This qualitative narrative research was conducted with an Australian police jurisdiction. The paper draws on practice theory to interpret the narratives of a group of traditionally trained police officers’ perceptions of policing practices, professional practice, learning and professionalism within the context of police professionalisation. Thirty-six police officers from various ranks, including senior management, participated in semi-structured interviews. Many police officers’ understanding of professional practice and learning is centred on technique, technical knowledge, image, uniform, and reputation. Our research reveals, the practices of police are embedded in the discursive practices of policing and the institutional constraints of the organisation, that maintain and perpetuate past stories contrary to the agenda to professionalise policing. The research is set in the broader context of national and international agendas driving the professionalisation of policing which sits alongside prevailing conceptions of policing as a craft or trade, learned on-the-job, and police officers as artisans.
Our concern in this research was to gain insights to how police officers’ perceived policing practices, learning and professional practices. We apply practice theory to examine the narratives of traditionally trained police officers’ perceptions of policing practices, professional practice, learning and professionalism within the context of police professionalisation. Traditionally trained refers to those officers who were educated through training programs delivered wholly in and by the police academy and in the workplace.
Conceptions of policing as a craft or trade, learned on-the-job, and police officers as artisans, have dominated police training (Jones, 2016; Marenin, 2018). These conceptions of practice and learning reinforce the technical aspects of practice, positioning police officers as good law and order technicians and employees (Conti & Doreian, 2014). The century old debate about police and professionalisation continues nationally and internationally today (Christopher, 2015; Green & Gates, 2014; Jones, 2016; Williams et al., 2019). The need for police to “be” professional in their practice and behaviour is understood, however, professional behaviour and practice do not denote professionalism (Lanyon, 2007; Fleming, 2014, p.356) describes the definition of police professionalisation as a “thorny issue” with many scholars struggling to identify standards for police professionalism. An understanding of what professionalisation means in practice for police officers, and how it will be realised or achieved in still under construction (Neyroud, 2011; Jones, 2016, p.233) notes the shift from craft to profession since the late 1980s in response to societal changes and the changing nature of crime (Reiner, 2010), with requirements for increased technological expertise and a standard of education for police officers. Many in the police ranks equate professionalisation with increased salaries and enhanced reputation, for instance. Little change is expected in terms of their work and practice and the quality of the service they provide (Burgess et al., 2006; Green & Gates, 2014). In considering what constitutes professionalism, Rowe (2009, p.4, emphasis in original) notes challenges in whether it relates to “the integrity of individual police officers” or if it could be determined by “officer[s’] performance”. Further to this, “education, training and [professional] standards” have been the yardsticks for professionalising police in Australia and New Zealand (Fleming, 2014, p.357). Throughout this paper these issues about police practices, professionalisation and education will be examined. Integral to this research is how policing is defined and understood, what is meant by police culture, and the role of training and education for police practice.
Our efforts to examine past and more recent literature to define policing and police work reveal no fixed or precise definition of policing and police work (Reiner, 2000, 2017; Rowe, 2008). Instead, a range of approaches are evident in contemporary literature that give some insights to policing. For example, ranging from problem-oriented policing (Scott & Clarke, 2020, p.1), to community policing (Cordner, 2014) to intelligence-led policing. A popular and enduring image of police, perpetuated by media, is that of law enforcers exercising their state-sanctioned authority to deprive citizens of their liberty and to use force (Rowe, 2008). This aligns with the assertion that police represent images of power, authority, physical strength, and influence (Westmarland, 2017): characteristics integral to police identity, purpose, and practice. The militarisation of policing in the USA and Australia, post 9/11 and promulgated by prevailing discourses of terrorism and concerns for national security, strengthens this image (Balko, 2014; McCulloch, 2001; Murray, 2005). However, tensions and contradictions abound with the transition to a new professionalism, as police engage in community-oriented approaches to responding to social and judicial issues, crossing of professional boundaries, and attempting to balance social control with greater social responsibility (Cordner, 2014; Murray, 2005). Integral to police practices is police culture.
