The Shift to Professionalization of Policing

The Shift to Professionalization of Policing blog header
The Shift to Professionalization of Policing blog header

Dr. Scott Blandford follows up with his perspective on the professionalization of policing.

In light of evolving skillsets, community expectations, and legislative changes, the question of whether policing is a skilled trade or a profession is worthy of closer examination. Police officers have long subscribed to the belief that policing is a profession and held in high esteem by the public. However, critics suggest that policing does not meet the definition of a profession. The need for higher levels of education was not a general consideration for entry-level officers, as a consensus among many police managers was that “street smarts” and common sense were all that was required. Traditional recruit training was (and still is) based on an apprenticeship model that included a balanced combination of short-duration classroom instruction (i.e., police college/academy) and on-the-job learning from an experienced officer (i.e., field training). 

Often considered synonymous within the police environment, the terms education and training are distinctly different. Education is a continuous process involving the development of knowledge, critical thinking skills, and judgment that allows a person to see varying shades of gray. Training is a targeted response to help employees acquire job-specific technical knowledge, skills, and abilities to perform effectively in their current position. In the simplest terms, training tells you how and education tells you why.  Police organizations invest heavily in training for officers, but education is often left to the individual officer to pursue, and police managers sometimes look unfavourably on highly educated officers. The apprenticeship model is most closely associated with blue-collar occupations and retains many of the artifacts associated with skilled trades.

Many police leaders declare that police officers act professionally and therefore refer to policing as a profession, yet these are two distinct concepts, as acting professionally does not make one a member of a profession. Numerous definitions of what constitutes a profession exist, but there are several core characteristics that delineate a profession from an occupation. Characteristics include a professional association, institutionalized training, licensing, work autonomy, post-secondary education, and contributions to the discipline’s body of knowledge. Further examination of these attributes indicates that Canadian police officers maintain membership in local, provincial, and national associations; police colleges/academies and ongoing training opportunities address the institutionalized training characteristic.

In Canada, police officers are not “licensed” to practice in the traditional sense, as their authority is derived from the applicable legislation and delegated by the police chief. Once an officer completes a period of probation, removal from their position must be by order of the chief and for just cause, and that action is subject to external review. Although police officers operate with authority to exercise discretion in the application of law enforcement, the extensive forms of governmental and civilian oversight significantly diminish their work autonomy. The final two characteristics present the highest hurdle for the professionalization of police services. A disconnect exists between police organizations and academic institutions relative to applied and pure research. Some suggest that practitioner-led research is required to contribute to a discipline’s body of knowledge, and until police-practitioners engage in an examination of their own practice, policing will never transition to a true profession; although, the creation of post-secondary programs specific to policing and public safety are helping to bridge this gap.