Changing of the Guard

NZPA - Ellen Brook | Sun April 1st, 2018

A different approach to recruit training is getting a mixed reaction. Ellen Brook reports.

Recruits photo by Jane DunnWas it the recruit with the man bun that started it all? Or was it the funky outfits appearing in the dining room? Or a pair of unironed overalls?

It might even have been the story about the young cop who wondered whether Police could legitimately ask him to search a rubbish dump for evidence.

Whatever the triggers were, the stories about what might or might not be happening at the Police College were spreading, from conversations in the corridor to, inevitably, the online milieu of the keyboard warrior.

Emails started arrived in the Police News inbox asking if rumours about a lowering of standards for recruits and a lack of discipline at the college could possibly be true.

The answer seems to depend on which side of a philosophical or generational divide you are on.

The fact is that things have changed at the college. And change, as anyone in Police knows, is the one constant you can rely on.

It is true that recruits are allowed to dress more casually in the dining hall and during PT (no more ironed T-shirts, and the blue shorts have been replaced with pants of your choice). They no longer have to parade or do drill practice once a week (that is reserved for graduations).

Room inspections are kept to a minimum and recruits can wear their hair pretty much how they like.

Discipline is, well, less disciplined – if you’re late for class, for example, you’re more likely to be threatened with a note in the diary than being told to drop to the ground and do 10 push-ups.

The imperative to salute senior officers in the college grounds has been scrapped, unless they are visitors. And all recruits and staff are encouraged to call each other by their first names.

That last one really rankles with those who have trained and served and become used to the structure and respect of rank.

Serving staff attending courses at the college report being stunned by the relaxed environment, so different to when they were there.

One of the fears being expressed is that a more casual approach at the college could give recruits a false impression of what’s expected in a section environment, where command and control is vital.

RNZPC staffAbove: Phil Weeks, director of training (left), Inspector Iain Saunders, head of school for initial training (centre) and Superintendent Scott Fraser, general manager training.

Phil Weeks, director of training at the college, puts the changes into the “continuous improvement” basket. He and Inspector Iain Saunders (head of school for initial training) and Superintendent Scott Fraser (general manager training) say there are good reasons for the new approach.

It began about three years ago with the goal of developing a style of recruit training that better reflected the modern policing environment, they say.

The focus is on creating a new breed of officer, equipped for a changing crime landscape and who is able to engage freely with the community – the friendly face of policing.

“The world is more complex and the college needed to develop training to match that and what is happening in the districts,” Mr Saunders says.

In the old days, he says, it was assumed that officers would learn all they needed from the rule book.

“It was a rigid, learning-by-rote environment. But policing was a lot simpler than it is now. We are creating recruits who are fit for purpose, prepared for the complexities of a drug and cybercrime environment, not rote learning.”

The trainers say it’s quite obvious to them that the standard of recruits has improved over the years and that those coming through now are incredibly bright people.

And along with more diversity in the ranks, thanks to targeted recruitment strategies, there is also more diversity of thought, they say. “Cognitive standards” have been raised, in part because of improved recruitment.

The people turning up for their 16 weeks at the college have already been through 12 weeks of preparation study at Unitec, and when they head to district they will have up to five weeks of field training during their probationary period.

The college is also channelling the spirit of the Police High Performance Framework strategy, with increased emphasis on values-based behaviour, problem solving and personal responsibility.

Since February last year, recruits have been evaluated on a “behaviourally anchored rating scale”, on top of their usual exams, assessing their ability to make good judgments as well as pass practical and academic tests.

“We are measuring how they put their knowledge into practice,” Mr Weeks says. And if they fall short on the behaviour scale, they will not be graduating.

The trainers say the recruits are being “measured like never before and to a higher standard”, but it may not be in ways that an older generation of cops might recognise.

“For example, while they still learn about police powers, the Bill of Rights and criminal law, we don’t teach them about the Immigration Act – they can find out the answers on that for themselves.

“The recruits are learning about themselves and their skills.”

Marching drills have been dispensed with. “Marching doesn’t happen in the districts and parading is counter to PHPF,” Mr Saunders says, adding that, previously, during the 16 weeks at the college, recruits were spending up to 20 hours on marching and only four on burglary.

RNZPC PoriruaThe new style of training is also tailored to the needs of districts, they say, and there is a huge emphasis on Auckland-based recruits and the requirements of metropolitan districts.

And, contrary to what some might think, appearance is critical, they say. The current uniform standards are as outlined in the Police rules. However, the days of short back and sides and “military buns” for women are gone.

“They come in as individuals on day one and leave as individuals at the end of their training,” Mr Saunders says.

Scott Fraser says the aim is to produce recruits who can talk and engage with people at all levels, who are approachable and know how to handle themselves in all sorts of situations. “There is more focus on community and sharing knowledge.”

But are they going to jump when the section sergeant says jump?

Sergeants in some districts are reporting that one thing they have definitely noticed about the “new breed” is that they tend to be more opinionated, more questioning of authority and not scared to come forward and make complaints.

More alarmingly, there have been anecdotal reports about new officers who have been reluctant to do cordon duty, attend a sudden death or even get out of their patrol car to attend a call-out after using TENR and deciding it was too dangerous.

“If they don’t get out the car, who will?” wondered one perplexed sergeant, who says it shouldn’t be the job of districts to “re-correct” these young officers. “They should have been prepared for what to expect at the college.”

Whether that’s the result of training in an adult learning environment, with not enough marching, or just what we’ve come to expect from “millennials”, no one is exactly sure.

An Auckland officer with 27 years’ experience says he has noticed a distinct lack of “emotional intelligence” and social skills among the new crop of constables, an observation that will no doubt disappoint the college.

Others say that while they are not yet convinced about the wisdom of relaxing the college’s quasi-military approach to training, they have been pleasantly surprised with their crop of constables. “They do have a ‘softer’ side to them,” says one sergeant, “which may not be appropriate in every situation, and I thought that might present problems, but they have proved themselves.”

Another serving officer acknowledges that there are indeed some exceptional recruits, “but there has been a gradual decline in the standard of appearance at the college and too many NCOs are scared to tell anyone off. Out in the real world, we are supposed to be tidy, which helps us when engaging with the public, particularly older people.”

Mr Fraser is clear that when faced with critical incidents, their recruits are street ready. “We are training them for the real world. If they are faced with critical incidents, they are ready to make good decisions and to support their supervisors.”

Mr Fraser says he has been told by a sergeant from Counties Manukau that the recruits arriving in the past two years are the best he has ever worked with. “We have had a phenomenal response from sergeants who have been impressed with the recruits we are turning out.”

With 4000 recruits going through in the next four years, there has never been more demand on the college.

What is worrying some observers with long memories is that the college has been though a similar cycle before. In the late 1990s, the administration introduced a more relaxed, campus-style regime, complete with university papers, in an attempt to create degree qualifications and introduce an element of professionalisation.

It was an experiment that didn’t stand the test of time (although the university exams were retained until around 2010) and was swept away in the early 2000s by another new broom, with less emphasis on “tree-hugging” and more focus on pride in the uniform, a strong operational focus, attention to street skills – and marching.

And now, the guard is changing again and the full effect of that may not be clear for several years.

“We are working our way towards a perfect storm with the numbers of recruits going through at the moment,” one anxious sergeant told Police News.

Another goes further: “The whole idea seems to be that we are all one and all equal, which flies in the face of command and control. It’s a lab and the recruits are the lab rats.”

Recruits hats in the airPhotos: Top - Jane Dunn, Wellington Police; others - NZPA.

Back to listing