Research of police culture has extended over many years (Cockcroft, 2015; Shearing & Ericson, 1991). We acknowledge it is a complex concept imbued with negative and positive practices and outcomes. Cockcroft’s (2015, p.186) critique of police culture in the context of professionalism acknowledges the debates around police culture and the connection of police culture with “bad policing”. Rather than a homogeneous, static culture, research reveals a plurality of cultures, albeit with certain cultures having hegemonic status (Loftus, 2010; Geertz, 1973, p.12) refers to the “webs of significance” comprising symbols, narratives, discourses, practices which convey culture that influences how people perceive themselves in relation to one another. For police and police culture, it is about how police officers view themselves and their practice. Given the complexity, uncertainty, and fluidity of police work (Lanyon, 2007; Ransley & Mazerolle, 2009), culture creates coherence, certainty, and clarity (Bauman, 1999). It provides structure, meaning, and control by safeguarding existing thinking and practice and counteracting resistance or efforts to disrupt the current state of equilibrium (Bauman, 2005). Culture comprises a repertoire of beliefs, practices, habits, myths, or misconceptions, and discourses that construct “ways of talking”, “ways of seeing”, thinking and being that are resistant to challenge and change (Fairclough, 1995, p.41). Fundamental to police practices and culture is police training.
In Australia, recruit training programs in police academies range from: 25 weeks with 12 months’ probation in Queensland (Queensland Police Service, 2020; Rogers & Wintle, 2021); six months plus three months’ probation in South Australia (Rogers & Wintle, 2021; South Australia Police, 2021); and 31 weeks plus 21 weeks’ probation in Victoria (Rogers & Wintle, 2021; Victoria Police, 2021). The recruits, in all but one police jurisdiction in Australia, are paid a wage or an allowance (Rogers & Wintle, 2021). They are subject to the organisation’s authority, standards, and sanctions, and their behaviour and progress monitored and assessed (Conti & Nolan, 2005). Despite the variation in the length of training across the states, all recruits graduate with comparable powers and are expected to perform as fully-fledged police officers. Integral to recruit training is the quality of police training and education.
Bradley (2009, p.102) and later Cox (2011, p.4) describe police training and education in Australia respectively as: “… past their used-by dates”; “intellectually redundant”; and based on “behaviouralist-orientated competency-based training”. Bradley’s argument is bolstered by the fact that 25 years have passed since the Fitzgerald (1989) Royal Commission of Inquiry commented on the inadequacy of police training in Australia. Later Royal Commissions – Wood (1997) and Kennedy (2004) – reinforced Fitzgerald’s findings. Learning in the police academy involves the socialisation of recruits to policing as a craft, trade, or a residual (time-limited) form of apprenticeship (Bradley, 2009), as opposed to an opportunity for deep learning to equip recruits for the exigencies and uncertainties of policing in the 21st century. Marsick and Watkins’s (2015, p.103) research of informal learning notes the strength of the influence of “unchallenged beliefs, values, and norms learned through families, communities, religion, and education”. Police training represents a fundamental means of socialisation and managerial control (Author 1, 2019; Bradley, 2009; Conti & Nolan, 2005).
Theoretical and Conceptual Framework
Our conceptual lens for this paper draws on practice theory, its central proposition being to understand human activity in social and cultural life (Schatzki, 1996). In this paper we apply practice theory as our conceptual framework to understanding the practices in the field of police work in this jurisdiction. We argue the storytelling traditions of police, passing knowledge, skills, and expertise to novice police officers early in their career warrants particular attention and analysis. How their practice can be mediated by the ways things are said, thought of, and done (Kemmis, 2009). Practice theory attempts to explain peoples’ horizons of intelligibility, and why “people do what makes sense for them to do” (Schatzki, 2017). It attempts to resolve some of the tensions between structure and agency by disrupting and advancing our understanding of the social and cultural world by examining the repetitive practices in daily life (Nicolini, 2012; Schatzki, 1996, 2001; Hui, et al., 2017). In the context of policing and police practice we uncover often taken for granted ways of doing and knowing in policing. Police practice has a socio-cultural tradition of storytelling that establishes ways of knowing and practicing passed on through a revelational and authoritative account of good and not so good stories. These stories of police practice reveal ways of doing, saying, and relating that construct an enduring narrative of how policing has always been practiced (Cox, 2011; Wilkinson & Kemmis, 2015).
