Can university graduates really become police detectives in 12 weeks? The jury’s still out

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The announcement of a plan by government ministers to recruit and develop new graduates into police detectives with a 12-week training course, instantly polarised opinion. While the minister of policing, Nick Hurd, declared his “delight” at the introduction of new talent, the Police Federation called it an “insult” to its current members.

Based on discussions I have had with senior officers, operational detectives and academics, I aim to present both sides of the debate and allow the reader to consider all the arguments.

A police force in need

The chief proponents of the scheme, the Home Office and the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), argue that it will help the police recruit more detectives, and increase their effectiveness.

This is for three main reasons. First, it is a reasonable response to a national crisis in detective numbers. Most of the country’s police forces are suffering from a shortage of investigators, and the lack of new recruits leads to excessive stress on those already in their roles.

Second, as society evolves and generates new types of criminality, the police must evolve in tandem. In recent years, increasingly effective security measures have cut some conventional crimes (car theft, burglary). But organised crime, online crime (fraud, child pornography) and hidden crime (child sexual exploitation) appear to now be more prevalent. Snapping up more graduates and fast-tracking them through, it has been suggested, will create a more diverse, flexible police force better equipped to take on these new challenges.

Cybercrime is on the rise. shutterstock

Finally, since the 1990s, criminal investigation has developed as a research area in both physical (forensics) and social (psychology, sociology, criminology) sciences. And so the scheme also seeks to harness the academic prowess of university graduates fresh from research-heavy degrees, who can get to grips with the new challenges facing the police.

Offender profiling – popularised by 1991 Oscar-winner Silence of the Lambs – offers a quick and low-cost approach to identifying suspects by matching up crime scene behaviours with offender characteristics. New techniques for improving witness testimony (cognitive interviewing), and suspect examination (investigative interviewing), ushered in a new age of behavioural insight, while scientific advances such as DNA analysis became increasingly significant.

But these methods bring their own dangers. The original FBI research that kickstarted profiling has since been widely discredited, while in the UK an attempted sting operation against a profiled suspect met with fierce criticism. Even forensic science techniques have generated concern when not practised with proper professionalism. The hope is that graduates with more experience in research methodology will be better-equipped to employ research-led techniques in a more effective manner.

Overzealous and under-qualified?

So much for the positives. Other organisations, such as police staff association the Police Federation, have strongly criticised the initiative, arguing that the existing structures are much more likely to create high-quality investigators.

Young police officers are in demand. shutterstock

Under the current system, serving officers experience the reality of criminal investigation before deciding that they want to become detectives. A graduate, on the other hand, may be more influenced by the notoriously inaccurate representations in cop shows and detective stories.

Some also argue that the plan ignores the root cause of the problem - the steady devaluing of the role of the detective. Detectives were recently left livid after it emerged that uniformed officers receive higher pay due to their shift allowance. If the detective role was better understood and the demands of the job more appreciated, critics suggest, its value would rise and recruitment would increase.

An 2017 NPCC report also highlighted that many UK forces (Metropolitan Police Service, South Yorkshire, Durham, Essex, Hampshire, Devon and Cornwall) already have systems in place to fast-track detectives, or use civilian investigators to fill related roles. Critics say that these approaches deserve proper evaluation prior to the rolling out of any national scheme.

Time will tell

There is no doubt that the challenges that the police face today are very different to those they faced in the past. Society has experienced unprecedented technological and economic change, while the population is larger and moves around more, increasing the pressure on law enforcement. Police forces are also saddled with contracting budgets, but, constrained by their leadership and tight organisational structures, it is also argued that they have been slow to adapt to the modern world.

Change is clearly necessary, and the direct entry scheme for detectives is responding to a well-documented need. But like many other policing initiatives, we lack a base of hard evidence with which to reliably predict its success. Time will ultimately be arbiter of which of these two sides is proved right.