I attended a dinner recently where the organised topics were professionalism and leadership in the police. We were an invited crowd, including many of the top brass of the police themselves and those who regulate them. It was a fascinating discussion.
What dawned on me as I heard the various contributions was how much baggage the term ‘professional’ carries. No one wants police who are not professional. But being professional isn’t about codes and policies, degrees and qualifications, social standing or respect. Being professional is about pride in your work, attention to detail, owning and upholding your standards.
Much of the conversation appeared to confuse criticisms about the lack of professionalism of police organisations (which was one of the most striking features of arriving in this world) with criticism of police individually being unprofessional. I would suggest they are not, at least to no greater degree than in other walks of life, though the culture they work in does not often help them.
There also appears to be an angst that, at its very core, policing is somehow an unsophisticated occupation. That results in a reluctance to celebrate the role in simple terms and to emphasise the complexity. I think that is utterly misplaced. Simple does not mean unsophisticated. Indeed the mark of true professionalism – and leadership – is to explain the complicated in simple terms.
Being professional is not just having a degree. There are plenty of hyper-educated halfwits with a deeply confused sense of integrity and little loyalty to a professional ethos. Equally, there are plenty of street-educated sloggers with a clear sense of right and wrong and profound loyalty to their chosen occupation. I know which I would call a professional.
What this leads to is the importance of character and culture. Only leadership can change the professionalism of the police and shape, so far as it needs it, the profession of policing. That is because only leadership can change an organisation’s culture. No policy, inspections, diktat or bureaucracy will change how people think. People change how people think.
Picking, nurturing and promoting leaders will be the most important thing the police can do for their profession. That is why I think the most profound of the government’s reforms to policing is yet to take effect. Direct entry, fast-track promotions and a wider pool of potential chief constables will do more to shape the long-term future of policing than any codes, colleges or commissioners.