Reflections on an N8 Policing Research Partnership PhD

Lindsay Youansamouth is researching an N8 PRP supported PhD studentship at Lancaster University focusing on police joint working. In this article Lindsay discusses her PhD research and some of the challenges and benefits the N8 PRP has brought to her collaborative PhD.

Background

Collaborations between police and academic institutes have multiplied in recent years, reflecting the increasing recognition of the benefits of fostering police-academic partnerships to facilitate knowledge exchange. The literature recognises intrinsic difficulties in bringing together academics and police who are effectively working on two different ‘planets’: research and practice.

The N8 PRP, through a collaborative doctoral studentship programme, has begun to break down many of these barriers, providing me with the privileged position to conduct research with rather than on the police. Having stepped-out of the fields of mental health and child protection social work, I was particularly passionate about the research being informed by and having ‘real impact’ in practice. I am of no doubt, that these combined personal and professional aims, would have been a struggle to fulfil without the support of the N8 PRP. Of course, the research has also taken place in a wider context whereby there is mounting emphasis placed on evidence-based policing and the professionalisation of policing in the UK.

In what follows, I reflect on my experiences of the N8 PhD journey so far. In particular, I focus on how the N8 has facilitated my PhD, as well as some of the challenges the police-academic collaboration has presented. These reflections are drawn from an ethnographic study exploring how police work in partnership with other agencies. As part of the research, I spent 14-months ‘in the field’ amongst police officers and civilian staff of all ranks and levels. This gave me the unique experience of being able to spend a prolonged period embedded in the research setting, where I observed meetings, shadowed officers and non-uniform staff, followed operations, attended incidents and ‘hung out’ in informal settings (e.g. canteens, rest rooms, kitchens and police social events).

What challenges did the N8 PRP PhD present?

The challenges I recently brought to my supervisory discussion when preparing a talk suitable for both an academic and police partner audience, in many ways, mirror the trials and tribulations I have experienced throughout my doctoral research. How do I communicate the background, aims and findings of my research in a language and format, which will engage both academic and police partners simultaneously? How do I bring together abstract and theoretical understandings, with police requests for tangible solutions? Not only am I expected to fulfil a doctoral traineeship – by producing an 80,000-word academically rigorous account of my original contribution to knowledge, presenting at conferences and publishing journal articles (if wanting to be in a position to compete for academic positions post-doctorate) – but I am also expected to provide clear findings, which speak to and address the ‘real life’ issues faced by contemporary policing. Certainly not an easy task! Yet one which is faced by many academics and thus, I found myself stepping up to embrace the challenge.

At times – usually during PhD colloquiums and events – the additional duties that I carry as a N8 PhD student have been brought to the forefront and seemed initially, in all honesty, to be somewhat of a burden or at best, an unwelcome distraction! I have spent months: I) planning a joint project, which suits the wishes of a dozen inspectors, chief inspectors, superintendents and chief superintendents; II) continually updating the constabulary on the research progress; and III) feeding my research findings back into organisational development and force reviews. Meanwhile, other students in the department have been ‘left to their own devices’ to get on with writing what they need to pass their actual PhD… did I mention the dreaded thesis?

How has the N8 PRP facilitated my PhD?

On deeper reflection, I soon came to realise that the position of being a N8 PhD student is, far more rewarding, as I see the benefits for the constabulary under study, as well as wider forces nationally, when receiving complimentary feedback at meetings and conferences where I have shared preliminary findings. Not only is my research relevant and aligned to the ‘wicked issues’ facing forces in the UK, but it has had immediate impact in contributing to: the force child protection review; developing media footage to raise awareness of victims’ perspectives of stalking and harassment; and sharing findings on the role of supervision for frontline officers. Ultimately, I feel that the challenges have better prepared me for a future career, whereby I recognise the importance and am attuned to balancing my own academic interests, with 21st century policing problems.

I have frequently been the subject of envy, as other students discuss difficulties in finding an organisation who is willing to participate in their research. I’ve lost count of the number of horror stories I’ve heard about lengthy delays with starting empirical work or last minute loss of access to an organisation. Fortunately, this is not an issue I have encountered given the pre-established participation of the local police force in the wider N8 PRP. Students have often spent months and months attempting to convince an agency of the benefits of their research, whilst I have been lucky to have the foundations ready laid for me. As part of the N8, Lancashire Constabulary were waiting with open arms to the research and were responsive to the co-production of knowledge. Well, I say that but there was certainly an open invitation strategically, an empty desk waiting and senior officers ready to greet and engage with me. The ‘buy-in’ from officers on the frontline took some further efforts, trust and relationship building. When I began to be included in the banter and police cultural rituals, namely receiving a ‘cake fine’ and getting told “you’re actually alright for a poindexter”, I slowly began to feel accepted. During a conversation with a response officer, in the latter stages of my fieldwork, I was told: “I’m glad someone’s listening to us and seeing what it’s like on the ground. I hope you’re going to take these findings back and share them with the bosses”. After explaining the purpose of the N8 PRP to officers, who had not previously bought into the benefits of evidence-informed policing, they began to express appreciation for the research process, particularly the chance to convey their perspectives anonymously to an outsider. There were repeated comments regarding how the research has helped build bridges between frontline and senior officers.

I feel that through the N8 PRP I have been able to promote the ethos that partnerships between academics and police can be mutually beneficial at various levels in influencing research, driving strategic thinking, and impacting on frontline practice. I hope that the positive relationships, which I have developed by listening to the voices of officers (and civilian staff for that matter), will continue to grow and set a firm footing for future PhD students and researchers. Finally, I would like to express how extremely grateful I am to the N8 PRP, Lancashire University and Lancashire Constabulary for their continuing help and support in facilitating this research.

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