Degrees of change?

Social justice and decolonising the police curriculum are key drivers for retention, explains Rezbi Duffield.

Jul 2, 2024

The longstanding ambition to establish policing as a professional service is not an unfamiliar concept to anyone working within the policing sector in any capacity.

In recent years, the development, implementation and birth of the Police Education Qualification Framework (PEQF) as part of efforts to ‘re professionalise’ have been seen and as of April 2024 the newly established Police Constable Entry Programme (PCEP) paves the way for an alternative opportunity to bring in recruits to the police service.

Mistakes, errors and a number of failures have made the pursuit of a professionalised police service top priority for many decades – driven by public outcry, police conduct and government complexities.

The landmark MacPherson report in the late Nineties forced the policing service in England and Wales to reflect hard and make active efforts to ensure significant changes that rebuild the police service and restore public faith.

One crucial step identified was a commitment to evolve forces so that they better represent the communities they serve. The recent publication, The Macpherson Report: Twenty-two years on, establishes while progress has been made in the recruitment of police officers from BAME groups, it remains slow. The gap between the actual BAME population in England and Wales in relation to BAME police officers recruited still fails to meet a sufficient number to satisfy representation targets within forces.

As part of the uplift programme in 2019, explicit importance was placed on forces to increase force diversity. A message echoed in the subsequent Race Relations Action Plan by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), which outlined greater need for forces to be diverse, inclusive and work towards becoming a representative service.

Many forces in England and Wales have engaged in active recruitment efforts to fulfil their commitments to diversifying their workforces (and hit uplift targets), which has been promising and positive to see.

Forces have started to be critical and varied in their approaches, including running social media campaigns, utilising local community members (both to advertise opportunities but also to sit on interview panels) and more commonly, use of positive action groups.

Further examples of active recruitment seen in line with Equality and Human Rights Commission  advice includes involvement of visible role models for outreach programmes and ensuring mentoring opportunities for potential recruits.

Evidently, proactive and positive efforts are being made in relation to recruitment, however perhaps in the drive to increase numbers and hit targets, a crucial aspect of diversifying the workforce and maintaining workforce numbers has been left overlooked – retention.

The NPCC acknowledges black officers and staff leave policing earlier in their careers compared to white colleagues.

Of those voices captured, officers from BAME backgrounds mention the personal struggles of fitting in and finding a sense of belonging – it is not uncommon for officers to feel overwhelmed at the lack of diversity when joining the service. The Macpherson Report: Twenty-two years on expresses perfectly: “Recruitment initiatives alone will be ineffective if recruits to the police service leave before fulfilling their potential”.

While uplift in numbers of officers from diverse backgrounds has been an ongoing priority, it cannot be ignored, policing currently faces a crisis in retention in general. Despite government commitments to recruit more officers, resignations appear to be overtaking retirements – showing those younger in service more likely to resign.

It is time now to go beyond recruitment and turn the lens of focus on retention and how student officer experience and subsequent sense of belonging within an organisation can impact on the decision to remain or leave the service.

Social justice

If work on retention is to be successful, the key point to begin would be with student officers who join the service and their early experiences, particularly for those from BAME backgrounds.

This is where social justice can play a powerful part. Social justice is the product of positive and equitable (fair) experiences. Those who experience social justice can feel empowered, develop a stronger sense of what is just and fair and foster a strong sense of belonging with their organisation. Described as ‘agents of change’, individuals who experience social justice go onto being socially just themselves in what they do and the interactions they have with others, ultimately driving a positive cultural change – something much needed in the policing sector.

Within the workplace and education system, social justice is about fair distribution of opportunities and resources and is concerned with experiences which offer more empathy.

It aligns strongly with organisational justice and if officers have positive, equitable experiences they will foster a strong sense of belonging to their organisation and want to remain in the profession.

As a starting point those responsible for police education and training (and anyone holding a leadership position) should ensure curriculums and the workplace are designed to ensure fair outcomes for all and promote social change.

There are some great ways to incorporate social justice. Some points to consider include:

  • Co-creation – Sit with officers and go beyond just capturing views through surveys. Involve them at planning stage. Hear their voices and make a genuine commitment to use them as co-creators not simply opinions. Co-creation can be in the teaching and learning environment, but could also be hugely beneficial when forces consider restructuring and redesigning.
  • Develop training and learning sessions so the learning culture is not dominated by attitudes which promote the person at the front is the “sage on the stage”.
  • Develop material for teaching and learning utilising latest research. The College of Policing Practice Bank, Society of Evidence Base Policing Group, student dissertations all provide excellent evidence bases for all practitioners. Encouraging all practitioners (student or otherwise) to take an evidence-based approach is fundamental in shaping a professional and well-informed decision-making culture.
  • Evaluate mechanisms in place to support student wellbeing.
  • Consider, how is empathy and understanding featured? What importance is it given? The language and expressions used in the workplace, in particular by leaders – do they echo old views around “this is the police” or do they lead with empathy and support and attempts to ensure the individual feels genuinely heard and cared for?
  • Review how inclusive your assessments are? Do OCP (operational competence portfolio) evidence only ever require long written pieces of evidence? Or is there some variation? Are students placed in the best setting to complete OCPs? Are deadlines realistic in line with workload? Do students only ever have option of writing an essay, or is the opportunity for professional discussions, academic posters or even student choice? Are statement writing skills taught through repetitive writing of statements, or are students afforded opportunities to mark examples, or create a ‘how to video’? Is there sufficient scaffolding available, or are students being told and expected to just get on with it?
  • Expose all students to future prospects. Create opportunities to discuss and share qualification, promotions, posts that exist within the organisation for all and paths that can be taken to reach those goals. Use the professionals who hold posts in specialised areas to lead these and forge mentorships. This can help set aspirations, develop motivation and a sense of belonging to the organisation.
  • Create opportunities to explain changes clearly and take feedback. Be prepared to action feedback so it is valuable and follow this up with communication on how feedback was actioned.

