Offer to participate: critical incident research on policing Covid-19

Professor Ken Pease (University College, London) is interested in carrying out critical incident technique  research about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on policing. The intention is to cross compare this UK based research with parallel research in Italy.

The proposed work seeks to capture front-line policing experience in a form directly translatable into police education and training. Historically, in the uniformed services generally, too little has been gleaned from extreme events (those of low probability and high impact) usable in subsequent skill development. Indeed much of the attention given to such events has taken the form of identifying police misconduct (e.g. Hillsborough). 

The intention is to telephone interview (anonymously) a large representative sample of front line officers serving in one police force area significantly affected by the virus outbreak. The method proposed for use is the critical incident technique.

The critical incident technique (CIT) was developed to identify the specifics of flying skill to reduce military pilot failure rates in training. It has been used by the proposer to identify challenging events experienced by apprentice police officers during their first three months on duty. It proved well suited to its purpose and yielded clear direction for subsequent course content.

The critical incident technique (CIT) was developed as an approach to identifying mistakes in trainee pilots (Flanagan, 1954). It has subsequently been used in a variety of contexts (Gremler 2004).

Bradley (1992) captures the central idea in his paper’s title ’Turning Anecdotes into Data—The Critical Incident Technique’.  The proposer can find no published use of CIT in a police context. Nursing appears to be the profession making most use of the technique. CIT has recently been successfully piloted by the proposer for use with apprentice police officers after their first period on duty. The concentration on a single challenging (rewarding) event selected by the respondent, clarifying reasons for its selection, makes the technique respondent rather than investigator centred

Officers will be asked to identify the incident during the lockdown period that they found most challenging to deal with  and the incident that they found most rewarding to deal with. They will be invited to describe the incident in detail and the reasons why they found it challenging / rewarding. 

Filling a knowledge gap in the evidence

There is a gap in knowledge for three reasons. The second and third were already concerns before the pandemic. The first provides an additional element of timeliness.

  • Black Swan events like Covid-19 are rare with correspondingly few opportunities to study police behaviour where the everyday skill set is challenged.
  • The primary direction of communication within the police service is downward across ranks.  While Covid-19 presents particular challenges, there is a surprising paucity of research from an appreciative standpoint, recognizing the skilled nature of front line policing exercised well and imaginatively.
  • The oversight bodies in policing (IOPC and HMICFRS) are concerned to establish minimum standards rather than skill growth.  

As for the need being targeted, there will be 20k or more new officers starting service in the next decade. The requirement for new entrants to be graduates provides a vehicle for delivery of relevant content. It is fair to say that universities (and arguably the College of Policing) are currently in the process of developing the best mix of academic and operational content. Addition of material on policing skills, especially as applied to emergent problems, will provide a valuable addition, currently absent.

The evidence base of any profession is largely limited to lessons learned from the range of problems routinely encountered. Extreme events, defined here as events of low probability and high impact, are not routinely encountered. Every extreme event, because rare, is unique because each operates against a different historical backdrop. How much of an evidence base, built in normal times, remains relevant?  How many of the tools designed for ‘normal’ times remain useful? How many new tools, and of what kind, are needed?

Extreme events should invite the fast harvesting of evidence, and ingenuity and flexibility in expanding the evidence base, sometimes perhaps trying unconventional techniques earlier than would be ideal. The proposer sees it as an obligation on policy makers to take whatever lessons the pandemic may have to offer.

For the police service, such lessons are not restricted to policing the next pandemic (or the next spike in Covid-19 infections). It extends to the determination of novel best practice, including increased use of practices hitherto unrecognized as the best option. Put another way, the pandemic can be both a reason for change and a catalyst for change. 

What’s involved for any forces co-operating in the research?

The co-operating force(s) will identify neighbourhood officers in one BCU, and prepare a schedule of times, assigning officers to a time slot. At the designated time, the officer will ring the investigator’s number. In that way the officer will be anonymous to the investigator. The investigator will inform the force of the time of scheduled calls which were not made, so another time can be arranged for the officer concerned. Respondent officers will have been given details of the study before the scheduled call time, the details being framed (as is truly the case) as a way of gathering information from experienced officers which will be of assistance to new officers, both directly and by the design of course content for policing degrees and in-service training. The collaborating force(s) will not be informed of the content of individual interviews.

The CIT interview will consist of :

  • Reprise of its purposes.
  • Recounting of a specific incident during the Covid lockdown period which the officer found most challenging. The specified of what happened will be elicited, and the reasons why the event was challenging. 
  • As for 2 but for an incident deemed most rewarding during the same period. Over many pints in many pubs over many years, the proposer has found that such stories can be winkled out of serving and retired officers. The default setting of police anecdotes tends to be ‘war stories’ but rewarding events are equally if not more relevant to the identification of skilled police performance. The interviews will be carried out over the shortest period possible, while memories are fresh.
  • Interviews will be transcribed, ensuring that no content remains which can identify individuals. These will be classified in two ways, by event type and by reason for being found challenging/rewarding. This will be done iteratively by two former police officers, ending with categorisations with acceptable levels of reliability.  

What will forces get back from the research?

  • A preliminary report based on full analysis of the first fifty interviews;
  • Identification of training/education content suggested by the analysis;
  • Monthly updates;
  • A final report detailing experience of policing an extreme event and the training and leadership implications of that experience.

If you are interested in taking up this research invite please contact Professor Pease at:-


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