‘Decolonizing’ Criminology?: Possibilities for anti-racist approaches to transform police education and professional development

Dr Lisa Long

Racialised bodies are overpoliced, under protected and in the extreme killed through racist policing (Long, 2018). Whilst there are calls to abolish the police to eradicate racist policing any revolutionary response to social justice problems, such as defunding and abolition, would require a global paradigm shift. In the meantime, immediate strategies are necessary in order to mitigate the excesses of racialised policing and save lives.

From 2020, applicants to the Police Service of England and Wales will need to either have or work towards a degree level qualification upon entry.  Higher Education has a central role in this ‘re-professionalisation’ (Holdaway, 2017) of the police service. Education develops “critical, enquiring and challenging minds” which can enrich policing and challenge ‘policing by stereotype’ (Lee and Punch 2004:248). However, critical thinking is inhibited if the course focuses on functional policing (Lee and Punch 2004:247); further, functional policing courses reproduce negative features of police occupational culture, such as ‘isolation’ and a ‘them and us’ mentality (Heslop, 2011). The latter approach is evident in the newly emergent suite of ‘Police Studies’ degrees emerging in UK Higher Education. Facilitating functional policing courses under the auspices of Higher Education is the antithesis of ‘decolonizing’. 

Decolonizing:“a way of thinking about the world that takes colonialism, empire and racism as its empirical and discursive objects of study; it resituates these phenomena as key shaping forces of the contemporary world. The aim of decolonizing is to develop ‘alternative ways of thinking about the world and alternative forms of political praxis’” (Bhambra et al., 2018:2).

Criminology is another option for future criminal justice practitioners; Criminology itself is an inherently colonized and racist discipline, focused on control of undesirable populations (Agozino, 2010). Therefore, the options for police officer education are limited to two, often uncritical and deeply colonized subject areas.  This post explores the possibilities that an anti-racist education – which draws on decolonizing principles – poses for transforming students into racially literate, reflexive practitioners.

Decolonizing knowledge

In the 2017-18 graduate cohort there was a 13% gap between the likelihood of White students and Black, Asian or ‘Minority Ethnic’ students being awarded a first class or upper second class (2:1), despite equal entry grades (Universities UK, 2019). The lack of a racially diverse and inclusive environment for learning is one factor in understanding this attainment (or award) gap.  The student-led Why is My Curriculum White agenda (#whitecurriculum) highlights the colonial continuities within the curriculum. Course content is not diverse or inclusive and the established canon, irrespective of discipline, is predominantly centred on the work of (often dead) White men. Academic systems of knowledge are colonized, built upon ‘epistemologies of ignorance’ (Sullivan and Tuana, 2007).  In contrast, a decolonized curriculum, ‘acknowledges the inherent power relations in the production and dissemination of knowledge, and seeks to destabilise these, [propagating] new forms of knowledge which represent marginalised groups” (Begum and Saini, 2019:198).

In a ‘research led’ teaching agenda, students are taught through the findings of research within the discipline. Therefore, the way research is conducted and the forms of knowledge that are produced through research can either disrupt or reify the centrality of White, Eurocentrism within the curriculum. For example, professional policing practice is informed by the ‘what works’ agenda (College of Policing 2020).  The N8 partnership, established between eight research intensive Northern universities and 11 police forces and Police and Crime Commissioners across the north of England, to facilitate research collaborations and “achieve international excellence in policing research”, contributes to ‘what works’.  However, the membership of the partnership (defines, through inclusion/exclusion, which forms of knowledge constitute ‘research excellence’. Further, the quality of research within H.E. institutions are assessed through the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and, the outcomes inform the allocation of public funding for research.  However, the assessment is undertaken by panelists from predominantly UK based, Russell Group universities who, by virtue of the institutions they represent, are disproportionately older, white and male (Sayer, 2014).  These forms of knowledge serve to reproduce the White, colonized, curriculum. 

