Is this the end of the PCSO?

Dr Megan O’Neill

These are dark days for PCSOs.

Well, actually, that assumes that PCSOs have ever had bright days. I am sure there must have been some along the way…perhaps for about a week…in 2009?

The Police Community Support Officer (PCSO) role has had a difficult run from the beginning. Brought into existence in England and Wales with the Police Reform Act (2002), PCSOs were thrust upon police forces without much warning or preparation. In some areas, there was not even the physical space to accommodate these new staff in police stations. Training for PCSOs in the early days was rather variable across the 42 forces with some only providing a few weeks of classroom instruction and a couple weeks of observation in the field before sending the new PCSOs out on their own into local communities. There was a great deal of confusion for those supervising PCSOs as to what these officers were meant to do and, just as importantly, what they were not meant to do.

I conducted six months of observational research on PCSOs in two police forces in 2012/13 and heard dramatic stories from the longer-serving staff about their work in the early days when some were responding to sudden deaths, suicide attempts and burglaries in progress. Especially before Neighbourhood Policing was rolled out across E&W (in 2008), there just was not a clear sense for supervisors or call room staff about what PCSOs could and could not do.

Thankfully, this picture has improved a great deal since then. My research revealed that although misconceptions do still remain with some police officers about the role and powers of PCSOs, these staff are now firmly embedded in community policing teams. PCs and supervisors who work with PCSOs regularly have a good understanding of what they can offer the team and value their contribution. Members of the public, also initially sceptical, now report an appreciation of the role, especially for the extent to which PCSOs can attend the ‘small stuff’ which, while it may have a large impact on the life of a community, is not serious enough to command the attention of a warranted police officer. This can be issues related to anti-social behaviour, nuisance neighbours, local school and community events or even just checking in on vulnerable people.

However, there has always been a complication in the PCSO formula which puts them at risk in the face of budget constraints: they can be made redundant. As members of staff, and not servants of the crown, PCSO jobs are vulnerable in a way that those of police officers are not. And, as we know, we are now many years into a period of fiscal restraint in the public sector. Most police forces have reduced their complement of PCSOs (and police officers) since 2010, and the total number of PCSOs across E&W has dropped 40% in that time. Those PCSOs that remain find themselves with less time to go out on foot patrol and be self-directing, instead having to attend to jobs and errands for which police officers do not have the time.

A significant turn of events has recently happened, however. Norfolk Police announced in October 2017 that they would be removing the PCSO role entirely. While the staff concerned will be allocated to other roles where possible, this is indeed a serious blow to PCSOs across the country. What makes the situation even worse for PCSOs is that legislation has now been passed which enables police forces to appoint police ‘Community Support Volunteers’ (CSVs) with PCSO powers. Lincolnshire Police have been trialling CSVs for a while now (although with no powers) and Kent Police and Durham Constabulary have expressed interest in the new CSV role.

This combination of volunteers (now with potentially wide-ranging and regionally variable powers due to the Policing and Crime Act 2017) and mass redundancy gives a signal that the PCSO is expendable and not doing work of serious value. This is far from the truth. PCSOs do a great deal of work in their local areas to not only build positive relationships between communities and the police but also to assist with crime prevention work (among other tasks). This crime prevention work is achieved in a variety of ways, from leaflet drops to building a network of key informants. The positive relationships they have built in local areas is evidenced by the outcry at the Norfolk decision, in sharp contrast to the negative publicity that they received at the start of the role in 2002.

During the course of my research I came across members of the public who were happy to share information they had about potential local crimes and offenders with PCSOs, but not with police officers. The PCSO was a known and trusted face. It takes time and dedication to build relationships like these which could provide the police with valuable information. In addition to which, PCSOs can resolve issues and disputes without the need to involve warranted officers (or worse, to leave a member of the community feeling ignored because the officer was too busy to get to him or her). By reducing the number of PCSOs, it is far more difficult for them to continue to develop and nurture these connections. They no longer have the time for this work, which was a key part of their remit, because they are being tasked with short-term jobs that no one else has the time to do. A recent survey conducted by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services found that 43% of their respondents had not seen an officer on patrol (PC or PCSO) in the last year.

Volunteer PCSOs, while they may sound logical, undermine the work of PCSOs even further, rather than assisting. The key selling point of the PCSO role is their ability to be a consistent and reliable presence in a local area and CSVs cannot do this. Volunteers are not required to commit the same number of hours as a full-time PCSO would do. As such, they cannot build long-term relationships in communities, they cannot commit to attend meetings or events and they cannot undertake local problem-solving work which usually involves a significant time investment. However, they may be an attractive option to police forces looking for budget savings, but if the PCSO role is relegated to an optional service provided by volunteers much, much more will be lost than just some salary expense.

