Back to School

Two of the largest public institutions in the United Kingdom are taking a bit of a hammering at the moment.

The NHS is currently having its performance culture dissected with clinical precision whilst the police are barely out of the news with stories of alleged cover-ups, inappropriate activity and general inadequacy and inefficiency coming out on an almost daily basis.

Working within these organisations at the moment can be a pretty wretched place. Not because of the work, the nature of the work or the organisation itself but because of the relentless focus of negativity from the media.

It is right and proper that both organisations are transparent and accountable but at the moment it feels like a bit of a siege.

I was talking to one of my colleagues the other day and how it felt to come to work in amongst this media frenzy. We both agreed that the only thing we could do was turn up and carry on doing the best we possibly can – as we always have done.

Many of the issues being highlighted about “the police” are historic or specific to one force. The press are portraying things far more widely and I suspect that the public just see it as “the police” as well.

The “sins of the fathers” are currently under the microscope and those currently serving are taking the heat.

For some context – I was 15 years old when the Hillsborough tragedy occurred. Stephen Lawrence was murdered almost a year before I actually joined the police.

I was still accused of being “institutionally racist” by association even though my first posting was to a small town in South Wales.

Sir Peter Fahy has made the point that many serving officers weren’t even born when some of these things happened but they are being reported as though they had happened yesterday.

It is right that allegations of the kind we are dealing with are properly and thoroughly examined. It is wrong that this wasn’t done a long time ago. It is right that if fault or criminal intent is discovered that people face justice. It is wrong to accuse a 22 year old officer of guilt by association.

The reports about policing have been wide ranging and in rapid succession. The Adebowale report on how police deal with mental health issues. The HMIC report on how well police prepare evidential files. The IPCC have just published a report about how the Met handle complaints of racism.

There is a common thread in all of these reports and they all call for one particular solution – better training.

So, to just take those three reports, the police need more in-depth training in mental health matters, file preparation and awareness of dealing with complaints of a racial nature.

By complete coincidence I have been having a conversation with a friend today who asked me what specific training police have in relation to dealing with young people.

The answer is – none.

My friend was incredulous. I asked why police would need specific training in dealing with one demographic group. My friend offered to share research with me which showed why 16-25 year olds require a different approach.

I was then asked if we had any training in de-escalation techniques particularly for young people. The answer again was “no.”

I have blogged before about my belief that de-escalation training needs to be taught to officers in relation to mental health but I can see that it would actually have a myriad of uses across policing.

I started thinking about all the police training I have had on conflict management and personal protective equipment.

Officers are indeed taught about the “force continuum” which starts at mere physical presence and ends in lethal force.

After “mere physical presence” comes – broadly speaking “talking.”

Before use of force we all know that we should try and use verbal communication to de-escalate a situation but I have NEVER been given any specific training on this.

It dawned on me that in nearly all my “self defence” training the lessons have been focused almost exclusively on legislation around the use of force and then the mechanics of use of force.

“Tactical Communications” are mentioned but usually only briefly as the requirement of the session is to re-qualify for handcuffs, baton and CS spray.

It just seems to be accepted that we all know how to tactically communicate because we are police officers.

My friend asked me about what I knew of the “aggression cycle.” The answer to that was “absolutely nothing.” I could have a guess based on experience but I have no scientific understanding.

Then I remembered that Lord Adebowale had made reference to this in his report. He said that officers frequently confused aggression for violence and too rapidly chose to use physical force to subdue someone.

Which leads us back to his recommendation (one of many) – more training.

The HMIC have just published a report which is critical of the quality of files sent to the CPS. Evidentially deficient, things in the wrong places, missing documents were just some of the list of grievances.

Turning it on its head one could ask – do the CPS really need all this stuff and are their requirements too great? But, accepting that they ARE the requirements we really should be meeting them.

Have we had any training specific to file building? No. The last input I can remember was in training school and then “on the job.”

