trust. The reasons are deep rooted and complex – some cultural and others systemic. However, taken together, unless there is urgent change, they will end up destroying the principle of policing by consent that has been at the heart of British policing for decades.”

Sir Michael Barber

Whilst police officers are often considered agents of the state, they have a role in interpreting and applying the law in a way that will lead to the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Unfortunately, as many marginalised communities have known and experienced for some time, this often leads to unfavourable outcomes for those already disadvantaged in society. This dilemma of enforcing but also interpreting the law, whilst using discretion in a way that keeps order and peace, is not new. However, in recent years it has come to the forefront of discussions about how police officers are trained to make evidence-informed decisions.

There is a recognition that modern policing increasingly requires officers to respond to what theorists Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber called ‘wicked problems’. These are complex social problems that require multi-faceted solutions beyond the singular expertise or resource of policing and for which the police alone can only provide clumsy solutions. For example, police officers responding to calls about homeless people on the street during COVID-19 lockdowns, giving tickets to individuals who are often unable to pay the fines they face if not adhering to lockdown rules. Officers need to navigate situations such as this one, or indeed the large number of calls from people in mental health crises, effectively. It is therefore important that officers are able to deescalate rather than escalate situations, whilst identifying solutions that will address the needs of both the individual in question and the general public.

Even though police services developed as an alternative to the repressive military force responsible for law and order at the time (early 1800s), police services retained a quasi-military training style, seeking to instil discipline and curtail the use of discretion amongst officers. This training style can inhibit the kind of discretion and freedom needed by officers to develop trusting relationships with different community groups and utilise a flexible rather than rigid approach to respond to calls. Indeed, research has told us that members of the public and particularly vulnerable groups lose trust in the Police if they perceive their treatment to be unfair or unjustified. Hence, it has been suggested that fair treatment and police-public relationships are at the heart of what we might consider ‘good’ police work. This can ensure that members of the public come forward when experiencing crime and support police responses to criminal behaviour.

The military-style police training in many UK police forces places little importance on developing the more complex skills needed to prevent crime and develop police-citizen relationships. Not least because of the lack of knowledge about ‘what works’ when it comes to developing these skills for police officers. Even the recent introduction of degree entry in England and Wales (Police Education Qualifications Framework, PEQF), whilst better aligning police training with academic rigor and the evidence-base, was by some called “something of an article of faith”, since “we know virtually nothing about the short- or long-term effects associated with police training of any type”. This may explain why it has been called into question and non-degree entry routes reintroduced. In Scotland, a more traditional training style has been retained by the Scottish Police College in an effort to provide training designed, delivered and approved by Police Scotland.

A recent study exploring police learning in Scotland assessed the current use and value of shared learning environments to address ‘wicked problems’. It also explored what Police Scotland might be able to learn from other public health professions’ learning environments. The findings suggest that there continue to be barriers to effective multi-agency learning and working. This is due to insular cultures and clashes in values and approaches to supporting vulnerable groups. Nevertheless, there were also several positive developments in this space, led by individual police officers with a particular interest in learning and developing policing practice.

The study recommends that greater collaboration to develop and deliver training is required to provide holistic service responses for vulnerable groups. Whilst this complicates the training and education of police officers, recognising their complex role in the response to wicked problems, it aligns with traditional policing models of neighbourhood and reassurance policing and recognises their role in supporting communities and individuals. It presents a way to develop more expansive learning environments where learning within and across services is valued, promoted and embedded in everyday practice. The study found that the restrictive elements of the Scottish police learning environment limits the expansive innovative practice needed to support vulnerable groups in the community.

The recent Strategic Review of Policing in England and Wales introduced a clear direction for increased training, supervision, and even a license to practice for police officers. Indeed, recommendation 21 suggests that there should be increased focus on relational skills (such as conflict management, co-production, cultural competency, victim care, mental health, trauma and neurodiversity awareness), which indicates that there is a clear interest in ensuring that officers can address the needs of vulnerable groups.

Work of the Vulnerability and Policing Futures Research Centre

The work of the Vulnerability and Policing Futures Research Centre enables us to address the lack of knowledge about ‘what works’ in supporting police services to work with the public and other services to support vulnerable groups. For example, our place-based research starts by conducting deep dive case studies in Bradford to better understand partnership responses and data sharing across services engaging with vulnerable people who have come to the attention of the police. These case studies will provide us with examples of multi-agency partnership responses, good practice, and how to better support the training and development of police services and allied professions to address the needs of vulnerable groups.

Furthermore, other projects focus on particular vulnerabilities, such as online child sexual victimisation, mental illness, homelessness and domestic abuse. They will develop more nuanced and contextualised responses for specific vulnerable groups. Scholars tend to agree that a ‘one size fits all approach’ to the policing of vulnerable groups is not enough to address the diverse and complex needs of different communities in society. Therefore, these projects are central and timely, identifying the skills and knowledge service providers need to prevent victimisation and effectively support vulnerable groups.

To do all this effectively, we need to know what exactly is required of police officers in modern society in different local areas and across different sections of the public. We then need to know how a national approach to learning and development (such as the PEQF) can reflect this. Addressing this question, our public engagement research explores understandings of vulnerability and how these manifest within society and within policing in particular. Together, these strands of work enable us to address current knowledge gaps around vulnerable groups’ engagement with the police and the holistic responses required to effectively prevent and reduce vulnerability. Based on my own work in this area, one of the most important aspects to focus on is how individuals, teams and organisations are able to learn from our findings and effectively and sustainably implement good practice emerging from the Centre’s work across services. By bringing practitioners across services together to learn from and with each other, we can help develop a learning sector that, whilst not always solving them, is able to more effectively respond to the ‘wicked problems’ of the 21st century.

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Photo by Ethan Wilkinson on Unsplash