Decolonising the curriculum

Decolonising the curriculum is about reviewing and developing the perspectives that are built in to training and education programmes which shape student officers thinking, mindsets and standpoints.

Decolonising the curriculum has never been about deleting knowledge or histories that have been developed in the West or colonial nations, but more around drawing in those perspectives that may have been marginalised, decentred or hidden from plain view. It is about shaping mindsets.

Simply ensuring an array of photos/images representing diversity within teaching and learning material is not enough. More thought and rigour is required for true commitment to decolonising curriculums within policing education in general, to push efforts to go beyond diversity and equality to inclusion and equity. An ongoing review of teaching and learning materials and experiences plays a significant part.

Police educators and leaders have an obligation to check reading lists/session materials and review whose perspectives shape education and training in policing – still only male Caucasian authors? It is important to always question what perspectives shape the new recruits and their world views.

Educators and leaders should also consider what language and behaviour is being used and how does this impact on the officers, their experiences and mindset? What do new recruits experience with regards to language and behaviours? Is it devoid of empathy on the premise ‘this is the police’ and needing to ‘man up’ and not being ‘so sensitive’ – How do expressions reinforce negative police cultures based on ‘masculinity’. Everyone has a role in decolonising the curriculum, not just those who work in learning and development. Every manager, leader, peer, educator – every interaction counts.

A sense of belonging and retention

The principles of decolonising the curriculum and social justice centre hugely on developing a deep and meaningful sense of belonging. Both help develop critical perspectives and positive experiences where student officers feel represented (not as a tick-box exercise) and can help remove a “us and them” mindset.

The policing sector has long been known as a ‘boys club’, typically, British white males. Active efforts to diversify the workforce has been positive. Even in rural forces, cohorts of student officers have more female recruits and students from ethnic minority backgrounds than ever before.

While these numbers may not be a big as the ambitions set, genuine commitments to decolonising the curriculum and ensuring social justice, particularly in those early years can help forge strong bonds to belonging to what is perceived to be an equitable, inclusive and relatable organisation.

Social justice and decolonising curriculums benefits all students not just marginalised groups. For example, for a class consisting of predominantly white males with little real world experience, it is crucial their training journey provides them with a wider view of the world beyond their own bounds and allow them to connect with lived experiences from marginalised and decentred groups. Likewise those small numbers of students coming from ethnic minority groups, should be able to resonate with the curriculum being taught to them, not just an afterthought to include them, but be part of a programme which reflects the world they live in.

In both instances, if social justice is experienced and curriculum expose students to critical perspectives it empowers them to be professional, empathetic and forward-thinking officers who want to remain part of an organisation which they view as fair, just and inclusive and feel they belong to having experienced this themselves.

A decolonised training and education programme, which thrives on social justice can be a core driver for the retention of officers from BAME backgrounds in particular. Many student officers from BAME backgrounds that join the police will have had (in most cases) very little support/positive accolade from family, friends or wider community.

Policing is not the profession of choice in most of these communities. This can be a very lonely and disruptive start. While they may be very heavily supported by positive action groups to get through interview processes, it would appear that very little support/familiarity remains once these students undertake their training. It can be overwhelming for individuals to arrive in a training environment consisting of predominantly white peers, even if they are welcoming.

This highlights why developing educational and workplace experiences that resonate with students is so important. Police educators need to be brave and speak with students and consider how best to ensure they feel like they belong.

Best practice witnessed, included seeing a force recognise needing to change practice following the recruitment of a student officer from a minority background, who had no family in the UK.

The individual was treated with empathy from the start and practice was adapted to ensure inclusivity. The curriculum was designed to ensure opportunities for the student to be able to resonate and voice own cultural experiences, while networking opportunities to meet with operational officers from similar background was formed. Arrangements made with the student (co-creation) on how to make adaptations and even considerations around support on parade day.

The outcome of this work resulted in the individual expressing feeling overwhelmed and truly feeling part of a policing family. There was no doubt a strong sense of belonging, respect for the values of the organisation and wanting to provide the same positive experiences to peers and the public was instilled in that student during that initial training period (the power of social justice).

Adaptations made were not only beneficial to the individual student, but it was evident peers in the same cohort benefitted from the changes implemented. Strong bonds were forged between the group, with the organisation and the aspiration to want to have a long standing career. Educators involved in the process saw the benefit of reviewing, evaluating and identifying opportunities to develop experiences (with student partnership) going forward.

Final thoughts

There is no doubt retention of officers can be impacted positively and the early experiences, which leaders and police educators can build into the design of their training and the environments which in these sit can have huge influence on officers from all walks of life feeling like they belong from the onset. To achieve this, police educators and leaders have to assimilate knowledge on being truly inclusive, reflecting on how well they have decolonised their curriculum, building in the concept of social justice.

Rezbi Duffield is a lecturer for the University of South Wales on the Operational Policing Team. Prior to joining the university, she worked with the police in the Learning and Development Department, delivering training to new recruits, operational officers, police staff, transferees and various other aspects.

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