It is argued we are in the practice turn of education theorising that includes both first- and second-generation theorists on practice (Mahon et al., 2017; Schatzki, Knorr Cetina & Savigny, 2001). First generation theorists include Bourdieu, Giddens, Lave, and Taylor. Second generation practice theorists include Schatzki, Reckwitz, Shove, Kemmis, Dreyfus, Rouse, Gherardi, Hildebrand, Alkemeyer and Schmidt (Schatzki, 2017). In this paper, we draw on second generation practice theory to uncover and comprehend the practices of police officers themselves and their perceptions of policing practices. The relational and material facets of learning that occur through practices is affirmed by Schatzki (2012), who describes practice as a process that engages us in the organised activities of multiple people. He notes practices are embedded in human activity and “… practices are open ended in the sense that they are not composed of any particular number of activities” (Schatzki, 2012 pp, 14–15). Practices are organised by specific rules and activities within a practice that are spatially-temporally dispersed (Higgs, 2012). Practice, therefore, is situated in the lifeworld of practice and systems including “international discourses, and is grounded and released in metaphor, interpretations and narrative” (Higgs, 2012, p. 3). These conceptions of rules-based practice, discourses, and narratives are applicable to the practice of policing. Most practice theorists agree that practice is embodied and therefore a part of our bodily expressions (Schatzki, 2012; Nicolini, 2012). We develop knowledge through being in the world of practice. Schatzki outlines four key determinants that frame practice theory. Firstly, that practice is central to social life, and we develop knowledge through being in the world; our daily lives and work are significant parts of this. Secondly, the belief that practices are in themselves social entities which multiply and continue in the way that people can participate in them. They can practice within them and produce and coproduce practices with others. Thirdly, that practices can connect and form nexuses, spaces, fields, constellations, complexes enabling examination of practices within a specific field, place, or space to occur. Lastly, social phenomena of all kinds are part of or can be rooted in these nexuses and complexes (Schatzki, 2017 p.25). Higgs notes, “practice is embodied, agential and socio historically constructed” (2012, p.3) and we claim the relationality of police practice occurs in the “talk (sayings), the actions (doings)” and in the “relationships (relatings)” embedded in police education and training, within the police themselves, the leadership of the organisation, and their relationships with community and society (Wilkinson & Kemmis, 2015, p.347). The various theoretical conceptions of practice align with the narrative methodology of this research outlined in the next section and the rich descriptions of practice from the data.
Narrative is central to this qualitative research design and analysis. We understand narrative as a story of connected events, typified by a temporal structure (Braun & Clarke, 2013). Thinking narratively, we frame the research as a “puzzle” (Clandinin, 2013, p.24), given the multiplicities and complexities of the context and policing practice, requiring a breadth and depth of exploration. Narrative is chosen because of the cultural practice of telling stories (“war stories”) that inform an archetype of practice based on models of apprenticeship, or master and apprentice relationships (Tosey, 2006; Waddington, 1999). Narrative research provides “a way of thinking” about and with data (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000, p.43) that is “relational” within and across three dimensions: “temporality”, “sociality”, and “place” (Clandinin, 2013, p.39). These dimensions mirror Smith’s (2013, pp.197–198) dimensions of “temporal, emotional, and contextual” and form the basis of the analysis of the narratives which draw together segments from multiple narratives to identify predominant narratives. Smith argues that narrative analysis reveals these dimensions of an individual’s experience and provides insights to “a person as both an individual agent and as someone who is socio-culturally fashioned” (p.198).
Ethics Approval was given by the Faculty of Arts and Education Human Ethics Advisory Group (HEAG), Deakin University. The Human Resources office of the police jurisdiction distributed via email a letter (signed by the head of HR) and plain language statement detailing the research project and inviting voluntary participation. Police officers were invited to contact the researcher directly by email, to seek further information and, if they decided to participate, they received a consent form, and a time was negotiated for an interview. Approval had been given by the head of the organisation for interviews to occur during work hours, including shift work. The researcher met participants in private settings in their own work locations and travelled intrastate to conduct many of the interviews. At no time did the interviews interrupt or hinder work priorities and responsibilities.
