From 2020, all new police officers in England and Wales must have a degree. Writing anonymously, Nick, a police constable, tells how the decision has been received.
In the summer between my second and third years at university, I applied to join the police. Having worked in an office as part of my management degree, I’d decided that I wanted a job that involved working with people but didn’t involve sitting at a computer screen all day. Little did I know what the police would look like 16 years down the line.
At the time, graduates weren’t as common in the police force as they now are – currently about 30 per cent of new recruits have an undergraduate degree – and I was encouraged to apply via the Accelerated Promotion Scheme for Graduates.
I didn’t have any particular promotion aspirations; I did it because it was the path I was pointed towards. The process was rigorous, with essays to write, presentations to give and several interviews with very senior officers and civil servants. I dipped at the final hurdle, and ended up getting in through the normal police application route. With hindsight that was probably a good thing as I would have been back behind a computer screen rather quickly.
Was my management degree necessary to be a police officer? Definitely not
My first posting was to a former mill and pit town that had struggled to recover from the loss of both industries. Unemployment was high, and consequently so were acquisitive and violent crime.
I had to learn how to talk to people simply and effectively, with fewer of the long words and “padding out” needed in essays; and I had to learn when talking wasn’t working and I was going to need to use force, preferably before the person I was speaking to got the first blow in. Our police station had two computers and all paperwork was handwritten.
Being able to talk to people and build a rapport with victims and criminals alike, learn the back streets of your area, know which thieves use which methods to break into people’s houses and cars, and how to best tackle someone with a knife in the days before stab vests and Taser, were all core policing skills, none of which required any academic ability, and none of which could really be taught in a classroom.
Were the skills I learned at university useful? Definitely
As technology crept into the police force, I was often hunted down and told I was going to be responsible for teaching my colleagues to use this system or that, and for submitting applications for funding or writing press releases because I was “good with words”. It wasn't just the admin, either; as crime changed, I found I was being asked to make applications for communications data (such as mobile phone records) or for bank records, and, even as a uniformed PC, to investigate frauds and technology-related offences.
What were unusual crimes 15 years ago are now routine – harassment via the internet, online grooming, and fraudsters and other criminals hiding behind a web of companies. Virtually every criminal, from robbers to drug dealers, uses a mobile phone, usually of increasing sophistication and inevitably a source of data useful to an investigation.
Uniformed patrolling police officers are required to deal with all this, preparing detailed applications to courts and companies to fulfil the legal requirements of necessary legal safeguards around private data, and then preparing prosecution cases, covering all legal intricacies to the satisfaction of university-educated solicitors, barristers and judges, but in terms that a jury can comprehend. Interviewing witnesses isn’t simply about writing down what they saw, it’s about accommodating people’s needs, and having an awareness of the pitfalls of memory and recall through basic forensic psychology.
Finding a missing person isn’t about throwing hundreds of officers into areas to physically search every conceivable hiding place, it's increasingly about the application of statistical data, telephony or financial data and interrogation of intelligence systems.
Then there’s partnership-working: engaging with professionals in education, social work and health, and with politicians, to respond to criminality and vulnerability and to “get upstream” of the situations we deal with, trying to prevent them in the first place. This is where the ability to research, reference, present and debate is key, especially when the people in the other fields of work are all university educated as a condition of entry to the profession.
So what does this mean?
None of these tasks, admin or investigation-related, was covered on my degree course, but the skills needed to do them were. Of course there are other ways to acquire these skills, and there are lots of cops who do these things on a daily basis, and do them well, who haven’t got a degree.
However, university is one way for police officers to acquire the skills, and from an organisational point of view it’s an easy way to ensure that they do.
But what about the burglars, the backstreets and the fighting? This is where things get problematic, and why you'll hear lots of officers expressing their doubts about the professionalisation of policing. The type of work I mentioned at the start of the article hasn’t gone away, and for officers who have spent years dealing with these things, and who still do for 10 or 12 hours a day, a degree isn’t what’s needed.
Police officers have to be able to deal with whatever job they are sent to, from drunks to missing people, domestic violence to internet fraud. Of course we have specialists, but policing is so diverse and so stretched that we can’t have officers with isolated remits, operating in silos and separate departments to provide the initial response for each type of incident.
Policing is a team effort. We need people who are technologically competent, who are able to examine bank accounts and forensically trace transactions, who can present a funding application for a local youth project, who can analyse and understand the needs of a vulnerable witness and get the best evidence from them. We also need people who can strike up a conversation with a burglar, who know the make and model of a car at a glance, who have the physical courage to fight with violent criminals, who have the mental resilience to deal with death and dismemberment or the mind-numbing boredom of standing next to a piece of scene tape in all weathers.
I wholeheartedly encourage the professionalisation of policing, and welcome the opportunity for officers to receive formal qualifications as part of their training or in recognition of the skills they have already acquired. But for the sake of the public this cannot be at the expense of the basic bobbying that has been cornerstone of policing since its inception.
Nick is a graduate and uniformed police constable with 16 years’ service.
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