Dr Megan O’Neill is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Dundee. Email: Twitter: @drmeganoneill


Enhancing police-led restorative justice

Daniel Burn, Professor Adam Crawford, Dr Emily Gray and Professor Joanna Shapland

When delivered in accordance with principles and values, restorative justice can benefit both victims of crime and offenders, by bringing those harmed by crime and those responsible for the harm together, into communication, to resolve how best to respond to the offence and repair the harm done. However, although supported by extensive international research evidence, encouraging the use of restorative justice within policing is challenging, with officers’ decisions around which disposals to use in any given case still largely offender-focused. Consequently, although there have been recent developments in promoting restorative justice in policing, by the Ministry of Justice (through the Victim Fund) and in the Victims’ Code, there remains a considerable gap between the Government’s position and what happens on the frontline. To some extent this is unsurprising given the fact that the core principles, values and expectations of restorative approaches are different to, and sometimes at odds with, current established policing practices, priorities and ways of thinking and working, though not overall policing values.

Between September 2015 and September 2017, a team of researchers from the Universities of Sheffield and Leeds conducted a research project on restorative justice in policing. Funded by the College of Policing Police Knowledge Fund (with HEFCE/Home Office funding), the project ‘Developing restorative policing’ was a collaboration with Humberside Police and the PCC for Humberside, South Yorkshire Police and the PCC for South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire Police and the PCC for West Yorkshire and Remedi (a restorative justice service provider).

The research found that there were significant organisational and cultural barriers to increasing the take up of restorative justice in policing. Ensuring officers are equipped with the confidence and tools required to identify cases suitable for restorative justice and the skills/ knowledge to either deliver it either themselves (e.g. ‘street RJ’), or make a referral to a restorative justice service provider, is crucial to successful implementation. Equally, this should complement officers’ roles, acknowledging the fact that some roles (e.g. Safer Schools Officers and those who work in community-based or neighbourhood policing) are more suited to restorative justice than others (e.g. response officers – for whom referrals to an external restorative justice service provider may be more appropriate). In terms of training, the research found that those who participated in longer, more in depth training (such as two to three day restorative justice facilitator training) tended to benefit the most, particularly due to the practical/ role play elements of such training. It is also important that such training is repeated, so new officers can receive it, as well as there being (shorter) refresher training for officers already trained, delivered periodically, in order for them to maintain their skills.

The research also found that it is important for restorative justice to be rooted in mainstream police practice and to be something that permeates the whole police organisation, from the Senior Command Team to the frontline. Senior buy-in shows a commitment, from police leaders, to the principles of restorative justice. However, communications and messages need to be clear, reiterated and built into supervision and quality control mechanisms, in order to be effective and not lost in translation as they pass down the chain of command or become confused in a sea of other police priorities.

Having a ‘restorative justice champion’ – someone based locally, driving restorative justice – aids delivery, as they can act as a ‘go to’ person, able to coordinate developments and initiatives, and promote and disseminate information and good practice. Such a role has to be properly supported and resourced, and not something that is tokenistic.

Effective partnership working is crucial for police referring cases for restorative justice to external service providers. This is also something that benefits victims, who are given access to specialist services that prioritise their needs. Though police practice has in recent years taken on board the needs for safeguarding and supporting victims of crime, it remains the position that officers’ decisions on disposals seem to be influenced by offenders’ records and offence types, rather than victim needs. Hence referrals may be low in number and oriented towards more minor offences, particularly given officers were not aware of the benefits of restorative justice to victims in more serious cases. Although relationships between police and restorative justice providers can be challenging, the research highlighted that there are ways to make these more effective, including: effective information sharing processes, joint discussions about cases and decision making, not having cases remain on police books until the whole restorative justice process is complete, and having an electronic referral process (i.e. on officers’ hand-held devices).

Although there are a number of cultural, procedural and organisational obstacles, it is clear from this, and other research, that restorative justice benefits both victims of crime (in terms of having a voice and being sensitively treated) and offenders (in terms of holding them accountable for their actions and reducing the burden on the criminal justice system, as well as reducing reoffending), and the police organisation more generally. In addition, providing opportunities for restorative responses to crime helps shape the best use of police discretion in ways that directly serve the needs of victims.