One of the researchers and authors had been immersed in the police jurisdiction as a non-police employee involved in the education and professional learning division of the organisation. The researcher’s status as an outsider-part insider provided opportunities to establish rapport and trust in the interviews and to access police from ranks and levels across the jurisdiction. Semi-structured interviews of approximately 45–50 min were conducted with 36 police officers – 13 females and 23 males – including senior police officers in the leadership management team to inspectors, sergeants, and constables. The interviews were audio recorded, transcribed, and participants de-identified using pseudonyms and, to respect the jurisdiction’s anonymity, a pseudonym was assigned to the organisation.
Participants had a choice of one of two interviews: one focused on police officers’ perceptions of and preferences for learning, the other involved police officers reflecting on their practices through an exploration of specific workplace experiences. Nineteen of the 36 participants chose the first interview. Seventeen participants chose to critically reflect on their practice and experiences. During the interviews, participants were reminded of the counselling and psychological services available to them in the organisation and that they could stop the interview at any point. In keeping with narrative research, the semi-structured interviews enabled participants to tell their stories rather than answer questions: creating a more personalised, adaptable, shared encounter or a co-creation of multiple meanings (Clandinin, 2013; Holstein & Gubrium, 2015, p.6) argue that narrative is a “collaborative enterprise” between the “narrator and the listener”.
Data Analysis and Interpretation
The social, relational, and embodied nature of practices and the development of knowledge through practice are central to the social constructionist and narrative analytical approach to analysing and interpreting police officers’ narratives in this research. Analysis begins with listening to the recordings of the interviews, each one in full, then again slowly and in sections reflecting the ebb and flow of conversation. Consideration is given to the tone of the participant’s voice and moments of hesitancy or excitement when describing events and practices. Reflection and analysis continued as the data are heard during transcription (Sparkes & Smith, 2015). The dimensions of “temporality”, “sociality”, and “place” (Clandinin, 2013) provide an analytic and organising framework to work with and around the data from the narratives. Experiences with attention to places, things, and events are central to temporality. The sociality involves consideration of the social, emotional, cultural, institutional content and features of the narratives. The dimension of place includes what it denotes, physical locations, parameters of spaces and places where events occurred. Throughout this analytic and organising process, key insights, contradictions, tensions, silences, and doubtful matters from each transcription are noted. Codes are established as touchpoints to identify and keep track of data and map what is emerging. Writing regularly is integral to the analysis. The iterative process of writing and rewriting segments from multiple narratives enables identification of themes, in this instance, three predominant narratives and from these a layer of subsidiary narratives formed. These are outlined below.
Narratives from the Data
Three predominant narratives emerge from our analysis of the multiple narratives of the 36 police officers interviewed in this research. These are Power Relations and Knowledge, Gender and (Dis)/Embodied Practice, and Practice and Knowledge. Within each predominant narrative is a layer of subsidiary narratives that illustrate the rich and textured interplay of the talk (sayings), actions (doings) and relationships (relatings) that (re)produce power, knowledge, gender, and police professional practice. For the purposes of this paper, three subsidiary narratives of the third predominant narrative – Practice and Knowledge – will be discussed. In sub-narrative 1 – Learning the Practice of Policing – police officers’ narratives reflect how they draw on knowledge and skill to perform in situations and to be effective in their practices. Sub-narrative 2 – Practical Knowledge – outlines how police are preparing for practice, developing habits of practice through the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and procedures in the police academy. They are immersed in very intensive procedural information and are expected to be able to perform immediately after they leave the police academy. Sub-narrative 3 – Looking Good, Feeling Good in Practice – relates to the notion of professional policing being ascribed to physical appearance; the superficialities of notions of being professional rather than being a member of a profession and thinking about practice.
