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 –