Why academics need to speak a language that policing understands

Having attended a few academic conferences over the last year it has become obvious that if academics want their research to effect change around crime and victims they have to learn to speak a language that organisations understand.

I’m new to academia. I spent over thirty years serving communities as a police officer. I am now about to launch three police studies related degree courses at York St John University. I joined the police as many people do, to ‘lock up bad people and protect the vulnerable’. This is what I said at my recruitment interview. Crime was very much seen as ‘black and white’ in those early days of my career. Criminals were all bad and victims needed help. The problem was that I didn’t really understand criminals or who was vulnerable. It is only when you think about those people you arrest do you begin to realise that that some people simply did not have the same life chances, or they took the wrong path into drugs or alcohol. Many people I arrested or that came into custody suffered from alcohol, drugs or mental health issues. Often it was all three. Many are victims of abuse. Supporting vulnerable people has become far more complex. There used to be the ‘serial complainer’ of ‘juvenile nuisance’, the endless runaway ‘streetwise’ teenage girls, the old people or mentally ill that were constantly ‘picked on’, the children bullied at school, the Asian heritage shopkeepers, taxi drivers and restaurant owners who were abused, had damaged caused or suffered theft, assault and making off without payment. Were these people really vulnerable, or was it a case that society was just like that. I learnt how to treat criminals and victims from observing how other police officers did it. The problem is of course that you are learning behaviour from officers with nearly thirty years experience who were taught by officers who also had thirty years service. Criminals and victims of crime were changing so rapidly that the service could not keep up, even at the highest level. This level was also generally full of males who joined in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Don’t get me wrong. A lot of things changed for the positive during my service. Policing did start to embrace some academic research, such as Wilson and Kelling (1982) ‘Broken Windows’ theory and Ratcliffe (2016), Intelligence Led Policing and Goldstein (1979) Problem Oriented Policing (POP). The problem was that often these were seen as a panacea and embraced too quickly by people who were trying to make their mark in the service, reduce crime on a target driven basis and move up the promotion ladder. The service often took the ‘best’ bits of these theories and ignored the negative aspects, such as ‘Zero Tolerance’ policing, which often ends up targeting young black males in poorer areas.

Police officers and police staff were overwhelmingly not interested in academia or qualifications. The job is about doing. You needed very little by way of qualifications to become a police officer. It was vital officers possessed excellent communication skills and a good deal of common sense. It still is, but let’s face reality, in this rapidly changing society, the police service needs to get to grips with not just law, policy and procedure, but how people become criminals or victims and how they are affected by crime and anti social behaviour. Why do people commit crime? How can people be rehabilitated? The police service is not Social Services or a Mental Health Service, but often it still acts as one. As public sector budgets have decreased along with the number of police officers and staff, the burden to support victims and criminals is moving increasingly to charities and private business. The job is still to ‘lock up bad people’ and show understanding toward victims. But how does the service do this without having a real understanding of the issues. This is where the College of Policing’s ‘Policing Education Qualifications Framework’ (PEQF) comes in. The curriculum for the newly renamed Police Constable Degree Apprenticeship (PCDA) has been launched to the police service and Higher Education Institutes (HEIs). There will be a mass scramble for HEIs to obtain partnerships with police forces. Part of my work here at York St John University (YSJU) is to develop these markets. HEIs now have a real opportunity to help educate the police officers of the future in terms of their ability to understand crime, victims and society and therefore be able to research it and improve practice. The approach of HEIs needs to change. It needs to speak the language of the organisation it is supporting. Sitting through a number of presentations, there is often language used that I simply do not understand. Some academics simply enjoy writing and publishing books and articles to be read by other academics. It is almost as if they enjoy the notoriety of a small group of similar people who speak and write in the same way. Their aim is not actually to make any ‘real’ difference to society, just write about it. It is clear that some universities are looking for the most published people, rather than those who have actually engaged with wider society and affected change. I have often heard the phrase, ‘What gets measured, gets done.’ If HEIs are measured on the amount of research produced in order to get a higher score or more funding, it is of course going to be made up of more of this type of academics. We also need to engage with students who are new to Higher Education and with organisations who can gain from research. Only last Friday, 14th July, I attended YSJU Sociology’s first ‘Crime, Culture & Social Harm’ conference. There were several presentations that would really have engaged organisations that deal with victims and offenders, Mark Horsley (Teesside) on the Economics of Debt Generation, Dainis Ignatans and team (Huddersfield) on First Generation Immigrant Judgements of Offence Seriousness, Ian Joseph (UEL) paraphrasing his title, ‘Social Violence around youth conflict and the construction of crime ‘gangs’ with urban black males’, Jo Smith (Surrey) on the Harassment of Feminists Online, and David Honeywell (York) on the Transformation of self through Higher Education. Many of the issues that were brought out were the problems that lie behind crime and victims. If the language in some of these presentations was altered slightly then I could see the opportunity for organisations to ‘buy-in’ to the research and even fund more, if it can change lives and make a difference to crime and the victims of crime. There is a mutual benefit to the service and to HEIs.

The PEQF and the launch of policing degrees will make a real difference in how current and future police officers/staff and those agencies/charities working in this area understand the nature of crime, its affects on society and what can be done. Research by academics can and does make a real difference to society. We often do not notice it unless it is some medical breakthrough. The police service has embraced ‘Wellbeing’ with the research of people like Dr Ian Hesketh and with the support of Lancashire Chief Constable Andy Rhodes. This will help police officers and staff who struggle with the stress of the role. A number of universities, such as Canterbury Christ Church and the Open University have launched Policing Research Centres. There is great work out there, but it is often not listened to by the police service as they cannot understand it, or it does not fit with their current view.

By all means academics, keep writing books and articles that very few people can understand. It is your right and it creates wider knowledge. There is a place for pure academia, but increasingly through the College of Policing, the service is reaching out to HEIs to help change the police service’s understanding of crime and victims. I am really looking forward to being part of this new opportunity. I hope that the academic world and policing are too.


Senior Lecturer in Policing Studies at York St John. Launched 3 Policing related degree programmes in September 2017. Preparing the University for the College of Policing's Police Education Qualifications Framework (PEQF). Over 30yrs in the police service working on the frontline, safer neighbourhoods and training/education. Developed and supported a number of national training initiatives around pre-join programmes. Interests in police organisational culture, gender issues and the study of inter-personal violence (domestic abuse).

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