Sub-Narrative 1: Learning the Practice of Policing
There are numerous approaches to policing that establish multiple purposes and understandings of police work and practice. The narratives of police officers in this research reveal some of the tensions and contradictions with their work and practice. On the one hand, being comfortable and safe in their roles and ‘being a presence on the street’; representing authority and promoting social order. On the other hand, balancing this with being an emergency service and not ‘doing the warm and fuzzy stuff’ as noted by a senior police officer in the leadership and management team, managing an operational district:
We’re about making people feel comfortable in their environment, to make them feel safe by being there, investigating crime, being a presence on the streets, not about doing all the warm and fuzzy stuff around it. We’re an emergency service, a response agency (Joe, senior police officer, 34 years’ service, recruited at 16 yoa).
Affirming the view of Joe that policing is an emergency service or response agency, Len argues policing is trying to correct wrong doings, enforce laws, and to prevent reoffending:
For me, the purpose of policing is that thin blue line between what is right and wrong and policing is to try to correct the wrong doings and to ensure people don’t recommit offences. So, the functions of policing are to obviously enforce those things. We have a reactive and proactive approach (Len, constable, 10 years’ service, recruited at 20 yoa).
Fred acknowledges the emergency nature of police work requires rapid responses with things needing to be done ‘fairly quickly’; highlighting the urgency of some of their work. He also emphasises that police officers are frequently called upon to make quick judgments in practice. These judgments about practice and solving problems are frequently learned on-the-job and in practice, rather than through ‘rote’ learning. This is illustrated in the following:
If I have to learn it by rote or learn the concept and the words, then it doesn’t stay in as well. The learning is not as embedded. So, doing, understanding, doing, and working through it, applying it, is better for me. Not just the what, but the why and how, and yet there is a tendency for us to focus on the what … in times when we have to get through something and we have to do it fairly quickly and we tend to learn the what and the understanding might come later, if we’ve got time (Fred, inspector, 35 years’ service, recruited at 16 yoa).
Significantly, Fred, who is an inspector of police with involvement in and responsibility for police training, speaks about the importance of reflection on police practice. That is, understanding what he is doing and working through the issue by practicing what he does. However, he argues the real learning comes later and through reflection with one proviso, that they have time to reflect.
Sub-Narrative 2: Practical Knowledge
The topic of practical versus propositional knowledge is one of the narratives within the context of police recruit training. It highlights the complexities of recruit training; its delivery, the discursive understandings around police training and the tensions and contradictions apparent in what works well. This is reflected in the following narratives. One senior police officer who is also a corporate manager notes that policing is a mix of practical skills and theoretical knowledge:
Policing is a mix of skills-based and education-based training. Our approach to training is that you take a bunch of people, stick them in the academy for X number of months and you bombard them with a lot of information, give them a taste of what operational policing is about and then unleash them on the public. They’re trained up to be uniformed constables. (David, senior police officer and corporate manager, 31 years’ service, recruited at 18 yoa)
Holly argues police training is limited, given the role of police, and, in comparison to the years of training for other professions and professionals. Police recruits in this jurisdiction graduate and begin their practice in less than 12 months, as Holly’s words illustrate:
The training that’s delivered for police generally is limited, especially for the role that police undertake. If you consider it takes less than 12 months to qualify to go out and to look after other people’s lives is really, really limited, when you think to go into a profession you have at least four years and then on top of that most workplaces deliver additional training (Holly, constable, 5 years’ service, recruited at 26 yoa).
Leo notes the importance of practical knowledge and skills, developed informally and largely relationally through observing the practices of experienced police officers. For him, learning police practice is a practical experience developed through their immersion within the field of police work, away from the ‘confines’ of the police academy:
Learning is a practical thing. People who want to learn gain the most from working with experienced people and gleaning the experience from them. The academy provides you with a foundation for learning, but it’s developed out on the field after leaving the confines of the academy (Leo, sergeant, 23 years’ service, recruited at 18 yoa).
