Victim reassurance: a good police officer needs to be an applied psychologist

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Victim reassurance: a good police officer needs to be an applied psychologist

Just before lockdown I worked with a police force to ‘train’ their officers on how to deal with victims of crime. (I put ‘train’ in inverted commas because I don’t like the word for various reasons, but I won’t get into that right now.) I’ve been giving courses on this subject for many years, and I like to introduce new ideas from time to time to keep things fresh. For these latest courses I took an idea that I had been developing informally for a while, and brought it centre stage, making it a theme in its own right: a good police officer needs to be an applied psychologist.

What do I mean by this? Let me begin by telling you what I don’t mean by it. I don’t mean that they need a formal qualification in psychology. Neither do I mean that a police officer should be a counsellor or psychotherapist.

But I do believe that by applying some basic psychological ideas to understanding oneself, others, and one’s interactions with others, a police officer will be better placed to help victims of crime. And maybe the benefits would be wider than this.

The context in which I developed this idea is compelling and problematic. Talking to police officers about how to deal with victims of crime is quite a daunting task, simply because of the sheer diversity of the experience of crime. One victim’s experience may have been traumatic and life-changing, another’s may have been relatively trivial. Even similar crimes are experienced very differently by different people. And what do victims want to achieve by reporting a crime? One victim may want justice, another sympathy and support, while another may merely need a crime number to support an insurance claim. Some victims want nothing more than to let the police know what has happened, so they can contribute to police intelligence. And, as we shall see, many people report crimes without having a particular purpose in mind at all.

So there can be no simple formula for ‘how to deal with victims of crime’. You don’t need psychology to understand that.

But where psychology can help is in challenging the assumptions that we make about victims, and informing our decisions about how best to deal with them. I’ll keep it brief, and give just two examples.

The first concerns the vulnerability of victims. If you ask a group of police officers who are the most vulnerable victims of crime, four out of five (yes, I’ve actually done the stats) will say ‘the elderly’. Why they say this is easy to see: the elderly might be physically frail, they might live alone, and the experience of being a victim of crime in the ‘twilight years’ can be particularly upsetting. Many officers have told me that they try to be particularly sympathetic to elderly victims, and ‘go the extra mile’. (Small wonder then that the over 75s are easily the most satisfied victims.)

If elderly victims are seen as more vulnerable, younger male victims are often seen as less so: they are more resilient, less likely to be affected by the experience, which is sometimes characterised as ‘water off a duck’s back’, and less likely to need a sympathetic response. (And yes, these tend to be the least satisfied victims.)

It is easy to show that these ideas – the vulnerable elderly victim, the resilient young male victim – are stereotypes. As with many stereotypes there is sure to be some truth in them. But there are so many exceptions and nuances as to make them rather dangerous as a guide for action.

One of the most compelling and memorable case studies I use on my courses is of Jim, a healthy and physically fit young man who is unlucky enough to be knocked over and robbed while walking home at night. He reported it to the police straight away, and was perfectly calm, unfazed by the experience. Three days later, however, Jim began to suffer anxiety attacks and insomnia, totally out of proportion to the severity of the experience as he saw it, which made things even worse for him: what’s wrong with me, he wondered, why am I over-reacting?

This is where a bit of psychology can help. First, it helps us to understand and challenge the stereotypes of vulnerability: unconscious bias isn’t only about diversity, it affects everything we do. Secondly, it encourages us to look beneath the surface: Jim didn’t appear traumatised by his experience at the time he reported it, but we know appearances can be deceptive, there might be something else going on underneath. Thirdly, research tells us clearly that people sometimes have a delayed reaction to physical or psychological trauma – we call it PTSD, and it seemed that Jim had suffered this, albeit in a relatively mild form.

Of course, as I said earlier, a police officer is not a counsellor or psychotherapist. But imagine the officer dealing with Jim takes the time – a mere thirty seconds is enough – to say this:

“Ok Jim, you feel fine right now, and that’s good, but remember you have been the victim of a violent crime, and some people suffer a delayed reaction, even to minor trauma. I’m not saying that it will happen to you, it probably won’t, but if in a few days you start feeling anxious or having flashbacks, that’s a perfectly normal reaction, it’s how the mind deals with these things. So you have my contact details if you need to get back in touch, and I know you’ve said you don’t need a referral to Victim Support, but I will ask you to take their details anyway, just in case.”

The effect of this is potentially very powerful. At the very least, when Jim suffered his panic attacks three days later, he’s likely to remember that the officer told him it might happen, and that it’s a normal reaction. This will not only allay his fears that there is something wrong with him for ‘over-reacting’, Jim will also probably be quite impressed with the insight and compassion shown by the police officer. He might even say to his friends, “that police officer seemed to know me better than I know myself, almost like a psychologist”.

And if perchance Jim were to find himself being interviewed in the User Satisfaction Survey, he’s probably going to say he’s at least very satisfied, even though as a 16-24 year old male he’s in the least satisfied demographic.

My second example takes us back to the questions of why victims report a crime to the police in the first place, and what they want to get out of it. I hear a lot of police officers talk about victims’ expectations, and about ‘managing their expectations’ (all too often a euphemism for telling them they won’t be getting what they want).

This worries me, as I’m not sure that victims necessarily have expectations. Some do, no doubt. But not all. That may sound surprising, even counterintuitive. If you were to ask victims in a questionnaire a few days after the initial report (or a few weeks, if it were asked in the User Satisfaction Survey) ‘why did you report the incident to the police?’, many would give you at least one reason, or ‘expectation’. But I suspect that in many cases this will be because they have had a chance to think about it.

We tend to assume that human behaviour is rational, that people do things for a reason. (Indeed the exceptions to this are often rather powerfully described as pointless or mindless, as in ‘mindless violence’.) In plenty of cases that will be true, people sometimes do act rationally. There are victims who actively make a decision about whether to report an incident to the police, weighing up the pros and cons, and then either report or not. That’s a rational decision, and one which takes a certain amount of time and a relatively calm state of mind.

But there are also victims who don’t take the time, who decide to call the police as soon as the crime happens, or as soon as they discover it has happened. For such victims, perhaps the most accurate account of why they called the police would be, “I just did – it’s what you do when a crime happens.” I know this because I’ve done it myself, and I like to see myself as a fairly rational person. Sure, I could analyse it afterwards and come up with a more coherent account of my decision to report, one that would have the appearance of rationality (not to be underestimated when you are explaining your opinions to a survey interviewer). But the reality is often more fluid, more in-the-moment, and any later account is more rationalisation than rationality.

This is a useful insight for a police officer, who might with the best of intentions want to know what the victim wants to achieve by reporting a crime. Some victims will indeed have needs and expectations, which may or may not be realistic. But others however will not, especially if they are emotionally upset at the time of reporting. They just report the crime, which they are of course entitled to do.

While these victims aren’t necessarily looking for anything in particular from the police, psychological research shows that a reassuring response – listening to what they have to say, and acknowledging the situation they are in – can go a long way to producing a positive outcome and a satisfied victim.

Get Malcolm Hibberd’s free 22 page practical guide: 8 steps to victim reassurance

or take a look at his victim care courses.