Many important legislative or procedural changes to files have been communicated by email or “teach yourself” packages like NCALT.

HMIC call for more training in relation to file preparation.

Whilst this does sound like a lot of training I don’t believe it would be that hard to deliver. Many shift patterns in existence across the country have built in “training days” which could be utilised without having to take officers off the front line and put them behind a metaphorical desk.

Reading all of these reports together suggests that there is a lot of information out there that officers should know but don’t know. I suspect that more reports will be written over the coming months and that they too will recommend more training for officers.

The reason I post the “sins of the fathers” issues and “training” in the same blog is simple. Since I joined I have had training which was intended to specifically deal with the outcomes of things like the Macpherson Inquiry. Diversity training has been mandatory and necessary. “Self defence” training has moved on light years since my early service but:

A) this is not being acknowledged by the press who are reporting on the past and

B) given the latest findings of these reports one has to ask whether the inputs have been truly effective.

I believe they have been. The culture within the police is massively different from how it was even 20 years ago but there is still work to do.

Once upon a time it was a standard entry in every officers annual appraisal that they were able to “communicate well in a wide range of circumstances, effectively changing their approach to the needs of the situation” (or words to that effect.)

We never received any training in this. It was all learned from experience – which didn’t always make it right.

Just using three of the examples I have quoted here shows three different sections of the community: people suffering from mental illness, young people and different ethnic groups.

There are many other sections of the community who would also argue that the police do not know to communicate effectively with them either. It’s a huge challenge.

It is clear – the common thread in all of these reports is a call for more (some) or better police training. It involves a lot of training in a lot of things. None of it can be done effectively by email or NCALT.

There is much that the police do right but there is much that we do wrong or could be better at.

How do we even begin to address this?
Is it time for us all to go back to school?


3 responses to “Back to School”

  1. Rachel Rogers (@DorsetRachel) says :

    I write this response as the person who asked questions about police training in working with young people, in de-escalation techniques and about their understanding of the aggression cycle.

    My background is in prisons, youth offending, teaching and children’s rights but the specific trigger for the questions was a story that one of the young people I work with related to me about an encounter she and a group of friends had had with the police. I initially doubted the veracity of her story but it stood up well to questioning so, without divulging the nature of the incident in question, I asked several police officers of different ranks and in different forces about their training in working with young people. The responses I received left me with some fairly serious concerns.

    We know that young people aged 16-25 are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, not only as offenders but also as victims. The reasons why this is the case are less well-recognised. Recent research into cognitive development suggests that “psycho-social maturity – those aspects of development and behaviour that involve interpersonal relationships and help individuals make socially responsible decisions – doesn’t develop until young people are well into their twenties”. However, as we know, the law does not recognise this fact and nor, it seems, does the training of law enforcers.

    The excellent Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance,, evidences and promotes effective approaches for young adults throughout the criminal justice process. T2A is a coalition of 12 of the leading criminal justice, health and youth organisations, convened by the Barrow Cadbury Trust.

    Last year T2A published an excellent and accessible guide to policing young adults. The guide was aimed at the newly-elected Police and Crime Commissioners but is essential reading for anyone involved in policing young adults: that is, anyone involved in policing.

    The guide states clearly that “where young people have no respect for police
    authority, lack trust in their capacity to protect them or deal fairly with them or are overtly hostile and antagonistic towards them, the risk that such encounters may escalate into aggressive exchanges and even violent incidents increases.”

    In order to counteract this risk, T2A suggests that “as well as better engagement, the policing of young adults could be improved through better training and supervision”. However, it goes on to note that

    “…the main emphasis of police training is… on the law and how to enforce it, not on interpersonal skills and how to deploy them. The police receive little training on managing encounters with different members of the public and defusing difficult situations. Neither do they receive much on-the-job mentoring or supervision. In practice, many (especially young) officers are ill-prepared for interacting effectively with young adults and are inadequately supervised by their senior officers. A more effective approach to changing police behaviour might be to integrate more police training into routine practice.”

