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Policing recruits and maintaining career aspirations

We all joined the job for similar reasons. We wanted to make a difference. In fact, when you joined, you probably wrote about the particular hopes, aspirations and promises you had for a career in the Police Service, which demonstrated your commitment to public service and protection. No matter what service you have, I believe it is worth digging this out of your personal file if it’s available, and reminding yourself of them.

In hindsight, the detail may look a little naive, but what will remain true are the qualities required for such a vocation. And since every civilian who aspires to join, and makes the grade, does so with the same motivations, you’ll undoubtedly find that today’s new recruits still write something similar, even though they are joining a very different service than the one I signed up for.

What you certainly won’t find on any these application forms are promises that in the face of frustration, adversity and bureaucracy, you’re going to make it work regardless. Indeed, I think that most of us thought that with the right attitude and intentions, we could be moulded into a successful officer and deliver what we envisaged with the resources and support to hand that is required.

Learning on the job

Well, if I had that illusion for a few years, I was lucky because the latest recruits are landing with a hard bump very quickly into the world of modern policing. If they want to know something, they need to find it themselves. And if they don’t know, they just have to try to make the best choice, despite there being no-one with the time to help them and no guarantee that there is someone with any more experience than them to ask anyway.

This is the picture in London 2014, as we move to a situation whereby nearly one in three officers on the streets delivering policing are student constables. These officers are often working alone or with community safety officers, who may be able to assist them with some advice, but who are limited in their own training and experience.

In London, we place them into the neighbourhood policing teams, so that at least their initial exposure is a little less dramatic and they can hopefully experience more rounded services that they are expected to deliver. But the mentoring constables they are supposed to have are often absent and ad-hoc arrangements are only sometimes put in place. All this in the building stages of mass recruitment into our force.

Policing resilience

Indeed, this year alone, the recruitment into our force is in the region of 2500 officers – a figure that may well rise with the significantly high level of officers leaving. In fact, this mass exit may well be exacerbating the problem as many of those leaving are experienced officers from London boroughs, who seem to be in the region of eight-15 years’ service. 

On top of this, we now have the lowest level of officers with over 30 years of service that I have ever known - at about 700. Just three years ago, this figure was double, and with the large recruitment periods of the mid-1980s reaching this retirement period, the norm appears to be to leave rather than to stay, which only adds to the issue.

Compounding this problem is the fact that with this influx, the specialism departments within our force are drawing up experienced officers to relieve some of the vacancies, taking hundreds more from those boroughs. Inevitably, the percentages will rise in some areas nearer to the 50/50 mark and this is a significant risk to the individuals, the boroughs, the force and ultimately the public.

With all this in mind, I believe there has never been a more important time to focus on the individual. After all, these officers, with all the dreams I described at the start, are now embarking on a 40-year career, or as long as age permits, depending on when they joined.

Individual aspirations

It is critical that they start out well prepared and quickly gain experience, on top of the academic learning that they have attained. Given the questions over the depth and relevance of this initial training that they have paid for, there can be little doubt that they are looking forward to comprehensive practical learning.

Unfortunately, however, they receive what I have described and therefore begin to fill in the widening gaps themselves or with each other, as students prop each other up. As the lack of experience starts to influence the decisions and actions of the student officer, we will undoubtedly see mistakes made or improper behaviour develop as they try to do their best to make it work.

The issue does not stop there, with a few individuals held accountable for the mistakes that rise to towards the microscope of accountability. The truer consequence is that the failures are cemented into the experience of those individuals and are passed on into the plethora of future generations, as we recruit over 5,000 in the next two years and probably far more following this.

Although many may join the ranks of officers heading for the exit, filled with disillusionment and disappointment on a short lived career, many with little other choice will remain and pass on the craft to these generations as the mistakes perpetuate themselves through class after class of recruit. Over such a long career path, it will be a fortunate soul that manages the journey carrying such mistaken beliefs and training without significant consequence to themselves and others.

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