Findings from each stage of the project have been published and are freely available from the University of Sheffield, Centre for Criminological Research, Occasional Papers website:

  • Stage 1 Report:

Developing restorative policing in Humberside, South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire!/file/developing-restorative-policing-stage1-report.pdf

  • Stage 2 Report:

Learning lessons from Belgium and Northern Ireland!/file/Comparative-report-publication.pdf

  • Stage 3 Report:

Restorative justice at the level of the police in England: implementing change!/file/DevelopingRestorativePolicing3.pdf

A summary of the research findings is available at:

Daniel Burn is a Research Officer at the Centre for Criminal Justice Studies at the University of Leeds

Professor Adam Crawford is the Director of the Leeds Social Sciences Institute and Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Leeds and the Director of the N8 Policing Research Partnership.

Dr Emily Gray is as Research Associate at the School of Law, University of Sheffield

Professor Joanna Shapland is the Director of the Centre for Criminological Research and  Edward Bramley Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Sheffield

For further information contact:

Joanna Shapland, email:; Tel: 0114 222 6712

Adam Crawford, email:; Tel: 0113 343 5045


Researching Police Responses to Coercive Control

Dr Kelly Johnson and Dr Charlotte Barlow

Physical violence is now understood to be just one of many methods of domestic abuse, with psychological, emotional, coercive and controlling methods being increasingly acknowledged in academia, policy and practice in the UK. Over the past few years there have also been substantive legislative changes in this regard. On 29 December 2015, under Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act, engaging in controlling and/or coercive behaviour in intimate or familial relationships became a new criminal offence in England and Wales. The introduction of this offence has been upheld by many as a progressive step forward. It recognises the everyday realities of many abuse victims and survivors and provides a means to reform police and broader criminal justice responses to domestic violence. Particularly, given coercive control’s emphasis on the sustained ‘web’ of abusive tactics (with or without the presence of physical violence) this offence challenges the typically violence- and incident-focussed conceptualisation of domestic abuse present within policing (see e.g. HMIC 2014, 2015), which overlooks and minimises the harmful, cumulative impact of coercive and controlling behaviour (Stark 2007).

Nevertheless, academics have raised significant concerns about the introduction of the new offence (see e.g. Fitz-Gibbon et al. 2018). However, to date, critique has remained mostly conceptual and there is little empirical research exploring how the coercive control legislation is working in practice. Our N8 PRP Small Grant funded research addresses this lacuna. In collaboration with Merseyside Police, myself, Charlotte Barlow (PI) and Sandra Walklate are conducting a mixed methods study, analysing police responses to domestic abuse cases since the introduction of the coercive control offence. We have conducted a range of statistical analysis on all domestic abuse-related crimes and incidents that were recorded by Merseyside Police over an 18-month period. Additionally, the case files for each recorded crime of coercive control that took place during this time were examined in detail, using thematic and discourse analysis. The same qualitative approach was applied to a random sample of other domestic abuse crime types, such as assault, for comparative purposes. Once finalised, this research will establish a much-needed empirical evidence base on the impact of the new coercive control legislation in the context of policing domestic abuse, to inform academic debate, policy and practice. With contributions from Merseyside Police, Women’s Aid, the CPS and other valued advisors, the project will additionally develop a ‘learning tool’ to be used by police forces.

Early project findings have painted a complex picture of how the new coercive control offence is playing out in police practice. Our quantitative analysis has revealed that, of the 19,000 or so domestic-abuse related crimes recorded by Merseyside Police over an 18-month time period, only 156 of these were listed as S.76 coercive control offences. These 156 crimes of coercive control took place overwhelmingly in the context of an intimate-partner relationship, with a female victim (95%) and a male perpetrator. Compared to other cases of domestic abuse-related crimes, calls for service (i.e. 999 calls) made in the context of coercive control cases were given a lower priority grading by call handlers, however victims of coercive control were significantly more likely to be subsequently assessed by responding officers as being at ‘high-risk’ of harm. Despite this, in our data sample, recorded coercive control cases had a lower rate of arrest than other domestic abuse offences and a particularly low ‘solved’ rate (16%).

Further complexities become apparent through our qualitative analysis, which points to issues with the identification, recording and investigation of coercive control in policing responses. For example, our findings suggest there were missed opportunities for using the coercive control offence. Where it was used, a significant number of coercive control cases faced no further action due to ‘evidential issues’. We believe the prevalence of this outcome is connected to officers struggling to demonstrate experiences of sustained coercive control within victims’ statements. Additionally, we noted officers frequently failed to capitalise on other available sources of evidence when investigating coercive control cases, such as other third-party witness statements, and physical or digital evidence. Moreover, the research has also highlighted other concerns that require academic attention and critique, such as broader problems with the coercive control legislation and criminal justice responses to domestic and other forms of gender-based violence.

