Masters Conversations


The education and training of police officers has been of interest to many of us in Fitzwilliam College for many years. Professor Sir Anthony Bottoms (Life Fellow, and formerly Wolfson Professor of Criminology and Director of the Institute of Criminology) was instrumental in the launch in the University of Cambridge of a part-time Masters degree for senior police officers nearly 20 years ago.

The course still plays an important part in the teaching and research agenda of the Institute of Criminology. The teaching for this course happens in three-week blocks, interspersed with private study and essay preparation when ‘back on the job’. These teaching blocks take place during University vacations, because that is when colleges have accommodation to offer; that being the case, it has seemed best to concentrate the students in one or two colleges. From the start, Fitzwilliam has been one of these colleges, which explains why there are so many senior police officers among recent Fitz alumni. It seemed particularly apt, therefore, to launch our new series of “Master’s Conversations” with a police-related topic: what does a police officer need to know?

The discussion was wonderfully led by alumna Assistant Commissioner Cressida Dick QPM (Criminology 2000) and Professor Dame Shirley Pearce DBE CBE. Cressida (pictured, right) is well known as the most senior female officer in the Metropolitan Police (in 2013, she was listed by the BBC’s Woman’s Hour as one of the hundred most powerful women in the UK).  Professor Dame Shirley Pearce (pictured, left) is Chair of the Board of the new College of Policing. She is not a police officer. After a distinguished career in health policy, she was until recently Vice Chancellor at Loughborough University and is now a member of the University of Cambridge’s Council as well as a board member of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and Health Education England.

If anyone was in any doubt, the discussion certainly showed that policing is an immensely complex craft, as sophisticated and difficult as anything on the planet.  The College of Policing is a new attempt to bring higher and consistent standards to police training across the 43 police forces in England and Wales. It was announced by the Home Secretary in December 2011, and the first chief executive officer is another Fitzwilliam alumnus: Alex Marshall (Criminology 2003), erstwhile Chief Constable of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, took up his new role in February last year. The College of Policing has a hugely challenging task: as Alex told the House of Commons’ Home Affairs Committee last summer, he plans a system of continuous professional development to guide officers through their careers year-by-year, to ensure that their skills are up to scratch, with standards laid out for each rank and specialist position. The Committee’s report concluded that the College of Policing has the potential to be a “key instrument of renewal within the police service”, but the challenges it faces are enormous, and financial challenges are not least among them – as can be seen in the committee’s report on leadership and standards.

Our discussion did not focus on resources, but inevitably it did touch on politics. What should be the role of newly elected local Police and Crime Commissioners in the training debate? Is having 43 independent police forces really such a good idea in the modern world? Are accelerated promotion schemes for graduates a good idea? More controversial than accelerated promotion schemes are current plans for “direct entry” to senior police ranks from those who have not worked their way up the ranks. Currently all senior police officers will have had two years of street-based experience, which many people believe not only helps a young officer in developing the “craft” of policing (the practical and personal skills that are vital, particularly in a crisis) but also gives these officers credibility with those they later lead. Is it inevitable that constables have more confidence in leaders who have had frontline experience? There is a view that multi-point entry could assist in increasing the proportion of female and ethnic minority officers in senior positions and that direct entry could help to bring new ideas into the police from outside. A very sensitive area.

Back to the question of the curriculum: our guests were asked if police officers should be taught history. Of course, I say; but the history of policing is itself deeply contested. We all believe in ‘policing by consent’, but what does that actually mean? Similarly, we all believe in ‘evidence-led policing’, but the reality is that we do not have very much empirical evidence for what is effective police practice – although Cambridge is doing its bit. I also think that police officers at all levels should understand why the legal framework is important: the law is there to help draw boundaries, lines between actions which are acceptable and those which are not. The judge is not there to get in the way, except when things have gone wrong or seem to be going wrong.

When we came to discuss the ethics of intrusive and covert intelligence and surveillance, I think we all agreed that this was a question for us all, and not just for the police themselves. We all need to discuss what we want the police ‘for’, and how we think they should do ‘policing’. No easy answers, but really important that it should be debated.

Nicola Padfield

About Nicola Padfield

Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.

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