The narratives reveal most police officers think their training is inadequate; lacking theoretical or knowledge foundations required to work within diverse circumstances, issues, and with diverse people. Whilst some note the importance of apprentice style immersion with experienced police, others believe this is inadequate. The next section focusses on another significant narrative generated from the data about the contradictory views and meanings of being ‘professional’.
Sub-Narrative 3: Looking Good, Feeling Good in Practice
A significant sub-narrative from the narratives is police perceptions of the concept of being professional. The narratives reveal that many police officers align the notion of professionalism with embodied expressions of appearance. Uniforms, neatness, and personal presentations were equated with ‘looking good’ and ‘looking professional’. This is illustrated in the dialogue below from Charles:
I’m a big believer in appearance for professionalism. I think you’ve got to present well. I think you have to present as trained and as controlled and calm within this job. So, you know, that the public perception of a professional organisation is someone who looks smart. It’s your own behaviour in front of your peers and in front of the public and the customers (Charles, sergeant, 23 years’ service, recruited at 18 yoa).
The importance of appearance, looking smart, neat, and tidy, is a theme that consistently appears in the police officers’ narratives. Elliott emphasises the importance of uniforms:
When you think professional you think, you know, uniforms. You see people taking pride in their appearance, their work. I try to dress appropriately … It’s how they [police] present themselves in a manner that is professional and conduct themselves to the public in a professional manner (Elliott, constable, 8 years’ service, recruited at 19 yoa).
Whilst Harry also affirms the connection between being professional and appearance, he speaks about the importance of good verbal and written skills too.
Yeah, your appearance, the way you speak to members of the public and to your colleagues and to your colleagues in front of the public, your paperwork you know looks professional, not sloppy … that’s it (Harry, constable, 15 years’ service, recruited at 22 yoa)
For Eleanor, the idea of police being a profession poses a conundrum for her, which she refers to as a ‘pipe dream’. She believes the focus on uniforms and looking good and acting professional, does not necessarily mean that police are in fact a profession.
I think it’s a pipe dream that policing will be a profession. We hear it a lot, “we’re a profession”, but I just don’t think we are. We can introduce tertiary studies and have affiliation with XX university to show we are moving forward. We can change our uniform and we can look nice, and that’s certainly acting professional, but it doesn’t make us a profession (Eleanor, constable, 6 years’ service, recruited at 28 yoa).
In her narrative, Eleanor mentions the introduction of tertiary studies in police education, but she is unconvinced that the advent of university qualifications will contribute to police professionalisation.
Our investigation of police officers’ narratives of their perceptions of professional practice, learning, and professionalism reveals significant themes reflected in three sub-narratives of practice. Conceptions of policing as a craft or trade, learned on-the-job continues to dominate police officers’ perceptions of their work and practice (Ryan & Ollis, 2019; Jones, 2016; Marenin, 2018). Despite the emergence of various approaches to policing, no fixed or clear definition of policing and police work is evident (Ryan & Ollis, 2019; Reiner, 2000, 2017; Rowe, 2008). Instead, there are multiple ways in which police and their practice can be understood, designed, applied, and propagated through “sayings, doings and relatings” in the workplace (Wilkinson & Kemmis, 2015). Police officers in our research highlight the quick action, emergency response nature of police practice, while simultaneously acknowledging the symbolic “authoritative signals” and social order (Loader, 2014, p.45) of a police presence, albeit without ‘doing all the warm and fuzzy stuff’, as noted by Joe. Tensions and contradictions continue as to the purpose of police and their practice in 21st century. Yet as Higgs (2012, p.3) notes, practice is “agential” and “embodied”, but it is also “socio-historically constructed”. What is evident in the data is most police learn and continue to learn through embedding themselves in practice on-the-job. Their preference for applied learning through doing and practical mastery rather than learning through propositional knowledge, despite their formal police training, is evident and a consistent idea in the data. The importance of informal and incidental learning in the development of practices in the workplace is reinforced here (Marsick & Watkins, 2015; Schatzki, 2012). It highlights the contexts and processes (consciously or not consciously) that enable practices to arise and be shaped by the values and systems of an organisation or profession (Kemmis, 2005). This is important for novice police and their introduction to the practices of policing. As Kemmis (2009, p.33) notes, a practitioner new to practice is influenced by the mediating preconditions of practice which:
Prepare the ground for the practitioner as she or he comes to begin practice in this or that particular place. How things are said and thought about in this place how things are done, the resources and facilities available, and the other people involved and the established relationships create an always ready pre-structured framework that can enable and constrain practice in a particular place.