Currently our final conclusions remain a work in progress, but we hope to showcase our findings and launch our coercive control ‘learning tool’ at a free conference on coercive control at Lancaster University on the 27th of June. Please come along if you are interested, or get in touch to find out more about our project.

Dr Kelly Johnson is a Research Associate at Lancaster University. Email:  Twitter: @Kelly_MJohnson

Dr Charlotte Barlow is a Lecturer in Criminology at Lancaster University. Email: Twitter: @CharlotteBarl88


Implementing research findings in a practitioner setting and an ‘austere’ landscape: The thesis was the easy bit!

Dr Simon Retford

Over recent decades the availability of professional doctorate degrees has surged in the United Kingdom, as if meeting the needs of an ‘unsatisfied market’. The 2002 UK Council for Graduate Education Report  suggested that professional doctorate degrees were more suited to  “doctoral level study in a professional field rather than academia per se…[aimed at] students who are working in a professional environment to further develop their skills, knowledge and professional practice” ’. It was such thinking that appealed to my own wish to test myself and seek to achieve such academic attainment. Thus, the path to pursuing a professional doctorate was chosen, as opposed to the traditional PhD route. An important part of this choice was a real wish to not only contribute to knowledge, but also to contribute to professional practice, an issue deemed important in such doctorate degrees.

Fast forward four years, and a police colleague and I were the first of our 2012 cohort to successfully submit our Theses and ‘survive’ the dreaded viva voce. The graduation, as enjoyable as it was, came and went, and for me, I believed the difficult part was over.

The subject of my own research was ‘parent abuse’ (that is abuse, and violence perpetrated against parents, by children). I sought to specifically contextualise the problem in Greater Manchester and develop recommendations to generate improved collaborative responding, in an increasingly austere landscape. I had pursued a qualitative paradigm, conducting in-depth and semi-structured interviews with a range of practitioners across three central Greater Manchester boroughs; each with a range of diverse communities spanning cultural and social spectra. Purposive sampling was the chosen method of gathering the research sample, so that a broad range of agencies and hierarchical roles were involved.

The research findings broadly mirrored that of existing published data. Those facing and perpetrating abuse were found to be from across the social and demographic spectrum, although many who were known to services came from underprivileged backgrounds. Many of the families involved had a range of existing complex needs, which included both the parents and the children involved. My research with practitioners, in keeping with existing studies, that found certain key ‘aggravating factors’ added to the extent and severity of abuse. In many cases, families were known to have experienced domestic abuse between the adults in the family, and a belief that the behaviours exhibited by the abusive children had likely developed as a result of ‘learnt’ experiences. Poor parenting skills were also a common concern, where parents encountered difficulties in effectively managing the behaviour of their children. This was not, however, the case with all families. Other findings, which contributed to knowledge, focussed on the extent of cannabis use and mental health issues experienced by young people perpetrating the abuse. My key argument was that parent abuse is a unique problem in its own right; a range of complexities exist specifically within the ‘child-parent’ relationship. In light of the findings a ‘toolkit’ of responding was proposed, which sought to better define and understand the scale of abuse. Furthermore, the raising of awareness with families and practitioners was proposed. This would involve training, policy-setting and implementation of responding programmes. Governance that could generate collaborative and bespoke support for the families involved was seen as essential to disrupting the abuse. Longer-term gains were put forward, to develop ‘up-stream’ intervention, that could, with the right agencies involved, see such abusive relationships disrupted. Short-term investment was argued to be a necessary commitment to deliver longer-term problem solving for families, reduced calls for service, and an effective disruption to recurring familial cycles of violence and abuse.

In keeping with my wish to ‘contribute to practice’ I then set about marketing the findings within and outside my own organisation. I fully understood the unlikelihood of all the recommendations being successfully implemented, not least given the recognised absence of policy pertaining to parent abuse. I believed, however, that it was important to focus on the raising of awareness of the problem and cascading training to partner agencies, so that practitioners could better understand the complexities of the problem, and develop an understanding of responding opportunities.

It is fair to say that some agencies were more receptive than others in discussing the research findings, and in being amenable to making staff available for training. ustained lobbying on my part within the police has led to limited, but useful support, allowing me to gain access to the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) Lead for Domestic Abuse. As a result, I will soon be presenting my research findings to NPCC Regional Domestic Abuse Leads in London.

