PCC Blog 141

What can British policing learn from America’s West Point?

Not a lot, you might think. West Point Academy, fifty miles north of New York, is where the United States trains its military elite. 1,500 recruits a year come here for a four-year residential course that is physically, intellectually and emotionally extremely demanding. They work a six-and-a-half-day week, rising early and finishing late.

There is rigorous study and hard physical activity – with everything being scored. Among many other challenging exercises, the cadets take part in ‘ruck marches’. The purpose of carrying heavy rucksacks, under intensive conditions, is to ensure that those who become leaders have the stamina and will power to persevere and succeed: they test for ‘grit’. About fifty cadets a year drop out.

This is an expensive way of determining who has leadership potential. The training costs of every drop out are written off, along with the fifty places denied to others who may have stuck with it.

Much like ‘SAS – who dares wins’, the drawback of this training is its inability to test for stick-ability other than when cadets fall by the wayside. Cadets might score highly on the intellectual and physical tests, but still drop out.

Then a psychologist called Angela Lee Duckworth applied her mind to the problem.

She devised a simple self-administered test, taking only few minutes to complete. It consists of twelve questions, with cadets scoring themselves on a scale of 1-5. The questions are similar to these:

I am not discouraged by setbacks.

I finish what I set out to do.

(You might care to score yourself on these two questions! 5 = strongly agree, 1 = strongly disagree).

In combination, a cadet’s answers indicate key factors around ‘grit’: their willingness to persevere, to be undeterred by setbacks and adversities, to draw lessons from mistakes and errors, and critically to start over. This is a mind-set that conceptualises and reshapes ‘failure’ as an opportunity to learn and move forward. A perspective quite different from how well we might fare in physical or mental tasks. Whether recruits come with this mind set, or not, is the crucial indicator.

When these ‘grit’ tests were administered to a cohort of cadets, the scores turned out to be a far better predictor than the scores cadets received on their West Point course. Tests were then trialled over five years – with the same results: they were a reliable indicator of who would stay the course and who would fall away.

Since being used by the military, these grit tests have been administered to other groups, such as those applying to teach in very challenging schools – with the same record of success predictability.

So, this is where I think British policing could learn a valuable lesson. At the moment, student officers are selected on the basis of what they have achieved to date (mainly in terms of their education and work experience) and face a testing time studying and training on the job. But the drop-out rates, in the first few years, are considerable across the country. More than inefficient, this is an unrecoverable cost to policing, a lost opportunity for many hopeful applicants and a waste of vital public resources. It means that for policing to sustain the uplift in numbers, as set by the government, forces must continue to over recruit.

There is no way of testing in advance whether a potential recruit has stick-ability or not. But the simple grit test would be a proven predictor and could be used as part of the initial pre-selection for recruitment. If it were used, we could drastically cut the number of recruits who fall by the wayside, save a great deal of expense, and identify more suitable applicants more often.

This is what I hope British policing can learn from West Point.

Holding to account

If I am to hold South Yorkshire police to account – and that is a principal part of the job description of a Police and Crime Commissioner – I need plenty of eyes and ears across the county who can report back to me on what they are finding. So, for instance, I rely on the Independent Ethics Panel to tell me whether South Yorkshire police use force in a reasonable and proportionate manner. I use the Policing Protests Panel to advise me on how police manage demonstrations. And I depend on a group of people called Independent Custody Visitors (ICVs) to keep an eye on what happens in custody suites when people are arrested.

Last Saturday I met with this group of volunteers who came to my office for a training session – Dignity in Custody. They were men and women of different ages doing different day jobs – carer, accountant, student, retired and so on. They go in pairs from time to time to their nearest custody suite – at College Road police station for Doncaster, Churchfields for Barnsley and Shepcote Lane for Rotherham and Sheffield, arriving unannounced and reporting on what they find, using a checklist of what to look for. The training session on Saturday was concerned with the treatment of detainees who might have physical or mental disabilities.

It soon became clear from our conversations that as well as using the checklist as a guide, the ICVs also had to look around and be thoughtful about what they were seeing and hearing. Some physical disabilities, for instance, might not present themselves in any obvious way – such as epilepsy or diabetes – and it was important, therefore, to ensure that police staff had properly checked and assessed the health and well-being of those with whom they were dealing. (A nurse is present in custody suites 24/7).

Most people are detained for a matter of three or four hours, but sometimes this can be longer. Meals are provided, with vegetarian, vegan and halal options. These are some of the choices: Chicken Casserole (h), Vegetable Chilli (vg), Vegetable Curry (v), Lamb Hotpot.

I was able to present a number of the ICVs with Certificates thanking them for giving service in this way over a number of years. So many congratulations to:

Wayne Griffin

Stephen Clark

Joanne Clark

Ruth Holloway

Mark Wortley

who have all been ICVs for five year or more, and to John Burns, who has served for ten years. We thank them all, and if anyone reading this, of whatever age, and wherever you are in the county, would like to join them, please let us know.

Dog bites

Each morning, I read something called the Chief Constable’s Log, which lists the more serious crimes and incidents of the previous 24 hours. Incidents where dogs have attacked not only adults but also children and babies appear far too regularly. In a previous blog I wrote about what seemed to be a growing number of incidents involving attacks by dogs of certain breeds.

Last week was no exception and a young teenager was the latest to be savaged in this way in Sheffield. He has life-changing injuries.

Many of the dogs in question are XL Bullies, Cane Corsos and ‘Pocket’ Bullies – costing anywhere between £200 and £2000. They are not illegal, not subject to the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act; but as breeds they seem now to have form. I know that many postal workers are fearful of those addresses where these dogs are kept. Neighbours too have from time to time asked me what can be done. It is hard to do anything on the grounds that something might happen, though too late when it does.

I had thought that people might be more careful about acquiring these types of dog when they had babies and children, but it seems not. Owners have told me that the dogs are ‘gentle’ and ‘loving’ and ‘great with kids’. Everyone with one thinks that the problem lies with the owners, not the dogs;  and they, of course, are exemplary owners. I have come to the conclusion that this is not true. The dogs can be the problem. Whether through a lack of knowledge, training or social responsibility, the owners just add to it.

Stay safe.