The police officers in our research have been trained wholly in and by this jurisdiction’s police academy with most trainers drawn from the lower ranks (constable and sergeant) and whose ability to train is measured by their operational capabilities and reputations as “good”, fault-free police officers. Deployment at the police academy is also seen as an opportunity for a break from operational policing and shift work. In this police organisation, training and education are subordinate to operational policing, taken for granted as adequate, and treated as a process, akin to administrative, technical matters (Cox, 2011). The training is aimed at providing the foundational skills and knowledge to prepare recruits, who were, as David notes, ‘unleash[ed] … on the public’ as fully-fledged constables in less than 12 months. The training focuses predominantly on the practicalities of operational policing and defensive tactics; developing the habits of practice to support active, responsive law enforcement (Bradley, 2009). The remaining focus is given to training that supports daily routines of policing practices (e.g., administrative procedures, legislation, communication skills). Police officers view their training at the police academy as inadequate with the significant learning occurring on-the-job through stories, interactions with experienced others, observation of others’ practice: the talk, the actions and the relationships that construct meaning in their own work and work with other police (Higgs, 2012). Such practices are internalised, invading the body, reflected in stance, posture, demeanour. These practices and dispositions are relationally developed and reproduced in practices with others and can also be embedded in institutional rules and activities (Schatzki, 2012). As Alkemeyer and Buschmann (2017, pp. 14–15) note:
From a practice theoretical perspective, learning means to come to participate in a practice by acquiring and performing the skills and the knowledge required of the acceptable participation. In this perspective, not only practice but also propositional knowledge is learned. By performing practice in interaction with other participants, involving bodily perceptions and doings like movements and gestures withing the socio material of different sites of the social.
Returning to Schatzki’s (2012, p. 15) claim of “practice is a nexus of doings and sayings”. In organisations, practices are established by “understandings” and “rules” of an institution, and “[a]n action belongs to a practice if it expresses one of the understandings, rules or teleo-affective elements that organise that practice”. In recent years, police jurisdictions in Australia and most Western countries have developed partnerships with tertiary and higher education institutions to deliver police training (Williams et al., 2019). This shift to tertiary and higher education has been driven, in major part, by global trends to professionalise policing, and evidence of limitations of police training and education in Australia that perpetuated behaviourist orientations to training, lacked intellectual rigour, and was essentially out of date for the 21st century (Bradley, 2009; Cox, 2011). Police organisations with their performance-based measurements and practices can maintain imitation and reproduction of practice as opposed to adaptation to the changeable nature of daily police work (de Maillard & Savage, 2018). However, the efficacy of professionalising policing through academic credentials and qualifications is unclear, as there is limited understanding of the application of learning to practice (Christopher, 2015; Jones, 2016; Rowe, 2009, p.4) argues that the effects of police education and training on officers is difficult to assess because of numerous operational, cultural, and workplace influences that mediate their practice.
