Police Professionalisation, Police Education and the ‘Blue Box’

Dr Tom Cockcroft and Dr Katja Hallenberg

For many years, academics have deliberated the relationship between police institutions and Higher Education (HE) institutions. This has been particularly the case in respect of gauging the effectiveness of the HE context for the training of police officers and the impact of HE programmes on professional practice. This blog will outline the findings and implications of a piece of research we undertook exploring officers’ reflections on their engagement with HE and how it impacted their understanding of their role and policing more generally.

Our research, based on interviews with 31 officers who completed degrees whilst in active service, sought to understand how HE shapes police officers’ reflections on their relationship with their profession. This is important as the transformative properties of HE produces graduate entrants who join an organisation with quite embedded structural and cultural qualities. In other words, for all the potential benefits made possible by the PEQF there remains a challenge in making sure that the police organisations they join reflect the values that their formal training and education have oriented them towards.  

In terms of finding a conceptual framework to house our research, we soon realized, interestingly, that the research spoke to a number of separate but inter-linked areas. First, we found that the literature of public sector professionalisation agendas was helpful in allowing us to see the ways in which education, when applied to ‘new’ professions, can have, somewhat counterintuitively, a controlling rather than liberating effect upon the learner.

Second, policing literature allowed us to see some apparent disparities or disconnects between HE values and those of the police. This is hinted at by some of the work addressing what is viewed as the ‘McDonaldisation’ of policing where policework is sometimes seen to be stripped of its nuance and deeper context in an attempt to straightforwardly categorise its endeavours as successes or failures. Through this lens it is often tempting to question what it is about HE that makes it so appropriate as a vehicle for police knowledge and education.

Finally, we used literature concerning the asymmetry of employee-organisation relationships and their impact on trust, loyalty and productivity in workers. From this perspective, we were able to consider how the impact of HE education could be to distort the congruence of values between employee and organisation. In particular, we were interested in the potential for our data to show connections between these three distinct areas of academic enquiry. To this end, we adopted a ‘theory knitting’ approach, to generate new understanding of this area through bringing together different theories and combining them with researchers’ insights.

When we started to explore the data from our interviews, we identified several themes including those relating to impact on professional orientation and what we have termed the ‘Blue Box Conundrum’. In terms of the former, the data suggests that, for some officers, their engagement with HE had quite a profound impact on the way in which they approached their work.

For example,

“I think it broadened my knowledge. I think it made me think of a bigger picture. Because I think there’s a tendency as a police officer, you’re surrounded by lots of pressure, if you have the ability to step back and think, why is that pressure there? And think maybe the theory of it makes life a lot easier” 

“It just changed my whole perspective about policing. Totally altered it and gave me so much more of a – not just a strategic view but it gave me more of a sort of fundamentals and some of the theory about what we do. So instead of just doing it because I’m called to do it –which of course you do and that’s what you do. It showed me why we do it. So it gave me the why and I think that’s so important now because one of the massive failings I think in this organisation is the fact that people are never told why”

Other officers, however, saw the HE engagement as less impactful on their orientation to their work.

For example,

“I don’t think it changed me in terms of my style of policing. I think if I’d been more robust and more closed thinking then it would probably have opened me up more but I always thought I was fairly open minded to things”

“I don’t think I’m a different police officer as a result of it. Nothing’s really changed”

The data suggested that, for some officers, whilst their engagement with HE allowed for them to develop their knowledge in ways that they believe could really benefit their organisation, there existed barriers to having their expertise acknowledged or drawn upon.

“I am an expert in [subject] …I’ve written, I’ve peer reviewed …And so then the service are organising how they’re all [subject] …do you think they’d involve me? Despite me writing to them and this that and the other. No, not interested. I’ve written to the [redacted] five times because they are doing the work that I’ve already done. And they don’t even bother to write back to me”

Perhaps the most telling quotation we found, identified a disjunction between the aims of HE and those of the police.

“If you were to walk down Leicester Square you would see constables in Geltex jackets standing on blue boxes, putting off pickpockets and telling American tourists how to get to Leicester Square. And if you’re a graduate and you’ve got a first and your job is to stand on a blue box to be a visible deterrent, you’re soon going to become very disillusioned in that. […] If you’re a PC you can get a PhD in policing, it doesn’t mean anything, it really doesn’t. That’s not what you’re being employed for, you’re standing on that blue box”

This, of course, is not a literal description of what most modern police work is like, nor are we concerned about the perceived simplicity of the tasks described. However, the quote offers us a useful metaphor to conceptualise a key aspect of policing: control, both of civilians as enforcer of state control, and internally in the transactional control of officers’ working practices. This we believe is probably the greatest challenge facing policing in regard of the ongoing professionalisation agenda and the PEQF. Namely, that despite partnership with the Higher Education sector, there remains the very real possibility that, structurally and culturally, policing remains fundamentally different from other degree professions.

