Back to School (Part 4)

Its in – its done and I am now waiting for Emma to read it and give me feedback. Except she is on holiday! This is my fault of course as I should have submitted it on the 24th March but a series of life-events has had to take priority these last few weeks.

I am talking about my literature review. The first piece of academic work I have ever written and the first formal “essay” I have written since 1992.

If you don’t know what a literature review is then you are not alone. I had no idea what one was until I started it but, in a nutshell, you try to find as much as you can in the existing academic writing, read it and then write about it.

Why would you want to do that? Well, firstly it is to see what is already known about your choice of topic. Many, more eminent, people are likely to have considered and researched it before and many will have written about it already. It is quite possible that your idea or concept has already been answered or is demonstrably and provably wrong – in which case you would be wasting your time by writing about it. It allows you to learn more about your chosen subject – a lot more.

Furthermore, it allows you to join things up and identify gaps. As well as showing what has been researched you identify what hasn’t. Or areas which could be developed further or linked. It allows you to find a space for your own research.

There are “proper” ways of undertaking this task – systematic ways – which I have not been shown and have not learned. Consequently, my research is likely to be both scattergun and snowball. By scattergun I mean I have literally thrown relevant words into academic search engines and read what has come back and by snowball I mean that I have followed the various references from papers I have read – which have led me to other papers and so on ad infinitum.

Once I got started on this it became addictive. To the point where for the last few months I have rarely had my head out of a book or a piece of research. Over the course of this period I have accumulated enough paperwork to completely fill two box files along with numerous books. In some way or other I have used them all even if I haven’t ended up using them in the final draft.

The final submitted version runs to 24 pages and has 84 citations.

The reading was the fun bit – the writing was not. I found it hard to get started and harder still to keep going. I struggled with several aspects – the biggest being trying to transition from a blogging style to a more direct academic style. I still don’t think I have got this right.

In the end I took advice from an experienced mentor who basically told me to write. Just write. I ended up writing an 8000 plus word stream of consciousness. The world’s biggest blog. It was effectively everything I could remember about what I had read but with no references included at all. Where I knew I was going to add something I just put (citation) and moved on.

In the end I barely used this epic rant but it did get me over the hump of a permanently blank screen and helped me formulate some ideas and a running order.

A light bulb moment a short time ago was what I needed to make the jump from blogger to amateur literature reviewer. I can’t actually say what clicked but I wrote a paragraph in what I thought was a more formal style – in-keeping with what I had been reading – and asked someone to look at it. When I got a response similar to “that’s it!” things started to flow. The referencing is a fiddle I still haven’t nailed but practice will make it perfect. I have also made this harder for myself by not fully embracing the technology which is available to streamline such work.

I have actually enjoyed this process but it came at exactly the wrong time personally. They say that you can’t keep saying “its a bad time” otherwise you will never do anything but this was a really bad time and I still managed to get it done – albeit a week or two late. I thank Emma for being so understanding.

I have covered a lot of ground in this review. From classic writing on the history and role of the police, through mental health policy in the UK and around the world, legislation, reviews and reports on policing, research on triage, research on police handling of mental health, government publications, psychiatry, psychology and then onto medicine and clinical conditions.

I think it leads to a couple of points but if I were going to write it again I think I would hone it. Fortunately this submission is a staging post and I will get the chance to do exactly that with the benefit of feedback.

What I have found hard is containing the knowledge.

I’m going to have to admit that this has been the most intellectually challenged I have felt in a long time. I have a busy brain at the best of times and for once, it has had something constructive to be busy about. But it is harder to remember that this is niche subject and not everyone shares my interest in it.

It is even harder not to get massively frustrated by what I am seeing in reality. Given what we see in the real world of mental health and policing – after reading what I have been reading – it has been incredibly hard not to scream “HAVE YOU NOT LEARNED ANYTHING?!”

I have found this particularly hard at actual work – where I have wanted to sit down and change things quite dramatically – which is not my job or role.

What this process has done is actually confirmed my concerns about Evidence Based Policing. I have been reading things which date back to 1936. Some of the most seminal pieces of academic police writing come from the 1960’s. There is absolutely no shortage at all in detailed research on what the police do and how they do it.

Except – very few people seem to have read it. When you look at a paper from 1979 and think “this could have been written yesterday” it adds a great deal of credibility to the writer but it also makes you weep for the fact that nothing has changed or been learned from it in nearly 40 years. It also lays bare how big a role politics plays in policing and how it always seems to win.

This frustration has boiled over more than once and particularly in relation to the issue of how excited delirium is being managed in the UK. The evidence is there – there is a lot of it – it generally all points in one direction and yet the systems in this country simply do not seem to take it into consideration at all. Consequently, police officers and paramedics are at the mercy of nature, fate and then the courts when there seems to be a series of recommended medical interventions which could avoid all of this and probably save lives.

In reverse – when you look at the evaluations of mental health triage programs you have to wonder why they are being given such credibility. It isn’t just me saying this. Yes I have had doubts about it since the beginning but it would seem as though some of these are playing out. People have evaluated the evaluations now – and it isn’t pretty. The recent report from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) on mental health of adults in contact with the criminal justice system runs to over 340 pages but it is absolutely scathing about the quality of the existing evaluations of triage. These evaluations contain the data and figures which are being used to claim the concept is a success and yet, here is an eminent and august body publicly describing them as having evidence of selection bias, high risk of performance bias, high rates of missing data, based on assumption and containing significant methodological limitations. These are all their words – not mine. They discounted most of the evaluations as being of insufficient quality to include. They used three and rated the evidence quality of those as low and very low.

Yet these very same reports are continuing to be used to build and justify policy. This is just one of the reasons why I fear the use of an “evidence base” in policing. Actually – it isn’t the evidence base itself I fear. It is the quality of the evidence base; the ‘doomed to succeed’ problem (which is still VERY much evident) and the question of who is actually determining that the evidence is evidence; the way it is being nailed to promotion processes, lateral moves and annual appraisals and the claim that this “embeds” it.

These fears have been strengthened as I have undertaken this research so far. An unintended consequence but a consequence all the same. I could probably write a paper on this aspect alone.

Have I fallen in love with the idea of academia in policing? No – its actually made me even more skeptical and suspicious. Do I think that a degree will help police officers? No – I think that some of the subject matters should be covered in more detail – criminology for example – but I am yet to be convinced that anything I have done or am doing will make me a better policeman.

I am enjoying this. I feel like I am using brain cells I have never used before and maybe, for me, this is a natural way to channel my frustration and curiosity. Is it hard? Yes. Have I thought about jacking it in? More than once. Do I feel a sense of achievement? Yes – even this early and before I have actually had any formal feedback.

But, for anyone who thought I may suddenly become a convert……

I am actually further away from academia and policing than I was when I first started. At least the way it is being done or proposed now – anyway.




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One response to “Back to School (Part 4)”

  1. julieanneda says :

    The more you know the more you know you don’t know and you realise most people either don’t want you to know or don’t know that they don’t know, eh? 😉

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