Babel Fish 


Sat outside a Canterbury cafe in the sunshine allows me the opportunity to reflect on the speakers and conversations from the last few days at Canterbury Christchurch Uni’s conference on Evidence Based Policing. 

I would like to thank Emma, Jenny, Steve and team at CCCU for organising another amazing event.

I greatly enjoyed the event and the opportunity to speak. I’m not a huge fan of conferences as I often think it’s the same people talking to the same people about the same things. There is a danger of it all becoming very echo-chamber so I was pleased to be invited and have the chance to lob a grenade into proceedings. 

I couldn’t help but notice that there were some really negative comments on Twitter about attending an event like this in the middle of what is effectively a police resource crisis. This wasn’t aimed at me specifically. Not that there should be a need for me to justify myself I would say that I booked this is annual leave last March so I was here in my own time. 

Another sad revelation was the abuse some officers engaged in this were receiving from officers at supervisory level in their home forces. To those being so unkind I say this. Give it up. You have a choice. This is clearly happening and so the question is “do you want police officers involved in the design or not?” I would argue that “not” will lead to a system which simply doesn’t bear thinking about. So far removed from reality as to be unworkable. 

The other thing I would say is, whether colleagues realise it or not, these reforms are ploughing ahead with or without them. If they aren’t aware of them and the implications then that is fine – but there are some of us who are – and I took it upon myself to represent the front line with a large dose of “hang on a minute.” No one asked me to – but trust me – these things need to be said and they need to be heard. So to the critics I would simply say – you need someone in the arena who is prepared to represent you. 

The main reason I say this is because what became even more evident to me is the distance between the academic vision and the sharp reality of every day police work. We aren’t talking miles – in some cases we are talking light years. I shall come on to explain why. 

There was a great range of speakers across the two days and all of them (apart from me and a couple of others) have some role in or outside the police which will or could directly influence the way things go from here. This stuff is happening. It’s on a conveyor belt. It’s coming whether we like it or not. To try not to have my voice heard would have been a real missed opportunity. I wanted to point out a few issues which get in the way of the most purist visions. The reality check. 

The main things that struck me throughout the two days were things I already knew. Things I actually addressed in my talk. But at times they were reenforced to a point of concern. On more than one occasion, the other delegates I sat with – all serving officers – turned to look at one another with one of two expressions:

1: bewilderment

2: incredulity 

That’s not to say that there weren’t plenty of times when we could all nod in agreement at a theory or concept but there were times when we would be asking each other some very simple questions – what? Why? HOW? 

Academia and policing are still a very long way apart. Whilst there are many academic officers and plenty who are now seeking in-service degrees there are very many who are not and have no idea how to research or reference. I still count myself in that category – at least a very inexperienced novice. 

I know personally of officers engaged in promotion processes which are taking a more academic route. Where they are required to produce self researched essays as a compulsory part of the process. And I know that many of them are expressing concerns that they don’t know what they are doing. For many – it is long time since they have undertaken any form of learning which didn’t involve studying by rote or pressing a mouse button until the session was over. 

As I said in my talk – I am very concerned that this is just being nailed to career processes (promotion, lateral, appraisal) and that embedded is being confused for compulsory. 

Some of the speakers were at such an academic level that it was difficult to understand what they were saying. That’s not a criticism of them or their work but I know that if the audience had been made up entirely of police officers that a significant proportion would struggle to comprehend. And not even necessarily the concepts – but the purpose. I was sat with some officers who are hugely more academically qualified than me and we struggled at times. That’s not to say officers aren’t intelligent. What I am saying is that we are not speaking the same language and at times we aren’t living in the same world. 

The concept of a “university hospital police station” – a police station which is effectively a teaching police station is academically pure but operationally impossible. And if it isn’t operationally impossible then we are talking about completely changing the way in which policing is done. 

It cannot have escaped anyone’s notice that police resources are thin. Events have meant 12 hour shifts (or longer), cancelled rest days and an almost total cessation of pro-active work. Demand is rising, the threats are increasing but the number of officers is falling. Officers are facing burn out – to now be saying that they have to take responsibility for their own continued professional development (study in your own time) is insensitive and one has to wonder whether the motivation or resilience is there. 

To implement the concept of a University police station would mean that you would have to ensure that officers had protected study and reflection time. A lot of it. Effectively suggesting that the entire probation period of a new officer studying for the new degree apprenticeship would only be available to do policing for a proportion of their time. That is simply not viable. Where are the teachers and mentors? That would be more officers diverted. Now think that academic progression is being implemented at every level and in every role. 

“But it works in other professions” say the advocates. This is as may be but I ask whether any of these other professions has the same demand profile of policing. Nursing may be busy – but one has to wonder why it is experiencing a recruitment crisis. 

Many of the talks were theoretical. There were a few good examples of practical – particularly the talk on culture change in New Zealand police – but that was a ten year project. 

I was hoping someone might explain what Evidence Based Policing was seeking to achieve but the answers to this seemed vague to me. Introducing academia into policing seems to be a means unto itself and the expectation seems to be that this will make policing “better”. 

There is always room to improve but I am still not clear on how this will make things better. The answer that keeps coming back is that there will be an evidence base and officers will be able to think critically. 

Time will tell if either of these actually happens. 

Pleasingly, I did get a sense that other speakers share my concerns about the obstacles and blockers. We should chip away at them but some of them are mountains. More than one speaker said that if these aren’t overcome then this whole concept simply will not work. 

My plea was that we slow down to speed up. Recognise the magnitude of the challenge and not rush by doing half a job and adding this to career processes. 

But something else became increasingly obvious to me over both days and it is about language. Roger Pegram is a passionate advocate of Evidence Based Policing. Roger is also an experienced and practical police officer. He is able to convey the messages (positive and negative) in a way which appeals to both the academics and the cops. He speaks fluently in both and, if this is stand any chance of “landing” (word of the week) then, as a Emma Williams so perfectly put it – every force needs a Pegram.


Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy introduces readers to The Babel Fish. A remarkable quirk of evolution. A fish that, when placed in someone’s ear, feeds off other people’s words and automatically translates them directly into the wearer’s brain. A natural interpreter. I made reference to this in my talk but I’m not sure everyone had read the book or understood what I meant. 

But this is what we need. Evidence Based Policing has a lot of potential positives but the differences between academic purity and policing reality really need to be addressed. 

And just as importantly – if this isn’t to become a fad or tick box exercise then people need to fully understand it. 

For that you need a certain kind of person. You need people who can automatically translate and interpret. People who can explain not only the passion but the purpose. Who can make this seem real and relevant. Who can convince a sceptical workforce that this has a point. 

At the moment this message isn’t getting through and it feels like something which is again just being DONE to policing. The hostility is palpable.

If evidence Based Policing is to succeed and get into the culture and psyche of officers and the organisation then you need Babel Fish. 

They are out there – they need to be utilised. Otherwise this will sink in a sea of resistance and apathy. 

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2 responses to “Babel Fish ”

  1. Neil Ready says :

    Excellent points in this blog. I was following the conference on twitter and I have to say I’m not stupid but no academic, I struggled to understand some of the points being made and was thinking “how on earth is that supposed to work??”
    Thank you for this and for those who haven’t read the hitchhikers guide to the galaxy, try reading Slarty Bartfast without laughing!!!

  2. The Guide says :

    “Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”

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