In order to facilitate an anti-racist education, which challenges dominant narratives about racialised groups, knowledge must be built upon formerly ‘de-legitimized’ knowledges, such as that produced in the Global South and non-English speaking nations, indigenous forms of knowledge and experiential knowledge produced in non-elite settings such as post-92 universities, community settings and grass-roots organisations. This makes it possible to imagine a critically informed, evidence-based education that will equip students to engage in frontline work that maintains a critical stance towards institutionally racialised practices.

Developing racially literate practitioners through ‘dialogue’

Institutional denial of racism contributes to the failure of the police to eradicate racist policing outcomes (Long, 2018). Developing racially literate students, with an understanding of the experiences of Black and People of Colour, and discrimination and exclusion of racialised populations, will empower them to challenge dominant narratives, including racism denial. This necessitates having ‘difficult conversations’ (Watt, 2017), in the classroom, about race in order to raise critical consciousness.

Conversations about race are often met with racism denial and trivialisation; further, racialised students cannot openly share their thoughts or experiences in this context (Watt, 2017). These situations require sensitive handling. However, through a ‘problem -posing’ (Freire, 1970) education, students are facilitated to challenge dominant narratives and the power structures upon which they exist and perpetuate oppression.  Further, a ‘problem posing’ education involves the constant unveiling of reality, and through co-investigation of that reality, critical dialogue between the teacher and the learner.  Dialogue, for Freire (1970), is a critical conversation that requires both intellectual and emotional engagement and forms the basis for praxis.

Connelly and Joseph Salisbury (2019) argue that the use of emotion in the classroom can challenge racism denial and play a part in politicising students towards social justice activism. Through analysis of student responses to ‘difficult conversations’ about the Grenfell tragedy, they show that ‘the operationalisation of emotionality’ alongside a critical, theoretically informed analysis in the classroom can be socially transformative. Utilising critical dialogue in the classroom is one way to develop critical consciousness about racism and can transform learners into reflexive practitioners- ‘critical intervention’ in societal oppression can occur when learning evolves into praxis (Freire, 1970).


This post has explored the potential for decolonizing principles to inform anti-racist education. It presents some of the ideas explored in a paper currently under review.  However, as a Criminologist, it is a challenge to reconcile working in an authoritarian discipline with the principles of decolonizing. It is acknowledged here that the police cannot be decolonized (and possibly nor the university). However, drawing on decolonizing principles to diversify research knowledge and curriculum content, and engaging in critical pedagogy, can empower students to challenge their own perceptions and behaviours, and the role of agents of social control in perpetuating racism. This could be of benefit to the diverse communities that they go on to serve.

Dr Lisa Long is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Leeds Beckett University. Email: lisa.long@leedsbeckett.ac.uk. Twitter: @therealljlong

2 thoughts on “‘Decolonizing’ Criminology?: Possibilities for anti-racist approaches to transform police education and professional development

  1. COps don’t need degrees, it’s utter nonsense. I have a BA, PGDIP and an MA and I was a cop for 26 yrs. What Cops need is common sense, integrity, guts, humour and decency. Everything else is secondary. You like so many others completely ignore the racism BAME cops suffer and the racial insults BAME cops get from BAME people. What people want is a uniform when they ring 999 on the scene asap who will be able to deal with whatever they have to face. The public want cops who can control the criminals who want to control estates, streets and communities. The public wants to be protected and reassured that they can sleep safely. The public does not want or need graduates with knowledge of decolonization theory. Don’t get me started on so-called communities, another piece of sociological gibberish that seems to infect modern public life.

    • Hi Paul. Thanks for your comment. My argument is not that police necessarily need degrees. However, this is now a requirement and, as a educators in criminology, we do have students who want to go into the police service. My perspective is that funding should be diverted towards the social problems that you speak about here-rather than investment in policing. However, this is not the current political priority. So, the blog speaks to two current issues – the decolonisation push in Higher Education and the ‘professionalisation’ of the police service through degree entry. I certainly do not ignore the racism that ‘BAME’ police officers endure, within the force. However, it was not the subject of this short blog. Nevertheless, developing racial literacy amongst students will ultimately make them more reflexive practitioners and therefore, may improve the experiences of ‘BAME’ officers and public alike.

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