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What more can be done to protect the protectors?

“Something that ought not to be happening and about which someone had better do something now”. In 1974 this was the definition given to the policing mission by US Sociologist, Bittner. We can debate it but it neatly captures the complexity and dangers that police face every day.

Whatever people view of the police, in the UK, when the wheel starts to come off the police will be called – they are always the bottom line. Bittner went on say that policing is like Florence Nightingale being in pursuit of Wille Sutton (a famous US robber). It’s not a bad metaphor of the public expectations of policing. We will never eliminate risk to police officers, similarly you can’t have police officers dressed like Power Rangers all the time. So where is the balance between scrutiny and empowerment? Where is the balance between officer protection and police officers representing the community they serve?

Where we can start is looking at these questions not ideologically but based on evidence. Let’s accurately measure what and where the threat is, let’s next understand what intervention mitigates that threat, and importantly what are the consequences of that intervention? Stress, shifts, assaults, exposure to child abuse imagery, being subject to sometimes vexatious complaints – accurate measurement of these factors is the first thing that needs to happen – and then understanding what interventions are effective. Here is a great example when West Midlands Police was looking at how and whether we should invest in Body Worn Video (the debate around BWV all feels very yesterday but at the time it was live). A response shift Inspector called Darren Henstock (now been pinched by Western Australia Police) decided to work out what the effects of BWV would be. Rather than opine in the finest traditions of experience-based policing, he decided to test. Linking in with Barak Ariel from Cambridge University he randomly allocated shifts to use body worn videos and then not. Once he had enough data he looked at aggregated outcomes for all those shifts when there was body worn videos and when not. Figure 1 shows the result.

Graph produced by Barak Ariel. Do not re-use without permission.

Use of force was much less when the video was on. Further to that, when the video was off, there were 10 complaints, and when on…zero. And a 12% increase in charges. I am not sure why (further evidence comparing results over many different experiments nuances this picture). Do the cameras moderate the public’s behaviour or vice versa? The difference was clear all the same. This evidence informed the decision makers about investment decisions – because it was not opinion, or even correlation – but a causal link between a tactic (video) and an outcome (safety).

It is perhaps not fair to compare the firearms issue in the UK and the US because of the wholly different contexts – but just look at what a UK based firearms operations needs to go through before deployment. Is the subject with the gun emotionally or mentally distressed? How will your tactic ameliorate risk then (i.e. back off without exposing others to harm)? Are you going to pursue the offender (mostly no, because of the huge risk to the public)? The tactical firearms commander assesses risk on all groups including the subjects and potential victims – they have a tactical advisor and have to get the agreement of a senior officer before launching an operation. How do we minimise risk to others whilst maximising the safety of police officers in this firearms operation? This is the central concern – rightly – of the commanders. Being unfair then – is there a similar process across the 12,135 US police agencies who use guns, or could there be opportunities to reduce the death rate of both police officers and citizens? I don’t know, but there could be.

Let’s start with the evidence then. This is what we need to know and use if we are going to protect the protectors…

Featured image credit: Met Officers. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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