There are few winners from the blame game in policing: how do the police learn from mistakes?

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There are few winners from the blame game in policing: how do the police learn from mistakes?

Who’s to blame? When something goes wrong in policing, sometimes tragically and occasionally disastrously so, this is understandably many people’s first reaction.  But this search for individual fault and accountability can undermine another important objective:  if we are to decrease the chances of mistakes happening again, we need people to be honest about error.  How do the police learn from mistakes? Policing as a whole will only do so if people know they can be open about what has happened without fear of being publicly ‘hung out to dry’. 

We recently convened an event with KPMG exploring these issues, an excellent report from which can be found here.  We heard from Keith Conradi formerly Chief Investigator at the Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) about their approach to organisational learning.  The airline industry has been praised, most notably by Matthew Syed in his book Black Box Thinking, for its excellent safety record.  This has been directly attributed to the fact that if an incident occurs, including a ‘near miss’, there is a ‘no blame’ investigation, in which all those involved can come forward and explain what happened without the fear of sanction.  The underlying philosophy here is that most fault is the result of systemic or organisational failure rather than individual misconduct and so the most important thing to do is to identify the reasons why something happened and make adjustments to improve future performance.  Overtime this creates a culture of continuous improvement.

This is very far from the situation in policing.  In policing where an operation or interaction results in complaint or harm there is a default focus on the culpability and accountability of the individual officer.  This is the legacy of some serious ethical failures and abuse of powers in the past.  But surely we have to start from the position that the overwhelming majority of police officers are trying to do the right thing, but often having to make quick decisions in sub optimal operating environments.  The context in which they have to work and the organisational resources available to them (training, equipment, management etc) play an important part in determining how they perform.  

In serious cases the Independent Office of Police Conduct (IOPC) carry out investigations whose focus is the personal conduct of the officers involved. Within police forces there is tendency to refer issues to Professional Standards Departments rather than looking at problems through a performance lens which might be better dealt with by Human Resources.  This discourages openness: there are plenty of IOPC investigations where police witnesses say very little about what happened, no doubt because of a fear it will lead to a colleague being sanctioned.  This is the opposite of the learning culture that Conradi and Syed talk about.  It also inhibits responsiveness and innovation: I have heard numerous times recently of officers being afraid to make decisions because of a fear of the consequences if something goes wrong.  This is not a healthy position. 

But is it possible to transfer the kind of learning culture we see in the airline industry to policing?  There are a number of important differences:

  • the powers that the police have require a degree of regulation and public accountability that is not necessary in other sectors;
  • policing inherently involves conflict, meaning that very often there will be a confrontational relationship with a complainant.  The fact that in the airline industry people can be open internally but shielded from external accountability, rests on a considerable degree of trust (particularly in the AAIB) that just doesn’t exist in policing;
  • there are aspects of police culture that militate against a learning culture: it is a service operating within a wider legal and criminal justice system set up to apportion individual blame; there is a strong sense of internal solidarity between police officers, important for sustaining trust and morale during difficult and dangerous work, but which can lead to a tendency to ‘stick together’ when outsiders are looking for blame; and there is a hierarchical management culture that discourages people from ‘speaking truth to power’.

The cultural issues are far from insurmountable and can be taken on by imaginative leadership.  Indeed while recognising there will always be a need for robust public accountability in policing, there are steps that could be taken to promote a learning culture: 

  • it might be possible to develop a ‘twin track’ approach which separates investigations aimed at facilitating learning and making organisational improvements, from disciplinary and conduct processes;
  • there are methods for promoting learning that could be strengthened such as debriefing sessions, peer review, structured time for reflection (I acknowledge this is difficult given current workload pressures) and bringing in experts in human behaviour to get a better understanding of why people behave in the way that they do under particular conditions;
  • more (less serious) matters could be dealt with via line management and HR within a performance management framework as opposed to discipline and professional standards channels;
  • the police could ask the public what kind of accountability they want and expect. We may find that the public would be happy with more of a focus on organisational, as opposed to individual, accountability if that is more likely to prevent things from happening again;
  • like all public authorities the police service should get better at listening to complainants, developing individual and institutional empathy, and building greater trust.  A great deal of the conflict and mistrust is the result of organisations hunkering down, refusing to apologise and not listening to people’s concerns.

At our annual conference in October we will be discussing these issues as part of a wider conversation about how to encourage innovation and learning in policing.  Among others, we will hear from Mike Cunningham the Chief Executive of the College of Policing about how to foster a learning culture and from Lancashire Chief Constable Andy Rhodes about overcoming risk aversion.   You can book a place at this important event here.