I have found that a constant and sustained process of lobbying key agencies and practitioners has helped me get a ‘foot in the door’ with agencies, and I have delivered several training events to practitioners dealing with such abuse. This has frequently led to a ‘snowball effect’ where further training for individual teams has emanated from training inputs, where managers have asked me to further present to their teams. This activity continues in earnest.

The implementation of other recommendations has very much stagnated. I believe that this has been exacerbated, ironically, by the lack of policy on responding to parent abuse. Accordingly, I have felt like the ‘lone voice’ trying to engage with a multitude of agencies. This has been extremely difficult, as I have had to do this in my own spare time, when holding down a very busy ‘day job’.

Conversely, my experiences of engaging with academics has been completely opposite to my experiences with practitioner organisations. I have been widely supported and encouraged by those in academia, and have provided training inputs to undergraduate and postgraduate students as well as academics and teaching staff. Some of this training has targeted those on Masters Level Social Work programmes, which has also supported my wish to deliver practitioner training.

So, what can we learn from these experiences to maximise practitioner researcher opportunities in influencing future change? It has been recognised that doctoral-level research can positively influence and develop both the researcher and organisations. However, it is also recognised that sometimes the appetite to implement research recommendations are completely outside the control of the practitioner-researcher. This, I believe, is and has been particularly relevant in the public sector, and with regards the huge areas of safeguarding and criminal justice. Clearly, the ongoing pressures of austerity play a significant part in the willingness or capacity of agencies to take on further responsibilities for emerging problems, such as parent abuse. That said, some organisations have demonstrated a willingness to adapt to such new threats. I believe these agencies have all had senior level buy-in, to enthusiastically engage in change activity. Therefore, sponsorship and support for the research from the very early stages is essential, to get organisations involved, and to maintain an interest in the evolving research process. Sadly, as austerity and cut-backs took hold, I found that such key people moved on or left organisations. It was then difficult to generate new ‘buy-in’, particularly in the face of continuing cuts to services.

Would I do anything differently? No, I do not think so. I have done my utmost to generate interest in this problem, and to cascade my findings. In doing this, I have been partially successful, in what has been a very austere landscape. I will continue to lobby those prepared to listen and seek to publish my findings, an issue that is somewhat overdue.

I would encourage others to follow their aims and attain the same sense of achievement that I have.

Dr Simon Retford is a Detective Superintendent with Greater Manchester Police. Email:

Problems and Prospects in Policing in the ‘Post-Ferguson’ Era: Insights from a Southern American State

Professor Ross Deuchar

On 9th August 2014, an 18-year-old black man named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer named Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, USA. It later transpired that Brown had been stopped and queried because he was walking in the middle of the road blocking traffic. However, subsequent witness evidence suggested that Mr Brown had been unarmed during the incident and that he was cooperating with officer Wilson’s commands when the officer shot him. In the days and weeks following the incident, members of the Ferguson community engaged in protests and peaceful demonstrations and were later joined by citizens from outside the community. The media reporting of and political engagement with these events have continued to have a lasting impact on law enforcement across the USA in the last few years (Deuchar et al., 2017).

During a recent Fulbright scholarship, I conducted empirical research in a southern American State focused on exploring the perceived nature and impact of the so-called ‘Ferguson effect’ on serving officers there. I wanted to examine the ways in which the media portrayal of American policing and political engagement in the issues emerging from Ferguson had impacted on law enforcement within the State. Specifically, I wanted to explore the perceived repercussions in terms of citizen engagement and the apparent impact on officer morale and policing strategies. As with most of my other research, I drew upon ethnographic research methods (Hammersley, 2006). Across a period of three months I engaged in ride-alongs during police deployments with both departmental officers and those working at County Sheriff level, recording observations of police interactions with citizens and also my own impressions and feelings of what I was observing in fieldnotes. I also conducted semi-structured interviews with a sample of 20 serving officers of various ranks, exploring in more depth their reactions to the media reporting and political rhetoric surrounding policing in the years since the Ferguson shooting.

A substantial body of criminological literature has drawn attention to the links between public perceptions of procedural justice, police legitimacy and the tendency towards citizen engagement with officers (Mazarolle et al., 2012; Lum and Nagin, 2015; Weisburd et al., 2015). The officers I interviewed felt strongly that the media reporting of the high-profile incident in Ferguson had had a profound impact on public perceptions of the police in communities of colour in the State I was working in. They felt it had led to a perceived lack of police legitimacy, and reduced cooperation with officers on the streets. They described the way in which local people had developed an increased tendency to resist officers’ instructions, to film encounters with their cell phones and were even less inclined than before to report crimes or volunteer to be witnesses. As well as blaming the media reporting for this, informal dialogue with officers suggested to me that they felt that the wider political environment over the last eight years had not been conducive towards winning public support for policing. By supporting the Black Lives Matter campaign, they felt that President Obama had subtly reinforced the message that American policing was racially biased.

