Playing the ball: the real risks of Direct Entry into the Police.


In January, the Government went out to consultation on their proposals to introduce Direct Entry into the police.  The consultation closed at the end of March and the Government’s response to that consultation was published on 14 October.


The Government’s response states that the consultation process attracted more than 900 submissions but it is not evident that those submissions have had much effect on the original proposals.


The response makes clear that the Government remains committed to implementing fast track (to inspector) and direct entry (to superintendent) schemes which it believes will “offer an opportunity to attract the best talent to the police, bringing in new skills and ideas from other professions”.  There is also a plan to enable Police and Crime Commissioners to employ Chief Constables from overseas.


This places the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) in something of a bind.  They are unable to contradict openly the Government’s position but that position in itself threatens the promotion prospects not only of existing federated ranks but also of ACPO members themselves, blocking as it may their own access to the jewel in the crown that is the position of Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service. 


ACPO’S National Policing Lead for Workforce Management, Chief Constable Mike Cunningham, said:


“As a profession, policing has nothing to fear from being open to these ideas. There is every reason for confidence that the abundant leadership talent within policing can compete with the very best from outside” crucially going on to add thatthe advantages of first hand day to day experience of operational policing to those in command roles is not underestimated.”


The best of the publically available consultation submissions is probably that of Policing for All.   I agree with PfA’s submission almost entirely, though I feel that it is sketchy on two important aspects:


•           the relationship between individual police forces and the College of Policing in respect of the management and, more specifically, the funding of fast-track and direct entry officers;

•           the question of the personal and operational credibility of Direct Entry Superintendents. 


The lack of detail around the relationship between forces and the centre in respect of the management and funding of fast track and direct entry officers threatens to reproduce some of the problems that have dogged the current High Potential Development Scheme.  In researching this piece I spoke to a number of HPDS-experienced officers, most of whom felt that the tension between the NPIA (and now the College of Policing) and their own force needed to be resolved if best use were to be made of scheme members’ skills and abilities.  One officer told me “My Chief hated being told what to do by the centre”.  Another told me: “I’m fortunate as I work for a metropolitan force where there is still movement for HPDS members. I genuinely feel for those from smaller forces, as most will get no chance.”   Whatever fast-tracking scheme is adopted, it seems to me that it is vital for it to be run and funded from the “centre”, be that the College of Policing or an alternative, to ensure equality of access and opportunity for all participants.


The issue of credibility is less tangible.  All the submissions and comments that I have read focus on operational competence:  the ability of an inspector or superintendent to carry out their tasks, to exercise their authorities, and the consequential risk to public safety.  Some commentators have gone so far as to refer to operational credibility but I have seen no commentator unpick this concept and that of personal credibility to a satisfactory level, though Nathan Constable came close in this excellent blog:


It is this very issue which underpins the disappointing if predictable response to today’s announcement from serving officers on social networks such as @Twitter.  As has happened more than once over the past year, many have chosen to “play the man instead of the ball”, criticising those as-yet-fictional Direct Entry Superintendents rather than the Direct Entry scheme itself.  Even the eminently sensible @Boscorelli55 was incensed enough to write that Direct Entry was for “lazy, unmotivated people who want a quick power trip and good money handed to them on a plate” while the generally sanguine @30onfrontline referred scathingly to “direct entry types” being “shuttled off on projects & secondments”.  There is no evidence that those who apply for Direct Entry schemes will be any less committed to public service or policing itself than those who are currently in post and many serving officers may well have taken advantage of such a scheme were it already in existence.  However, these comments adequately validate my chief concerns about the scheme as it is proposed.


As Irene Curtis, President of the Superintendents’ Association, regularly points out, superintendents are senior operational leaders, not desk-bound administrators and, in my opinion, the key weakness in the proposed scheme is that, regardless of their competence, Direct Entrants at Superintendent level will have no operational or personal credibility.  They will not have completed the two-year probation period which marks an officer’s rite of passage and as a result staff will have no confidence in them (and their supervisors are likely to be similarly sceptical).  These superintendents will be persistently undermined as inspectors and chief inspectors repeatedly second-guess them, seek second opinions or ridicule decisions made without what is perceived to be an adequate knowledge of either the policing or the community landscape.  This continual undermining will destabilise a system based on mutual trust and respect.  It will also lead to a form of persistent bullying which will in itself have a detrimental effect on the ability of the Direct Entrant to perform his/her task effectively as s/he becomes increasingly reluctant to trust their own judgment and confidence ebbs away.


I write with no little knowledge of what I speak.  I joined Her Majesty’s Prison Service on an Accelerated Promotion scheme.  I had a degree and four years’ work experience in three different countries.  The expectation was that I would reach the grade of Prison Governor V within three years and IV within 6 years, which I did.  However, the fundamentals were learned during the two years I spent as a prison officer at HMP Brixton.  I won’t pretend that these were the best years of my life.  Far from it.  But they were the years in which I learned the craft of being a prison officer, knowledge and skills which even today stand me in good stead. 


I learned the rules and regulations and, more importantly, how easily these could be abused.  I learned how to relate to prisoners, what made officers tick and how to manage upwards.  I learned the tricks of the trade, the Spanish practices and where the skeletons were likely to be buried.  Two years was long enough for officers to occasionally forget that I wasn’t one of them, that my name was written first in the red ink that marked me out as a female officer (in common parlance, a “slit-arse”) in an almost wholly male environment and with asterisks to indicate my much-despised accelerated status.  It was long enough for me to experience the nervous energy of an alarm bell, the boredom of a night shift, the jitteriness of unlock, the endlessness of a day at court, the black humour of a bed-watch, the complexities of the relationships between prisoners, between staff and between staff and prisoners as well as the formal and informal hierarchies that impact so profoundly on institutionalised lives. It was long enough for me to learn how to talk the talk and walk the walk.  It was long enough for me to have to choose between my principles and an easy life and so experience the terror of being “sent to Coventry”.  It was long enough that, when I was promoted not to senior but directly to principal officer, there were very few duties that I had not undertaken and very little wool that could be pulled over my eyes.


These are irreplaceable skills and the suggestion that such formative experiences should be ignored is fundamental to my concerns about direct entry.  My fear is that because Direct Entry superintendents will lack familiarity with policing and with police officers, there will be an automatic if unjustified absence of trust and respect, leaving a vacuum that will fill itself with envy and suspicion.  This is where the danger lies, not just for the police but also for the public at large, and it is in no way evident to me that the Government has taken this aspect on board during their consultation. 


There is still time to change the plans but I have little expectation that this will happen.  The College of Policing is due to report back in five years and it will be interesting to see if this aspect forms part of their re-considerations.  There is the risk that, by then, much corporate wisdom will already have been lost and many promising Direct Entrants will have been quelled into mediocrity but there is still time for those with an interest in good governance and excellent leadership to keep on playing the ball.


Rachel Rogers