A Numbers or Knowledge Business?

I am pretty sure that around the country senior officers are scratching their heads and wondering “what could we possibly do differently that we haven’t tried before?”

There has been so much talk over the last 6 years about the police needing to change and reform without anyone actually explaining what they need to change or reform into. Or why. 

There have been new initiatives to bring in people directly into higher ranks these being sold as a way to bring new ideas into policing but the jury is still out on whether there is some magical silver bullet out there that no one has thought of before or whether there are enough of these new officers to make much of a dent. 

One of the chief complaints from existing officer is that no one seems to be listening to them. This is also true of the public who no doubt have their own thoughts and ideas on what might be done. 

Two facts are true: there is less money and there are fewer staff. Demand is also as high as it ever was if not higher and the expectations and demands of the police are increasing not decreasing. There are new threats to counter and new types of crime to combat. 

With this is mind it is clear that some things will need to change. 

The questions are what, why and how?

There is no monopoly on good ideas and so, to that end, I am opening the blog up to contributors who may wish to float suggestions or discussion points. 

Today I am publishing a guest blog from a writer who uses the pseudonym of “Penny Forethought.”
This is the first of an occasional series I shall call “where do we go from here?”

I would like to extend an open invitation to anyone public, police, police staff, other agency, any rank or position to submit blogs of any length for this series. 

It may well be crowd sourcing – but you never know who may read it. 

I’m going to hand over to Penny now with the usual caveats regarding a guest blog that these are not my words and I express no opinion on whether I agree with them or not. 

Policing: A Numbers Or Knowledge Business?

Significant austerity cuts to Police budgets under the banner of ‘reform’ led to drastic reductions in Police Officer numbers across the UK. Police Staff too suffered, with thousands being either offered minimal voluntary redundancy packages or being redeployed into unfamiliar roles, often some distance from where they had previously worked.

In total, approximately 20% of Police Officers and staff were lost. In a larger Metropolitan Force such as West Midlands Police, this meant approximately 1500 officers were lost to the cutbacks.

On 31st August 2016, West Midlands Police announced that it is about to recruit a further 800 new Constables and 150 PCSOs. This is in addition to the 450 officers recruited recently. Blithe commentators might suggest that the staffing void left by the austerity measures had now nearly been filled and the status quo restored, but the reality is very different. In the background, Police Forces are haemorrhaging experience and knowledge like never before, with the Police Federation reporting that some forces are now offering recent retirees the opportunities to return on short-term contracts to backfill the knowledge shortfall.

To understand why knowledge is important, one needs to recognise that knowledge takes two distinct forms: That which is patent and that which is tacitly held. Patent knowledge can be codified into policies and manuals of guidance, permitting classroom based training to be given. In other words, it is easily replaced. Tacitly held knowledge on the other hand is knowledge that which cannot be codified or readily trained in a classroom environment as it comes from making mistakes, from successes and from having your work tested and scrutinised in the most hostile environments. In other words, experience, an asset that is irreplaceable.

In addition to natural wastage and the austerity cuts, knowledge is being lost elsewhere. Currently, any officer in a specialised role who is seeking promotion is generally required to move departments and their knowledge in that specialist field lost.

Of course it is far cheaper to have a new recruit’s bum on the seat than an officer with 25+ years of relevant experience but, critically, this is not what is important. What is important is to make sure that whoever’s posterior is in the chair, they have the knowledge (both patent and tacit) to make sure that they recognise the subtle signs that should trigger action before the Couldhavewouldhaveshouldhave Squad land and start unpicking the decisions which might have prevented the Child Abuse / Elder Neglect / Anti-Social Behaviour etc. that inevitably ensued.

The big question is how to do this and the question potentially demands a radical answer.

The diverse nature of Policing, particularly Response Policing, means that there will always be a need for pragmatic ‘Jacks of All Trades’, capable of the primary management of whatever circumstance they are thrown into. However, there is also a need to have a proportion of officers who are allowed to specialise in key areas. If the Government of the day is genuinely seeking Police reform then we should start with how we recruit and train this proportion of our officers.

Let me give an example to illustrate how this could work: Few could deny that cyber-crime is an ever-present threat but UK Police Forces are woefully ill-equipped to tackle cyber-crime on the scale that it is developing. Technology is advancing at a rate that few organisations can keep pace with. So, instead of a ‘normal’ recruitment process, why wouldn’t Forces forge greater links with Universities and start to cherry pick the brightest and best IT students for direct recruitment? Their probation could be shortened and tailored to suit the role that they will perform, rather than being diluted by issues that are not directly related to that role. Traditionalists might argue that Police Officers need a wide range of skills to do their job and as evidence for any future promotion boards but I would disagree. I would suggest that these officers could have a career plan mapped out for them and, dare I say it, a retention policy that includes pre-planned promotion based on competency and performance. Allowing these officers to develop communities of practice and become experts in their field without the inevitable loss of skills if they sought promotion must be a more cost-effective solution than the current system. Clearly this isn’t a path for all officers, but in key priority areas such as Cyber-Crime, Child Sexual Exploitation, Modern Day Slavery, Organised Crime and Firearms and for other obvious protective services such as Elder Abuse and Counter-Terrorism, there needs to be an ethos of constant development and ever improving knowledge.

In this austere age, the question of how these developments could be implemented cost effectively needs to be answered. Few would argue that the Direct Entry Scheme has been an unqualified success. Funding could be diverted from this and other recruitment schemes to finance this bold change.

This plan would require buy-in from Universities too. In 2015, the Executive Director of OFQUAL delivered the Regulated Qualifications Framework which placed a requirement on Higher Education establishments to ensure that their degree programmes were directly relevant to the workplace. The direction would allow Police Forces to collaborate more usefully with Universities regarding future recruitment.

Let’s not get bogged down with the ‘But we’ve always done it this way’ mentality and start thinking about how we can make Police recruitment fit for the 21st Century.


Penny Forethought is obviously a ‘Nom de Plume’. The author has chosen to write under pseudonym to gauge unbiased reactions to the commentary. Critical and constructive debate is encouraged.

I’m grateful to @NathanConstable for agreeing to host this first of (perhaps) several guest blogs. These are not his thoughts. He may agree or disagree with the sentiments expressed with them, that is a matter for him and his altruistic offer of hosting these guest blogs should not be taken as an endorsement of the content.

September 2016.



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