I make no apologies* for starting this blog with another blast from the past, this time in the form of a reference to a favourite series of books from my childhood (as well as ‘The Policeman’ of course).
*As an aside I love the phrase “I make no apologies for X…”- it sounds so authoritative, even when one should patently be about to apologise for something. (I also appreciate overindulgent use of the asterix).
Anyone remember the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book series, out from about 1983 (showing my age now) where you had to make a decision based on a paragraph of information, then choose a page to turn to which determined your progress, or lack of? For example, “You hear water running in the tunnel to the left, and a growling noise coming from the tunnel to the right. The tunnel ahead is darker than the other two and emits a foul stench. If you decide to go left, turn to page 125; if you choose to go right, turn to page 46. If you continue forward, turn to page 231”.
If you choose to go to the right you might get chewed up by a monster. If you go left, the text on page 125 may politely inform you that you have just drowned horribly. Who knows what the other choice might result in?
Of course, if you didn’t fancy whichever unfortunate fate you inadvertently selected you could always revert to the page you were at originally and select an alternative option. (I eventually learnt to fold the corner of the page before making a decision of such magnitude, as usually in these books there was a right answer and you proceeded to the next challenge).
Sometimes in real life there is no right answer, and never a chance to go back.
Often at work I do something or make a decision in good faith, based on all the information known to me at the time, but go off duty before the situation is fully resolved and wonder what happened afterwards. Did that missing person turn up safe and sound? Did I do enough? Even if I did I do enough, did I do it quickly enough? What if I had done something differently? Did the knifeman I put in hospital in self-defence make a complaint, and if so was it taken seriously? What will happen next?
These are the questions that confront every front line police officer when he or she has to make a split second decision based on limited information, without the benefit of hindsight, and without the opportunity of ‘keeping the page’ to go back to and choose a different option. Most of the time everything turns out okay, but what about when it doesn’t?
Unfortunately, there is sometimes a convention within the police known colloquially as the ‘Nine O’Clock Jury’ or the ‘Shudda Squad’. (As in “They shudda done this, they shudda done that etc”). Unwarranted retrospective criticism from people who weren’t there at 3am being spat at or having bottles thrown at them is demoralising and damaging for those officers who do their best at the time under difficult circumstances.
It’s not just an internal problem either: sometimes the way in which the news media reports on events involving the police isn’t helpful. I suppose they have to sell papers but there seems to be a lot of unfair sensationalist criticism out there, especially in the very early stages of an incident where very few facts are known. Random man in the street tells the reporter, “We knew something like this would happen” and there you have it- conclusive proof of police failure. Phrases like “Serious questions are being asked today…” are a good cue for impending cop-bashing to look out for when watching the news.
Naturally the flip side of this is that there are plenty of examples of when we could have done better, or have genuinely let someone down. These occasions should be used as an opportunity to genuinely understand what happened and why, not just for some embarrassed senior officer to trot out the phrase, “We must learn the lessons”, or similar.
One of the unfortunate consequences of genuine or perceived police failings is what I consider to be the inevitable prescriptive and risk-averse reaction. The ‘this must never happen again’ mentality results in new policies, doctrine, manuals of guidance and of course mandatory training for officers, along with the additional bureaucracy that goes with it. Individuals can become targets for blame and officers worry that they may be next if they make a mistake. The problem with this is that it robs police officers of confidence in their own decision-making, and results in a clumsy and usually ineffective one-size-fits-all ‘solution’. Unfortunately, real life doesn’t work like that and these excessively standardised approaches result in inefficiency, wasted effort and organisational risk-aversion.
Anyway, back to the theme of the title. Let’s assume you are the Duty Inspector and the following jobs come in. What would you do? (No pressure, but the decision you make in a split second may well be scrutinised over several weeks or months, or deconstructed moment-by-moment in court). Or perhaps, everything turns out okay, no one notices and we all go home.
1. The control room receives a 999 call from a mobile phone number that cuts off without any speech being heard. When attempting to call the number back it is switched off. Do you:
a) Arrange for an emergency subscriber check and triangulation of the phone signal to try and establish roughly what area the call has come from, then divert a significant proportion of your resources to scour the area looking for anyone who may be in distress?
b) Await further calls to confirm if there is a problem?
Let’s assume you chose a) and the caller is located moments before some maniac was about to kill them. Gold star for you.
How about if it turns out the phone is a Pay-As-You-Go (meaning you can’t find out where or to whom it is registered), and it has been tracked to a one-square-mile radius in the middle of a packed residential area? What now? At the other end of the scale, how about if the caller is found and the 999 call turned out to be accidental? No big deal you might think. On the other hand, imagine if you go for option b) and the caller turns up dead – it’s “Hello IPCC inquiry, bye bye job”.
‘Epic Fail’, as they say.
So, the inference appears to be that option a) is a win / win for everyone. But is it? What happens if you always go for option a)?
Well, telecoms checks don’t come cheap and capacity for this type of technological analysis is finite. Deploying officers to conduct house-to-house enquiries, or scouring woodland looking for the owner of the phone means they can’t be dealing with something else, somewhere else. If half the shift are out speculatively looking for someone who might have just accidentally sat on their phone with their left check pressing down on the ‘9’ button (I did it once I’m ashamed to admit), then that’s great but there’s a price. It means that there’s no one free to deal with the house burglary, the stabbing, the old lady who has been robbed.
Of course option b) should never be a default position, but if a bit more information came to light such as there was a history of calls from the same number where the caller had been the victim of domestic violence, or there was someone shouting for help before the call cut off then in my view that warrants a different response.
This is why we have to make proportionate decisions based on the information available at the time to determine what we can realistically respond to, and how. When there are multiple calls for service we have no option but to prioritise, and inevitably this means it is impossible to either please all of the people all of the time, or provide a cast-iron guarantee that we will never make a mistake.
The alternative is a risk-averse non-decision-making culture where the safest option is always selected. This maximises protection for the organisation but constrains professional judgment and guarantees poorer service. As I have said before, we are in the business of managing risk, not avoiding it. However much society would like it, policing is not a risk-free business, especially as officers are often expected to make decisions based on developing situations in difficult circumstances and without the benefit of all information being available to them at the time the decision is required.
To always go for the ultra-safe option is the real ‘Epic Fail’.
Next ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ decision then …
2. Three incidents are reported at the same time, all of which deserve a police response. You only have one unit available. Do you choose:
b) ? or
Difficult, isn’t it? Welcome to my world.
What about this one then? Pretty much the most distressing job an officer can get.
3. A baby is found dead at home. How do you balance the following:
a) The family may be murder suspects and you owe it to that child to make sure that he or she receives the justice they deserve?
b) The family are totally innocent and you are intruding into the most devastating event that any parent could ever experience?
The consequences of getting it wrong either way are truly horrific.
These are the decisions we face. These are the decisions I face. These are the situations that society expects young frontline police officers to make life-changing decisions about in the heat of the moment. Sometimes we get it wrong. We are human.