Crime detection isn’t key to victim satisfaction

Blog post

Crime detection isn’t key to victim satisfaction

In my last blog I suggested that when police officers talk to victims of crime, they should think of themselves as applied psychologists. They routinely deal with a wide range of people reacting to a wide range of circumstances, some of which can be very stressful. One victim of an assault may be agitated and emotional, another might appear calm and controlled. If police officers understand something about what might be going on beneath the surface, they will be better equipped to help the victim.

The payoff for the organisation will be statistical: an improved score on a performance indicator (victim satisfaction).

Far more important than this, though, is the victim’s experience of the aftermath of the crime. Nearly everyone’s experience of crime is negative. (Nearly?  Isn’t everyone’s experience negative? Not necessarily. The last time I was burgled, my initial reaction was delight. But I’ll tell you about that in a later blog.) While the police can’t put that right, they can say and do things that might alleviate or soften the experience.

This is why we should be concerned with how the victim feels. A citizen who has become the victim of crime has, in a sense, been failed by the state. So it is right that the state’s representatives (police officers in this case) recognise this and do what they can within reason to make the experience less unpleasant than it might otherwise be.

At the very least, the state’s representatives should not make things worse. Many victims of sexual offences have found the judicial process almost as traumatic as the experience of the crime itself. And this can also happen with less serious, less personal crimes. If you report a crime and are met with insensitivity, uninterest or disbelief, this gives you an extra thing to be upset about, on top of your feelings about having been assaulted or burgled.

So perhaps the first rule of victim care should be the same as the first rule of medicine: ‘do no harm’.

But we can do so much more than that. This is where the applied psychology comes in. Understanding people’s reactions to becoming a victim of crime, the trivial or the life-changing, the interplay between emotions and cognition, and the similarities as well as the differences between their responses, all of this can equip officers to handle victims more effectively.

So what do victims need?  What makes a difference to them?

I’ve asked this question to thousands of police officers on my courses: ‘what’s the one thing the police can do that would make a victim satisfied with the service they receive?’ The commonest answer is: ‘catch the offender’. If the perpetrator is arrested, charged and convicted, the victim will be happy.

This seems reasonable, and in my experience many officers believe it to be true. But it isn’t true: the ‘detection’ of a crime makes little difference to the victim’s overall satisfaction with how the police have dealt with them.

Let me make this clear: I’m not saying that victims don’t want the offender to be caught. In most cases they do. But if the offender is not caught, this in itself doesn’t tend to result in a more negative evaluation of the police.

(When I say this to a group of officers, I sometimes get the response, ‘so why do we bother investigating crime?’  The simple answer is that victim satisfaction is only one of a range of outcomes the police strive to achieve. Others are crime detection and crime reduction, which are both legitimate and desirable outcomes, depending on how they are pursued. But another answer to the question ‘why do we bother investigating crime’ is ‘well, increasingly you don’t’. Many crimes are ‘screened out’, and dealt with by telephone or email. The interesting conclusion is that not investigating crime does not necessarily undermine victim satisfaction. It depends very much on how it the exchange between the police and the victim – be it in person or remotely – is handled.)

Many victims – I’m tempted to say most, but I don’t have quantitative evidence on this – are aware of the constraints on police resources, particularly in recent years, and can make a realistic judgement about the difficulties and likelihood of crime detection. I remember talking in a focus group to a man whose car had been broken into, resulting in theft and damage. When he said the police had not investigated the crime, I asked him how he felt about it. His answer was interesting. ‘I wouldn’t expect them to,’ he said ‘they’ve got bigger things to deal with. If they sent out a taskforce to investigate something minor like that was, I wouldn’t have been very happy, they’d have got their priorities wrong’.

There are exceptions, of course, occasions when the failure to detect a crime can undermine a victim’s opinion of the police. Sometimes the victim believes – rightly or wrongly – that there is valuable evidence that hasn’t been properly used. In that case, failure to arrest the offender can be a source of dissatisfaction. (This is an increasing problem with the widespread use of CCTV.)