Notwithstanding this, the data reveal unresolved notions of being a profession, professional and professionalisation that are woven through the police officers’ narratives outlined here. The data reveal that police officers equate professionalisation with increased salaries, a boost in reputation, but little change to their work and practice, and quality of service (Burgess et al., 2006). Challenges in determining what constitutes professionalism for police centres on whether it relates to a police officer’s ethical stance and integrity or to an officer’s actions and practices in executing their duties (Rowe, 2009). Differently, the police officers in this research equated notions of professionalism with embodied expressions of appearance with reference to uniforms, looking smart, driving well, presenting a neat and tidy image to the public. What the narratives reveal is the corporeality and materiality of these officers’ perceptions of professionalism. Being professional is written up on the body, as police officers equate professionalism with notions of looking good and looking smart in a uniform. As Schatzki (2012, p.16) notes, “practices are inevitably and often essentially bound up with material entities”. They are bound up in endless and ongoing activity comprised of many different elements of practice, including, for instance, “forms of bodily activity, forms of mental activities, ‘things’, and their use, a background knowledge in the form of understanding, know-how, states of emotions and motivational knowledge” (Reckwitz, 2002, p.249). Elliot, Charles, and Harry equate looking good in appearance with performing well. The corporeality of policing embedded in the self and the identity of these police officers appears in the presentation of the body in policing. Such corporeal accounts of professionalism may enable these police officers to mediate the difficult realities of policing and a demanding job, where emotions are put aside to practice ‘professionally’, and this is supported by Len’s metaphor of emotional labour being ‘warm and fuzzy’. In the police practices outlined here both thinking and acting can have serious implications if mistakes are made. As Fred (police inspector) notes, you often need to make quick judgements in practice. Such embodied notions of police identity are antithetical to concepts of belonging to a profession and demonstrating professionalism in the contemporary workforce. As Eleanor (constable) acknowledges, having a smart uniform, and looking good and acting professional does not translate to police being a profession. But what is clear from the data is that ‘people can act and learn with their bodies and as bodies’ (Alkermayer & Buschmann, 2017, p.15) and professionalism to these police officers is about physical appearance - if they present well, they will practice professionally.
The data reveal the ambivalence with which formal police training is regarded by police interviewed for this research. Numerous factors are at play here. The continued existence of police academies and various in-house training programs involving experienced police officers, combined with the collegial nature of policing and its practices, and interactions with others. Such an engagement with the values of organisations and organisational culture, may well lead to tensions and potential conflict for officers between practical knowledge learned in the police academy, on-the-job, and propositional knowledge learned in the tertiary and higher education programs (Heslop, 2011). The history of police training is an important marker for the structuring of practices that are represented in the storytelling of practices here in the data. Returning to Higgs (2012) who notes practices are tied to historical and organisational discourses, and the rules and practices of an organisation which can be released in both metaphor and narrative. Importantly, the narratives expressed here reveal the limitations of formal and informal police training. Yet limitations in practices can be a harbinger for transforming practice, for how new practices can be reimagined in the future, and what can be done to move beyond this storytelling of policing, to a practice that values both concrete-material ways of knowledge learned on-the-job and proposition knowledge in equal measures.
This paper presents the findings of research with a cohort of traditionally trained police officers in an Australian police jurisdiction focused on their perceptions of professional practice, learning and professionalism. We appreciate and understand the complexities of police work in the 21st century, encompassing challenges in managing risks as they engage with the public. The nature and efficacy of police training and education is more pressing. The police officers’ narratives in this research reflect the “embodied, agential and socio-historically constructed” perceptions of being a profession and professional (Higgs, 2012, p.3).
As our research reveals, the practices of police are embedded in the discursive practices of policing and the institutional constraints of the organisation, that maintain and perpetuate past stories contrary to the agenda to professionalise policing. Using stories to impart police practice through case studies of good practice has its benefits and is an effective means of establishing practices. However, stories can also limit or hinder changes to practices and the potential for new and different ways of seeing, talking, thinking and being. What is needed here is a reimagining of police training and education that moves beyond stories of practices to a blending of concrete material ways of knowing with theoretical and conceptual elements relevant for policing in contemporary society. Ongoing professional learning and development are needed to support police and their practices in response to current and future challenges and wicked problems. Making judgements in practice based on past mistakes is flawed. Instead, making judgements in practice based on contemporary ideas, policing, and society in the 21st century is needed.
The data that support the findings of this study are part of a larger study and are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request: https://dro.deakin.edu.au/view/DU:30089436.
The paper was originally presented as a conference paper at Professional Practice, Education and Learning (ProPEL) 2019 at the University of Technology Sydney, 9-12th of December 2019.
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Ryan, C., Ollis, T. Learning to Become Professional in Policing: From Artisan to Professional. Vocations and Learning 16, 189–205 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12186-023-09311-4
- Professional practice
- Adult learning
- Police education
- Professional learning
- Practice theory