During interviews, the officers reported that morale was at an all-time low because of the increasing levels of public disengagement with law enforcement they came across in marginalised communities. Many officers felt that the police had become demonized, and that the political and media climate had reduced their ability to win the hearts and minds of those living in communities of colour. Further, many described the way in which they and their colleagues had become less inclined to be proactive in their enforcement for fear of being accused of racism. Tyler (2006) has suggested that, where police legitimacy is questioned, crime is often found to be greater. Although I had no direct observational evidence to substantiate this, some of the interviewees suggested that the increased reticence among officers to confront young black men in disadvantaged communities for fear of how they might be portrayed in the media meant that some criminal activity was now going unchecked. As one County Detective put it, ‘now [cops] are driving by and the criminals know that.’

In spite of the demotivated views of many officers, in one police department I worked in I did detect that the ‘Ferguson effect’ had raised awareness of the need for procedural justice among frontline cops. During my ride-alongs with officers in this particular city, I frequently observed them getting out of their cars to talk to local citizens and this was particularly noticeable in communities of colour.  On several occasions, I saw both male and female white officers actively building rapport with young black men on street corners, and several articulated their strong commitment to community-oriented policing approaches as a means of building trust and upholding dignity and respect. In this same city, there had been some officer-involved shootings of black citizens in the past, but no subsequent public protests or demonstrations akin to those that emerged in Ferguson. Officers attributed this to the strong focus they had adopted on being ‘guardians’ as well as ‘warriors’ within the local neighbourhoods (PTF, 2015).

Incidents like the one in Ferguson, Missouri have become all-too familiar in the United States over the years, but it is clear that the media and political backlash from this particular event has had a profound impact on law enforcement across the country. Indeed, although the southern State where I worked was over 1000 miles away from Ferguson, the impact of the repercussions from Michael Brown’s shooting had been felt strongly by officers I worked with. While my insights suggested that this had contributed to reduced officer morale and proactive enforcement strategies, it was also beginning to prompt an increased focus on the need for positive community engagement and procedural justice, at least in some divisions where I worked. In officers’ minds, the desire to re-focus their efforts on becoming humanitarian ‘guardians’ was perhaps principally driven by a desire to prevent another ‘Ferguson’ incident (Deuchar et al., 2017). In my mind, however, it more importantly represented an attempt to become the type of ethically-minded, socially just law enforcement officers that the public might finally begin to regard as legitimate.

Ross Deuchar is Professor and Director of the Interdisciplinary Research Unit on Crime, Policing and Social Justice at the University of the West of Scotland, and Affiliate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University, USA. Email:




Rethinking deaths after police contact

Dr David Baker

Between 2004 and 2015 a total of 1,539 people in England and Wales died after contact with the police (IPCC 2015). The term ‘death after police contact’ (DAPC) is used by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) and includes categories such as shooting, apparent suicides in, or following police custody (within 48 hours of being released from custody), deaths in road traffic accidents, and deaths in police custody. Police officers are seldom subject to a criminal trial in cases of DAPC, and it is extremely rare for them to be prosecuted if they are. Yet the state is legally obliged under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to investigate cases of DAPC in an independent forum. The state should demonstrate a duty of care to citizens and ensure their right to life is proactively enabled. Each case of DAPC in England and Wales is typically investigated by two independent organisations (the IPCC and the coronial service) and police are held to account for their actions. This blog post is informed by research into documents produced by the coronial service and IPCC in sixty-eight cases of DAPC in the period 2004-2015. Narrative verdicts recorded by juries in the coronial system and IPCC independent investigation reports into correlate cases were analysed to assess trends and patterns in relation to how these deaths occurred and how they were investigated. The result is a monograph (2016) ‘Deaths after police contact: constructing accountability in the 21st century’. This post sets out some of the conventional knowledge about this issue, and adds some original findings from the research that suggest it might be helpful to rethink the issue of DAPC in England and Wales.