The success of PEQF and ability of officers who join through it to meaningfully apply their HE learning therefore requires a more fundamental change to the structures and processes within policing and its relationship with the state. In particular, greater attention, we would argue, needs to be paid to understanding this symmetry (or otherwise) between formal training and the requirements of policework. Furthermore, we believe that this dynamic provides us with some important opportunities for future research, not least in respect of exploring the tension between structure and culture in the policing.

To find out more about this research, see: Cockcroft, T. and Hallenberg, K. (2021). Unpacking the Blue Box: Structure, Control and Education in Policing, Policing and Society, https://doi.org/10.1080/10439463.2021.2016755

Dr Tom Cockcroft is a Reader in Criminology at Leeds Beckett University. Email: T.W.Cockcroft@leedsbeckett.ac.uk, Twitter: @DrTomCockcroft

Dr Katja Hallenberg is a Principal Lecturer in Policing at Canterbury Christchurch University. Email: katja.hallenberg@canterbury.ac.uk

2 thoughts on “Police Professionalisation, Police Education and the ‘Blue Box’

  1. Thank you for posting this blog. It is timely, relevant and gives a voice to police officers. We need more research with police officers and the wider community on several topics to further develop policing in the UK.

    I am a retired Detective Inspector who joined the police with no degree but on retirement (in 2009) I went to university where I obtained a Masters and a Professional Doctorate in International Criminal Justice. The university accepted my policing career and training as credit for a first degree, which enabled me to embark straight onto the Masters at level 7. Since 2010 I have also been an Associate Lecturer in policing.

    I did seek to attend university before embarking on my career in the police. However, I was advised at age 16 that I did not have the intellectual ability to take ‘A’ levels, let alone attend university to obtain a degree. Therefore, I left school and after a period working in the wages office at a local coking plant, I joined the police in 1979. I became a detective and enjoyed a productive career.

    I have no regrets about my career choices, and the training I received equipped me to do the job. However, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that had I been able to combine an initial policing degree with my initial police training and a level 7 qualification with my Sergeants’ and Inspectors’ courses, I would have had a much wider understanding of policing, beyond police law, policy and procedure that would have enabled me, in some instances, to achieve better outcomes. Particularly in relation to understanding positive police cultures, partnership working and solving crime problems at both an operational and strategic level. Therefore, I can see the opportunities available through the PEQF to develop policing and enhance police organisational values. Those now embarking on their policing careers should be the pioneers who will bring about positive changes. I can see some of that positivity in the work police students are undertaking. There appears to be a culture among many of those students to succeed in bringing about better policing outcomes through evidence-based policing, which are in line with local police values.

    Nevertheless, as highlighted by Dr Tom Cockroft and Dr Katja Hallenberg, the road to improved evidence based professionalisation is not straightforward. There are differing views which need to be understood to bring about change. Especially the difference between those (at all levels of the police and in the community) who are willing to accept a change to a combination of academic learning and occupational training and those who are not. Also, views on innovative ways to bring change and to enhance delivery of that combination of academic learning and occupational training.

    All the best,

    Dr Richard Severns.

    P.S. Has anyone asked if there is an evidence base for police officers to be stood on blue boxes?

  2. Dear Richard,

    Many thanks for taking the time to respond to the blog.

    You make some interesting points. I especially agree with two particular issues you raise – the culture change required to create an acceptance of new knowledge and learning paradigms and the need to look at new ways of knowledge delivery.

    In terms of the first, acceptance of the PEQF is a considerable challenge in some quarters. One of my current projects is exploring police tutoring and this role is one where these challenges often manifest. In terms of the second point, constrained resources continue to squeeze the ability for forces to abstract officers for learning. For the full benefits of the PEQF to be realised, I suspect we require a little movement on both of these issues.

    In terms of the evidence base for officers being stood on blue boxes directing traffic, I have seen references to officers being stood on boxes (although I was unable to ascertain the colour!). The concept resonates, I think, at a metaphorical level and, as it emerged from the data, Katya and I liked it so much we gave it quite a lot of prominence in the paper.

    Take care,

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