Police training staff are worried about the capability and attitude of many new recruits, a recently published study from Bournemouth University has found. Trainers believe the selection process is too easy and does not give forces the opportunity to test a candidate’s personality or reasons for wanting to join the police. Female trainers in the study also said that they still experience sexism from new recruits.
“We hear about many cases of officers committing sexual misconduct and abusing their power once they are in the job,” said Dr Fay Sweeting, Lecturer in Psychology at Bournemouth University, who led the study. “So I wanted to have a look at the joining and training processes to see if there was anything that could help forces identify poor behaviour in someone before they get their foot in the door,” she added.
The assessment process for police recruitment has not changed for many years and consists of written and numeracy tests, a twenty-minute structured interview of four questions, and four role play scenarios.
In this new study, published in the journal Policing: An International Journal, Dr Sweeting and Dr Terri Cole, Principal Academic in Forensic Psychology at Bournemouth University, held focus groups with twenty-five police trainers from four forces in the South of England. They asked the trainers for their opinions on training and recruitment and what could be improved.
“There was an overall feeling amongst the trainers that it is too easy to join now, and having the process dictated to them means they can’t decide for themselves whether someone is suitable or not,” Dr Sweeting said. “You can go online and buy a book that will coach you in how to get through each aspect of the assessment, and that causes them a lot of concerns. If you can’t pass without using standard answers from a book, are you capable of doing the job?”
Five of the six groups felt that standards had dropped and that they were having to accept new officers who were not good enough. One trainer said: “Maybe I’m just becoming old and miserable, but I do think we employ some morons… If you’re breathing, you’ll do. If there is a bottom of the barrel, we are scraping it.”
Some trainers gave examples of recruits who had strange ideas of what the job involves, with some getting upset on finding out they would need to work weekends, night shifts and over Christmas. “The trainers felt that people weren’t doing much research before coming into the police; it should be fairly obvious that it is a twenty-four-seven profession,” Dr Sweeting explained.
Each group was also asked for their views on psychometric testing. This is commonly used in North America and New Zealand and can explore a recruit’s motivation, ethics and personality.
Around half of the trainers thought it would be a good way to screen people at the recruitment stage; the other half thought it would be a good idea to hold the results in case they were needed as evidence in cases of poor performance.
“I asked the trainers if they had spotted any warning flags in the behaviours of officers they had worked with who had gone on to be dismissed for misconduct,” said Dr Sweeting. “The most common answer was that they were cocky, arrogant and that they took criticism very badly. Psychometric testing could pick up these character traits,” she added.
Whilst all trainers agreed that the culture among new recruits had moved on from the days of excessive boisterous behaviour and initiation ceremonies, female trainers from three of the four forces said they still had concerns about sexism.
“I was told about female trainers who had been questioned by young male recruits about whether they were qualified to tell them what to do,” explained Dr Sweeting. “The sexism seems to have moved from being very blatant to being more covert, excluding female officers in a more subtle but still very damaging way,” she concluded.
Dr Sweeting is now developing a trial of psychometric testing in police recruitment, funded by two forces, to see if it could identify recruits with a risk of committing sexual misconduct in the future. This was recently highlighted in a report by His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services into vetting processes by police forces.
The full study has been published in Policing: An International Journal with DOI: https://doi.org/10.1108/PIJPSM-10-2022-0131