The police need the right skills to tackle harm and crime in changing world

Dr Rick Muir.

The world around policing is changing dramatically, such that our police institutions are no longer a match for the challenges they face. It is no exaggeration to say that globalisation and technology are currently transforming our economy and society as profoundly as the industrial revolution and urbanisation did in Sir Robert Peel’s time.

Words: Dr Rick Muir, Director, Police Foundation

A fundamental part of meeting these challenges is ensuring that police officers and staff have the right skills to perform their roles successfully in the face of radically changing demand. The Strategic Review of Policing in England and Wales, published in March, which aimed to set out a long-term strategic vision for policing identified three key future skills gaps: relational skills, investigative skills and digital skills.

Relational skills 

Policing is a fundamentally relational business and these skills have become even more important in 21st century policing. The increase of social tensions, civil emergencies and the need to respond to increasingly complex needs put a premium on officers’ communication skills. And with public confidence at its lowest for decades, good interpersonal skills have never been so important for improving legitimacy.  

Tens of thousands of police officers of course have excellent people skills. However, current police training doesn’t sufficiently emphasise communication and interpersonal skills. Surveys of the public suggest officers don’t always attempt verbal de-escalation before using force. Many officers say they manage conflict through communication, but just half have been trained to do this.

While conflict management now features in officer safety training, in 2021, HMICFRS found officers are not taught associated skills like active listening, showing empathy, building rapport and de-escalation techniques. These skills could prevent confrontation, reduce demand for conflict management and bolster legitimacy.

Interpersonal skills

Officers also need interpersonal skills to support victims. In 2020 the Victims’ Commissioner found that many victims were losing confidence in the police. Although they are often initially positive, some grow dissatisfied with the level of poor communication, lack of action and what they perceive to be rudeness and disrespectful attitudes. To address this, the Commissioner called for a greater focus in police training on trauma-informed practice and victim support which the Strategic Review of Policing supports.

And given the scale of mental health demand, forces should also make mental health training a core part of officers’ learning and development.

The Strategic Review recommends that the College of Policing should lead on reviewing the National Police Curriculum to increase the focus on relational skills covering subjects such as conflict management, cultural competency, victim care, mental health, trauma and neurodiversity awareness. Officers should refresh these skills annually, alongside officer safety training as part of a mandatory professional minimum standard regulated by the College.  

Investigative skills

Investigative skills have always been important for tackling high volume crime such as assault or burglary, however specialist skills are increasingly needed to tackle complex areas of crime such as fraud and online child sexual abuse. Yet there is a national shortage of detectives. In 2021 there were 6,851 fewer Professionalising Investigation Programme Level 2 accredited investigators in post than was required, up from a shortfall of 4,974 in 2020.

As many as 52 per cent of senior child sexual abuse leads surveyed by the Police Foundation said their investigation teams lacked resources. Additionally, despite there being over five million frauds a year, just 0.7 per cent of the police workforce are in specialist economic crime teams.

To incentivise officers to go into investigative roles, the gap in pay between those in uniform roles and detectives must be addressed. There is also a strong case for all forces to open up direct entry detective programmes, which at the time the Review was conducted were limited to 15 forces with a further nine planning to introduce such schemes. Additionally, investigatory gaps don’t always need to be filled by warranted officers and the College of Policing could strengthen civilian career pathways in areas, like financial investigation, which do not require a warrant card.

Digital skills

With technology transforming our way of life at an incredible rate, digital skills have never been more important. Increasingly most crime scenes will have a digital element and even fairly routine investigations may require digital evidence to be gathered from phones, computers or social media accounts. Yet forces lack enough people (as well as technology) to process it.

The 2021 National Police Chiefs’ Council Strategic Workforce Assessment highlighted the lack of a coherent career pathway for data specialists within policing and poor financial rewards mean data specialists are frequently lost to the private sector. To address this, the Review proposes that the College of Policing develops consistent career pathways and parity of esteem for allied police professionals in areas such as digital forensics, data analysis and data science, and financial investigation.

Police forces could also develop closer partnerships with the private sector, including ongoing contracts that enable them to bring in private sector expertise in areas like data science or financial crime. The College of Policing is well placed to undertake horizon scanning to map out future demand, analyse workforce data from forces, highlight current and future gaps and require local forces to address emerging gaps and cooperate with national initiatives.

Promoting a learning culture

In addition to investing in the right skills during initial training, policing needs to promote a learning culture where continuous professional development is the norm for officers and staff throughout their careers. A Home Office Learning and Development Fund accessible by forces who demonstrate that their training programmes meet standards set by the College of Policing would be a route to this. Additionally, the introduction of a Licence to Practice for all officers, renewed every five years (subject to an individual demonstrating sufficient professional development) would ensure that forces really do invest in high quality training for officers so that ongoing learning isn’t just an aspiration but a reality. 

Rick is speaking at The Emergency Services Show on 21 September 2022.