What are police learning during the pandemic?

Professor Jonas Grutzpalk

Ongoing police officers have a lot to learn. The police studies curriculum in German Northrhine-Westfalia (where I teach) touches a lot of different topics ranging from ethics, sociology, intercultural competences etc. to different branches of law (penal, traffic, civil service) and so called “police subjects” such as forensic science, tactics, traffic management. There are communication trainings and our students reflect on their growing identities as police officers in special coaching sessions. They are taught how to shoot and how to hold a police line amongst other things. And they train on the job.

The question I would like to raise in this paper is: how does coronavirus change all that? How is police education impacted by Covid19? And in what ways? Are there lessons which are important for future police generations that are being learned right now while policing the actual pandemic? Might it be that police forces are learning something about policing a pandemic that ought to be taught in police academies all over Europe?

All these elements of the police training aim at preparing idealized police officers (in the sense of Max Weber’s “ideal types”) for the job. The underlying question here is: What does it take to be a good police officer? And the answer is that actually it takes a lot and it takes a lot from very different branches to be a good police officer. Communication is most important, but physical, psychological and personal aptitude is very important too. Knowing the law might be essential but understanding people, groups and crowds might be of some use too. So creating a good curriculum for police training is in fact already quite tricky as one might want to teach everything that is important and at the same time not overload the curriculum.

In a series of interviews I conducted in the recent weeks with police officers on and off the job I asked my interviewees what police as an institution had learned during the pandemic already and what kind of learning processes they would welcome. Their answers touch the following topics: Communication with the citizens, self-protection, online-teaching, and home working and administration. There are of course a lot more topics one might think about like the management of crowds or the rising problem of violent scepticism towards the measures taken to flatten the curve of new infections. But let us talk about the issues raised by my interviewees here: 

  • Communication. Some of my interviewees argue that communication with the people “on the street” has become more difficult as wearing masks has made it hard for them to express themselves through facial expressions. And it has also become more complicated to decipher the emotional status of the people police are dealing with. My interviewees said that they were on their way to learn other ways of deciphering their communication partners and that they themselves were figuring out ways of making themselves understood without being able to rely on mimics in this process.
  • Self-protection: Spitting at police officers has always been a way to show contempt. With Covid19 this form of physical attack has gained a new and more dangerous meaning as it might also be meant to willfully infect police officers with the coronavirus. Self-protection of police officers – which is an important part of the training – thus shifts from fending off coarse attacks to avoiding encounters that might result in an infection. But that of course broadens the gulf between police and civilians – which is something my interviewees tried to avoid to the best of their abilities. How it might be possible for police officers to protect themselves against harm and be somewhat accessible for the people they deal with remains to be learned.
  • Online teaching: Most of the courses have gone on online and teaching this way is – as most of us know – not rocket science in the world we live in. But still we come to realize that there are some shortcomings in online-education that might impact on the quality of police education. The main concerns expressed in this context deal with the emotional well-being of the students who are particularly social human beings but also the content of what is being taught as some of the material is classified. Police education is learning how to deal with the issue of online-education and there are a lot of new lessons learned on the way.
  • Home working and administration: One of my interviewees raised the question of whether the police would ever be able to implement home working. One of the main issues here is of course data security but there seems to be a cultural problem to this too. Police (in Germany at least) likes to reflect itself as a special branch of public administration that is dealing with facts “out there on the streets” (Grutzpalk & Hoppe 2018). This self-image seems to contradict the idea of a police officer working from his computer at home. Learning in this context might also require police officers to unlearn a certain vision of the police-self and accept a rather more prosaic vision that understands police as nothing more than a branch of public administration.

These few examples show that the current pandemic is imposing quite some lessons to be learned on modern policing. There are a lot more still waiting to be mentioned. The interesting thing about these lessons is a) in how far they might be institutionalized, b) how they might impact police conduct in everyday life and c) if they will ever be learnt or will they rather be ignored.

In order to learn more about these learning processes the “Policing Pandemia – European Research Observatory Network“ has been put up amongst others by members of CEPOL and the “Polizei.Wissen” revue. The latter is planning to publish a special issue to which interested researchers, police officers, and teachers might contribute. Find the link to the Call for Entries here: https://grutzpalk.wordpress.com/2020/06/25/call-for-entries-on-policing-pandemia/

Dr. Jonas Grutzpalk is Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the University of Applied Sciences for Policing and Public Administration in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. E-Mail: jonas.grutzpalk@hspv.nrw.de, website: grtzplk.de, twitter: @JonasGrutzpalk

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