There is no official denial of the real and symbolic importance of cases of DAPC to society. The capacity of the state and society to hold police to account in these cases is seen as a touchstone for legitimate, transparent and consensual policing in England and Wales. Similarly, there is no official denial that deaths in state custody are significant because the state bears a unique responsibility for the welfare of citizens in their care, and a death in custody can often be viewed with suspicion by the public. Moreover, there is no official denial that a disproportionate number of citizens from marginalised groups in society die in these cases. If you are from a Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) group, have mental health issues, or are dependent on substances then there is a disproportionately large chance that you might die after police contact. None of these issues are disputed by the state. It has made numerous official pronouncements stating how important lesson learning is in reducing the number of deaths after police contact (see, for example Fulton 2008, House of Commons Home Affairs Committee 2010, Joint Committee on Human Rights 2004). This much is unequivocal about deaths after police contact. A key question is: are lessons learned?

Much of the societal and media focus on the issue of DAPC identifies police use of force. It is relatively rare for police to shoot individuals dead in England and Wales. During the period 2004-2015 approximately 2 people per year were shot dead (IPCC 2016), compared to an estimated 1,000 per year in the United States (The Counted 2016). Having said that, approximately half of the 68 deaths examined in my research related to the use of physical force, principally restraint. So how did the other half die? A key finding in my research was that in approximately half of the cases, deaths occurred at least partly as a result of police inaction while in custody. Juries in coroners’ courts used benchmarking from official policies to establish that prescribed protocols were not followed regarding the care of detainees. A further finding was that more than half of the deaths examined occurred either as a result of the failings of healthcare agencies, or with healthcare agencies present at the time of death. The police are not only the ultimate emergency service for the public, but apparently also for other emergency services.

I believe it would be helpful to reimagine these deaths as healthcare crises. Many of them are preventable deaths if viewed from a healthcare perspective. Preventable if dealt with efficiently by healthcare services, or by multi-agency working between police and other emergency services. The term ‘death after police contact’ is disingenuous in that often these cases involve healthcare services in addition to police; and frequently there is no contact, instead detainees die at least partly due to inaction. Rethinking these deaths as failures in healthcare could help us rethink how we learn from them to prevent future deaths. A failure to learn lessons in the patterns of deaths after police contact has been repeatedly noted by official agencies and NGOs (see Hannan et al.  2010, Fulton 2008, Shaw and Coles 2007, House of Commons Home Affairs Committee 2010, Joint Committee on Human Rights 2004, EHRC 2014).

The number of people who die after police contact is relatively stable in this country.  Public organisations and regulators have produced an increasing number of reports into this issue, but the number of deaths remains stubbornly unchanged, as does the disproportionality in those who die in such circumstances. We now know more about how people die in custody than we ever did, yet seem to be unable to translate this knowledge into practical applications that reduce the number of preventable deaths. The primary goal of a police officer is to preserve life, rather than necessarily enforce criminal justice (ACPO 2006). Reimagining the issue of DAPC in terms of a healthcare crisis might enable us to focus on the role of police as ‘peace officers’, to see the duty of care of detainees as being central to the police role, and to acknowledge the role of healthcare agencies in being part of a solution to this crisis.

Dr David Baker is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Coventry University. Email:  

Decision Making Theory and its Implications for Policing

Lee Curley

Detectives are unique decision makers, who have to search for information, weight information and make an appropriate decision. There are four possible outcomes from a decision made by a detective; a true positive, a true negative, a false positive, and a false negative. A true positive is when the correct individual is charged, and a true negative is when an innocent individual is let go. A false positive is when a detective may charge the wrong individual. A false negative is when charges are dropped on a guilty individual. Although, these outcomes may be outside the control of many detectives; with the prosecutor fiscal (in Scotland) and the Crown Prosecution Service (in England and wales) having ultimate control over whether charges are dropped.

The implications of false negatives and false positives can be huge. For instance, if an innocent individual is incarcerated, then an innocent individual’s life is ruined and the real perpetrator is still free to pose a danger to society (Ramsey & Frank, 2007). In addition, if false negatives and false positives occur, then public perception surrounding the justice system may be damaged, which may reduce the deterrent effect of the penal system (Ramsey & Frank, 2007). For example, if citizens believe that they are unlikely to be charged for a crime, they may be more likely to commit such a crime in the future. It is important, therefore, that the decision making processes of detectives are studied.

