OK To Fail?

Recently I have seen a school of thought around evidenced based policing and change which concerns me. The concept that it is “OK to fail” that “failing is learning.”

Whilst I tend to agree that, in any set of circumstances where something goes wrong, as much needs to be wrung from it to prevent a repeat I’m not sure that it is “OK to fail” especially when it comes to policing. 

In some areas – maybe in recruitment – I can see that consequences where, for example, a programme to bring more diverse applicants to policing fails to deliver what was intended then the “it was worth a try” argument may be valid.

But what if the change revolved around significant alterations to the delivery of training meant that officers were going out poorly prepared, ill-equipped and without sufficient supervision and this led to a poor operational decision where someone was hurt or died. Is it “ok to fail” then?

What if a new method of dealing with domestic abuse offenders saw fewer going to court and more being dealt with via other means such as restorative justice or other intervention. What if one of these offenders doesn’t respond and goes on to murder. Is it “OK to fail” then?

What if a new trial on methods of pursuit intervention led to serious crashes or a pedestrian or officer being injured or killed. Is it “OK to fail” then?

How sympathetic would a court or coroners inquest be to the “we were experimenting” line of argument?

How would the IPCC view any of these situations if the response was “we were trialling something.”?

Yes – I am predicting worst case scenarios here but, in policing, worst case scenarios happen all the time. And when they do then the current culture is to look for and apportion blame. Not necessarily from within (though this happens frequently) but from those who hold the police to account by Statute or by media.

Look back to the infamous odd number attempt burglary pilot of last year. A force decided to see if not sending crime scene investigators (CSI) to attempt burglaries made any difference to whether a crime was detected. They chose not to send them to offences at houses with odd numbers.

The pilot showed that it made no significant difference whatsoever to the detection of the crime and so, actually, it proved what worked (or didn’t) and could have changed the police response to something more useful, pragmatic and cost effective.

Then the press got hold of it. And then the politicians.

What was arguably a text book experiment in evidence based policing was then condemned very loudly and publicly. The force had to defend itself as best it could but the show of outrage was huge.

What was a success was unjustly made out to be a failure. Not just in service but in judgement. This is very difficult to combat – especially when the Court of Public Opinion gets involved.

This caused headlines for days and was actually a small scale – low impact test where the potential consequences of failure were minimal.

It is right that we learn from every experience – positive and negative – but I challenge the concept that it is “OK to fail” in a field as accountable as policing.

The world of medicine experiments all the time but it is always a very very long time before drugs or interventions are tested on live human subjects.

In policing there is no test lab. You can only test on live human subjects involved in real life situations. If consequences come they will be real and not theoretical.

I fully agree that things need to be far less punitive than they are now but it isn’t the police you need to convince about this.

It would be great if we could take the air industry approach of inquisitorial investigation to find out what happened and prevent reoccurrences but let us not forget that the very body which looks at policing “failures” is being restructured to “give it more teeth.”

Accountability has never been so high in policing and it seems to be moving towards more of it and of a certain kind.

Once again we are pulling in different directions.

The police might like to move towards a situation where an incident can be reviewed for lessons learned without necessarily apportioning blame but in the meantime the inspection and investigation regime is actually getting tighter and more fierce.

One does not allow the other.

We shouldn’t be afraid to try new things but, for what it’s worth, I think it is a bit casual to be suggesting that it is “OK to fail” because, quite frankly, there are too many important bodies reviewing the police who simply do not and will not share that view.

Besides which, in many cases, the consequences if police do fail stand to be tragic.

If you need an example of where it was not OK to fail and not apportioning blame has led to legal challenge after legal challenge and a sense (rightly or wrongly) of massive injustice and continued press condemnation then I simply say this –

Stockwell.

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3 responses to “OK To Fail?”

  1. Christopher Hearn says :

    If individual officers are even perceived to have proportionately failed in their duty it can be catastrophic for them in this blame culture we now live in. #support999

  2. Ian Wiggett (@Wiggett_IE) says :

    I haven’t quite refined my personal definition of Evidence Based Policing, but it’s something about studying the effects of an activity/process/policy, in a more scientific way than policing has perhaps done in the past, and using that more scientific and validated evidence base to decide on policy. Basically, ‘evidence based policy’ or ‘evidence based practice’. It should be common sense – making decisions on the evidence. But too often we see policy being decided based on ‘feel’, ‘experience’, ideology, desire to ‘do something’, fear of criticism, or simply ‘I know best’. Policies get imposed with little information to indicate if they a) work, b) are working, c) have any other impact (either positive or negative).

