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Dame Shirley Pearce: Modern crime demands a rapid change in policing culture

Dame Shirley Pearce: Modern crime demands a rapid change in policing culture

College of Policing

5 min read Partner content

The independent chair of the College of Policing, Dame Shirley Pearce, talks to PoliticsHome about the work of the college and the need for more professionalism and consistency if the UK’s 43 police forces are to meet the changing demands of modern crime.


For Dame Shirley Pearce, independent chair of the College of Policing, crime is rapidly changing, and the police force must change with it.

While the college was established in 2012 to help develop policing into an evidence-based profession, Dame Shirley warns that the exponential rise in online criminality adds a sense of urgency to these reforms: decision-making must become more professional and the UK’s 43 police forces better integrated with common definitions and standards.

“Policing is historically a local service, run by local people, which was appropriate when crime was fairly local, but this isn’t the case anymore,” said Dame Shirley. “Criminals do not respect force boundaries so you need greater collaboration between forces and more consistency in the way in which we communicate.

“In order to deliver in this new world we have got to have quite significant and quite rapid cultural change. What the College is doing is putting in place the first major steps of the infrastructure for professional policing and the culture that goes with it.”

In its first three years the college has introduced various measures to improve decision-making in policing. It provides all in policing – including Police and Crime Commissioners and other crime reduction stakeholders – with the knowledge, tools and guidance to help them target their resources more effectively.

In early 2015 the college, along with the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Home Office, launched a £10m Police Knowledge Fund to encourage collaboration between academia and police forces to increase evidence-based knowledge and skills within policing.

All of the above are aimed at arming individuals with a framework of knowledge, so that practice is based on evidence of what works in reducing crime, not local custom and convention.

“The culture of questioning practice and trying to grow the evidence base - that’s not something that’s been around in policing,” she added. “And if we’re going to keep up with the demands of the changing types of crime, then this culture change has got to be speeded up.”

Part of this change must come from the top down. Last year the college published the Leadership Review, which offers ten recommendations to give leaders more responsibility for creating an environment that grows the knowledge base and “allows people to think: ‘Am I doing things in the right way, and why am I doing it like this?’”

Fostering individual responsibility and accountability is at the heart of the proposals, and with it is a view that too much hierarchy is stifling innovation and mobility: too much time is spent appeasing superiors, achievement is only recognised by moving through the ranks, and too often the right people do not have the opportunity to develop. In the modern context, and following a trend seen in other professional and commercial organisations, Dame Shirley suggests a lot of this hierarchy has become ‘historically unnecessary.’

“Changing crime requires different kinds of specialists,” said Dame Shirley. “You don’t find these specialist skills just by going up the ranks. The Leadership Review says let’s broaden out our thinking of promotion, not only in terms of rank; let’s find a way of recognising, valuing and rewarding these specialist skills.”

As of March last year the police forces in England and Wales constituted 126,181 warranted officers, but another 65,162 staff members - over a third - now work in more specialist roles such as analysts. As a greater share of crime is detected online, Dame Shirley expects the need for these specialist skills to grow substantially; not only do these roles require a more structured educational framework but, as they tend to operate across force boundaries, there is a heightened need for collaboration and consistency.

“Communication between forces is hindered by the different definitions and ways of operating across the 43 forces. Different forces have different ways of defining things,” she added. “Different definitions of a Repeat Missing Person, for example – this makes communication very difficult between different forces.

“Most people I talk to recognise that these variations are unhelpful, and are willing to talk about how we deliver change, but we do need leaders to come on board to get some consistency in those areas where together we decide more consistency is necessary.”

Another area in need of consistency is in educational qualifications and standards. Unlike other professions, policing has not had the benefit of nationally recognised educational qualifications which enable individual professionals to have recognition for the skills they develop; people working in policing typically learn on the job to meet the standards of that particular force. This restricts professional development and individuals who move between forces often have to retrain in the same skills simply to meet the different standards of their new force.

“This is not what happens in a profession - in a profession your qualifications and skills are understood and recognised wherever you go,” she said.

According to Dame Shirley there is a real desire and ‘bottom up’ pressure from many working in policing to see such professionalism develop. To this end the college is introducing the Policing Educational Qualifications Framework to ensure individuals can receive universally-recognised professional training before and after joining the force. As well as raising standards, this is intended to improve individual well-being and performance: if members are nationally recognised for their specialist or transferable skills, they feel more valued and appreciated, they take more responsibility to ensure they have the right skills to do the job, and subsequently are more diligent in their decision-making.

“Other professions benefit from national standards and academic recognition for their skills and we want policing to have the same support.

“As their professional body we want to provide this. We want to ensure consistent standards of education so that officers and staff, wherever they work, can be confident that they have the skills they need to do their job.

“The college has made great progress with this and will continue to work with other parts of the policing world to ensure it delivers the best service to the public.”

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