    My second question was about de-escalation techniques. I come from a Prison Service background. De-escalation techniques are prison officers’ bread and butter. Good officers are those who are rarely assaulted, who know how to defuse a situation, who know that your voice is your best weapon. De-escalating potentially violent situations makes sense in terms of reducing demand on staff, reducing injury to staff and reducing wastage of staff time through sick leave. It also improves both morale and relationships with the public – especially with those young people who may be quick to anger.

    There is plenty of information online about de-escalation techniques. I have chosen these two examples for their relevance to the point in hand.

    Police Chief Magazine claims to be the official publication of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. This article, from the May 2004 edition, deals specifically with de-escalating juvenile aggression and I would recommend it wholeheartedly.

    The author explains that “juveniles are unlike adults physically, psychologically, and socially, and the aggression they display toward authority figures is significantly different from the aggression displayed by adults” and adds that, as a consequence, “effective techniques used to de-escalate juvenile aggression are different from those used to de-escalate adults”

    CPI ( is an international training organization committed to best practices and safe behaviour management methods that focus on prevention. CPI stresses the importance of listening with empathy.

    This article, which was originally published in Law and Order magazine, focusses mainly on empathic listening:

    “Like other skills, empathic listening can be learned. The five keys are: give the person undivided attention; be non-judgmental; focus on the person’s feelings, not just the facts; allow silence; and use restatement to clarify messages”

    My final question was about police understanding of the aggression cycle. I was aware that, in his recent report into Mental Health and Policing, Lord Adebowale had suggested that officers frequently confuse aggression for violence and too rapidly choose to subdue using physical force rather than the de-escalation techniques we have previously discussed. I would contend that people also confuse anger with aggression. Anger is an emotion, whilst aggression is a behaviour. People can feel angry without behaving aggressively though anger may turn into aggression unless we find healthy ways of dealing with it. An understanding of the aggression cycle helps us to understand the way in which anger can manifest itself, how it can escalate and explode and how it fits in an anger management cycle. Sometimes our role as safeguarders is to enable the person to manage and defuse their own anger before it escalates into aggression but doing this requires a sound understanding and considerable skill. Again, information galore is available online but this article from Better Relationships provides a concise summary:

    For me, these skills are a pre-requisite for working with the soft machine, with the people who come within our sphere of influence. It is our job to keep them safe, to keep others safe and to keep ourselves safe. The best way to do this is by reducing both legitimate use of force and outbreaks of violence to a minimum. I have provided some online links to information about some of the techniques that may assist with this. However, I do not believe that online training is, on its own, adequate for teaching and learning these skills and nor do I believe that they are skills which come naturally. Talking is a great way to resolve a potentially violent situation but if you choose the wrong words, the wrong tone of voice, the wrong body language, you may well exacerbate rather than de-escalate the situation. These are skill which require face-to-face training, workplace reinforcement and regular practice until they become an automatic weapon in our conflict management armoury.

    • nathanconstable says :

      I couldn’t agree with you more. Only today at the Excellence In Policing conference we have heard from an academic who believes that police officers should undergo training in “soft skills” and at the Labour Party Conference (other political parties available) a speaker at a fringe event commented that the police really don’t understand young people and are seen as “unapproachable.”

      NCALT teaches very little. The simplest thing to do is keep pressing buttons until it’s over. I don’t know of anyone who has truly engaged with NCALT and who believes it has taught anything which has sunk in.

      It has only really struck me in the last twelve months or so that there are major gaps in what police officers are taught especially when it comes to interaction.

      We have not been taught de-escalation skills – we assimilate them. By trial and error – over time.

      There really is so much that police officers could be taught and learn.

      You have shown that there is a mass of research into all of these subjects – it just seems to have bypassed the police for some reason.

      No computer package in the world can train humans how to interact with humans.

      Thank you so much for this reply. It’s massively useful and informative.

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