    Much of the focus of EBP has ben on the use of randomised control trials (RCTs). These are seen as the best possible form of evidence. In medicine, you see control groups given current treatment, or placebos, while another group is given the new treatment. After careful and validated evaluation of the results, it’s possible to determine whether the new treatment is better than the old one. Medicine has procedures to ensure Trials are conducted ethically, and there is a general principle of ‘do no harm’. This is tricky with developing new drugs or surgical procedures, as there is always a risk that the new procedure doesn’t work, or makes things worse. So trials have to go through authorisation processes, and if they carry more risks, have to go through extra checks. However, without these trials, doctors would still be applying leeches and sawing off limbs without anaesthetic.

    Some are now conducting RCTs in policing. We’ve seen patrols deployed in different ways to assess whether one way has a better impact on crime than others. Just like medicine, policing operates in a highly regulated environment. Trials have to be legal, and defensible against external scrutiny (eg IPCC). One mechanism we’re well used to is the process for approving the use of new technology, for example vehicles and personal protective equipment. These have to be tested thoroughly in advance, usually by specialist laboratories, and then tested in the field under controlled conditions, before finally gaining approval for wider use. Taser is a good example, to choose something controversial in many people’s eyes. The devices have been tested extensively, trialled, and results validated, before gaining approval for issue. There are many different devices available which discharge electric current, but only one type has been approved for use by police in the UK. Without that robust process, police forces would have been very vulnerable to civil and legal actions, and public criticism.

    There are other ways of running tests, though. Forces already work in different ways in many aspects of operations. Comparing the policy in Force A against the policy in Force B would provide an evidence base to determine which policy is more effective. We have lots of data on incidents, crime, and police actions. Looking at that data in detail could give us lots of information about effectiveness without having to do RCTs. Recently, the London School of Economics has shown that faster response to an incident is more likely to lead to a detection. That may not come as a surprise to you and me – but until this work was published, the ‘evidence’ base held that fast response made no difference to the outcome.

    Another important element is qualitative evidence. A process may lead to lower crime, for example, but if it also has significant drawbacks in other respects (eg staff wellbeing, public confidence), it may not be a good policy. The crisis in US police-community relations in recent years is seen by many as a result of the zero-tolerance approach. Crime may be down, but communities are rioting – is that a ‘success’?

    So, to answer your comments, EBP is, in my view, just common sense. It doesn’t stop trying new things, and trying new things out shouldn’t cause harm or detriment – in most cases. It doesn’t need to be done by/with a university, although that probably helps assure the results.

    There may be odd occasions where what is proposed could present some ‘risk’. These issues will have to be considered very carefully. I am thinking here of areas such as domestic abuse or sex offenders. Any change to procedures here would need to be considered and managed very carefully. But many current policies have little evidence base to support them anyway – in fact, evidence would indicate that some current policies are actually dangerous. In my view, it is even more scary that policies are clung to despite evidence of their risks.

  3. Retired says :

    The problem is we can no longer have a reasoned debate on policing or the wider CJS in this country. The press present everything in very simplistic terms and the Leicester trial was a prime example of that. I discussed the trial with one of my sons ( a GP) and he immediately said ‘Ah, an RCT’. This didn’t matter to the press who presented it as ‘police won’t attend burglaries at odd numbered houses’ Obviously we know which idea gained a hold with the media and the public.
    As someone who has been retired for over eight years it seems that the police service cannot, will not, or is prevented from getting ahead of problems. At the boroughs I worked on I had ( a completely unproven scientifically) theory that 98% of our problems were caused by 2% of the population but we never got ahead of the curve because our whole ethos seemed to be ‘get to the call, deal with it and move on’. It didn’t matter that the same location or person would be dealt with by the next shift for exactly the same problem. As long as no lasting ‘grief’ could be attached to whoever attended the call attached to it that was OK. As a friend of mine who rose to be a Ch Supt said ‘this afternoon is short term, tomorrow is medium term and next week is long term’.
    Another problem arises with nature of the complaints system, it is adversarial and despite SLT’s saying that ‘ we operate on a trust basis’ public executions and ritual humiliation is the preferred method of progress. The deep seated resistance of a lot of people in the service to anything that smacks of academic research can’t help either.
    Perhaps we should stop calling it Evidence Based Policing and move on to another academic discipline that we excel at in the UK – Operational research.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operations_research
    This was developed in WW1 and enhanced in WW2, It came up with solutions that at times seemed counter intuitive, such as painting anti submarine aircraft white. Operational research was also successful in proving the value of convoying merchants ships, despite initial opposition from elements of the navy.
    As another commentator said being a police officer is like being the England Football manager, everyone thinks they can do it but only a few have actually done it. As long as the public and political class remain wedded to a system of policing that was more suite to the first half of the 20th century we will not make any progress.

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