Rationality versus Intuition

There are two main ways a decision maker can reach an outcome. One way is through being rational (Lee & Cummins, 2004). Rational decision makers use all the evidence available, weight it, integrate it and then make an appropriate decision (Gigerenzer, & Goldstein, 1996). Rationality, however, is halted in environments where there are time pressures, information is emotional, the decision making environment is ambiguous and when the information is complex (Bell, Mawn, & Poynor, 2013; Bright & Goodman-Delahunty, 2006; Cooper, Bennett, & Sukel, 1996; Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). Therefore, researchers, such as Snook and Cullen (2008) have suggested that it is not realistic to expect decision makers to be rational, and rather intuitive processes may be more likely. Consequently, the implications of intuitive decision making within detectives should be researched more.

When referring to intuition in this piece, I am referring to cognitive short-cuts called heuristics (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). These heuristics are fast and frugal strategies that allow decision makers to use a limited amount of cues to navigate the environment around them (Gigerenzer & Goldstein, 1996). In that sense, intuitive processes are less complex, when compared with rational decision making models, such as Bayesian analysis (Gigerenzer & Goldstein, 1996).  Simon (1956) proposed that the environment does not allow for fully rational processing to occur. Consequently, decision makers have a limited, yet efficient, cognitive system that allows them to make judgements in the noisy environment that surrounds them. The question this blog hopes to answer is, what implications can intuitive decision making have for decision makers within the police?

Detectives and Tunnel Vision.

The most widely cited irrational intuitive process relating to detective decision making is tunnel vision. Tunnel vision can be defined as a collection of heuristics and cognitive flaws that cause legal and forensic decision makers to centre on one suspect, and then search for guilt confirming information, and disregard disconfirming evidence (Martin, 2004). Findley and Scott (2006) suggest that tunnel vision is a negative decision making strategy employed by detectives.

Through investigating several case studies, Findley and Scott (2006) proposed that a common theme that seemed to arise in miscarriages of justice was the utilisation of tunnel vision. They suggest that tunnel vision, which may be accidental, can have an asymmetrical effect on officers’ search for, and interpretation of, information. For instance, an incorrect eyewitness identification could cause detectives to believe that a particular suspect is guilty (Findley & Scott, 2006). This may then effect how later evidence is perceived, with ‘neutral’ information being seen as guilt confirming (Findley & Scott, 2006). This conclusion has been supported by Ask, Reinhard and Marksteiner (2011) who found that individuals judged criminal evidence to be less credible when it disconfirmed a prior assumption of guilt.  The more “elastic” the evidence was the more susceptible participants were to the negative evaluation of disconfirming evidence. For example, evidence such as eyewitness testimony is easier to stretch to fit prior beliefs in comparison to DNA evidence. Ask, Rebelius, and Granhag (2008), also, found that police trainees were susceptible to judging such ‘disconfirming’ evidence as more unreliable than consistent information.

Additionally, Findley and Scott (2006) suggest that the perception of guilt may then bias investigators into interrogating the suspect in a manner that may lead to a false confessions; that is, detectives may ask more leading and guilt directed questions. Hill, Memon and McGeorge (2008) found that a belief of guilt did lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, interviewers who believed that the target individual was guilty, were more likely to ask guilt related questions, and thus prove to themselves that the person was guilty. Further, the self-fulfilling prophecy is a vicious cycle as a pre-decisional belief of guilt changes how individuals search for and evaluate information, thus causing prior beliefs to be reinforced.

Snook and Cullen (2008) suggest that the negative perception of tunnel vision is premature; heuristics may have positive implications for detectives. They argue that it is irrational to believe that police officers should investigate every potential suspect, evaluate all the evidence, and search all possible lines of enquiry.  It is not heuristics that lead to negative outcomes, rather, erroneous information leads to such consequences (Snook and Cullen (2008). Heuristics may actually help detectives to navigate through a noisy crime scene and focus on relevant information, rather than all the information. Therefore, heuristics may decrease the cognitive load of detectives and fact finders, which may allow them to be more efficient decision makers.


In conclusion, fact finding and decision making in regards to policing happens in a complex environment, which may lead to intuitive processes occurring. However, the implications of these intuitive processes are still unknown. Some research suggests that intuitive processes are suboptimal and should be prevented, whereas alternative research proposes that heuristics evolved to allow us to make decisions in a complex environment. Ironically, it could be said that more information is needed. Future research should aim to highlight the implications that heuristics may have in detective decision making. My current research investigates heuristics and decision making strategies within a juror population, I look to see which variables promote accuracy, what causes cognitive fallacies and how individuals evaluate evidence. However, I do hope that for my post-doctoral research, that I can utilise my expertise in decision making and statistics and apply it to a policing context, and thus help to fill in some of the gaps I have highlighted in the literature.

Lee Curley is a PhD student at Edinburgh Napier University. Email: Twitter: @Psycurlogy