And sometimes we don’t do ourselves any favours. A few years ago a friend of mine came home late in the evening to find that a window at the back of her house had been broken, and she had been burgled. She called the police, and an officer arrived within twenty minutes. He looked around, took some details, reported the crime, and went away, telling her that a scene of crime officer (SOCO) would be round in the morning. So far, so good: my friend was impressed with the police response. When the SOCO came round next morning, he examined the scene, dusting various surfaces for fingerprints, then went outside to examine the entry point, accompanied by my friend. He pointed to the soil outside the window, shook his head and said, ‘there’s a footprint there, but it’s no use now. If the officer had noticed it last night and covered it we could have used it, but it’s been degraded by the rain overnight.’  All of a sudden, my friend’s opinion of the police response took a nosedive.

But in the main, whether a crime is detected makes very little difference to the victim’s assessment of the police.  Other factors are much more important.

So what does make a difference? And how do we know? I’ll answer both these questions with a little historical background.

The police in England and Wales started measuring victim satisfaction about thirty years ago, using a questionnaire developed by the Association of Chief Police Officers Quality of Service subcommittee. This questionnaire was quite short, and was centred on a five-point satisfaction scale, with a few other questions thrown in about the nature of the crime and demographic details of the respondent.

When I first saw this questionnaire I wasn’t impressed. In my view it measured satisfaction without attempting to explain it: it allowed us to judge whether we had improved, but it didn’t give any clue about how that improvement might be achieved. In the jargon of performance management, it measured an outcome (what we can achieve, victim satisfaction in this case) but ignored the outputs (what we do that might contribute to the outcome).

What a missed opportunity! Identifying the critical outputs for many police outcomes (crime reduction, for example) is very challenging, in large part because we don’t routinely collect all the data we need. But a questionnaire survey of victim satisfaction provides the ideal testing ground for understanding the dynamics of performance: if you ask the right questions, you can find out what makes the difference.

In the late 90s, when the Quality of Service surveys had been running for a several years in England and Wales, I was doing some consultancy work with SMSR Ltd, a survey agency based in Hull. SMSR were running the Humberside Police survey of burglary victims, and I managed to wangle the opportunity to play around a bit with the questionnaire.

One thing I did was to extend the five-point satisfaction scale to seven points, which turned out to be very useful, but that’s another story, a later blog perhaps.

But the most important change was a series of additional questions that I persuaded them to include in the questionnaire. These questions asked the victim what the police actually did in response to the crime. I’m quite happy to admit that one of these questions was complete rubbish (if you don’t make mistakes, you don’t learn). But some of the questions worked well.

For example, I asked if the police had given the victim any practical help following the crime. That was a decent question, it worked well.

What do I mean by that, that the question worked well? Well, aside from the fact that the respondents appeared to understand it (there were hardly any missing data, and relatively few ‘don’t knows’), it fulfilled the purpose of the question.

So what was that purpose? Comparison. When I compared the satisfaction of victims who did get practical help with the satisfaction of those who didn’t, I found a difference. And that difference was statistically significant, so it wasn’t due to chance. Those who said they had been given practical help were significantly more satisfied than those who said they hadn’t.

The importance of this finding is obvious. If we know there is something the police do (in this case, giving practical help, an output) which makes a difference to victim satisfaction (the outcome), it suggests that if more victims were to be given practical help, then more would be satisfied.

This translation of research findings into action is at the heart of any evidence-based approach. We know there’s something we do that makes a difference, so let’s do more of it. (How this is communicated to officers needs to be carefully considered, but that’s another theme, perhaps another blog.)

But while practical help made a difference to victims’ satisfaction, there was something else that made a much bigger difference. For some reason which I no longer remember (it was nearly a quarter of a century ago after all) I decided to include a question in the Humberside survey which asked, ‘were you reassured by what the police did?’  As far as I know, this question had never been asked before in a victim survey.

The results showed that reassurance (as reported by the victim) was by far the biggest predictor of victims’ satisfaction. A reassured victim is significantly and substantially more likely to be a satisfied victim. (Furthermore, a reassured victim is significantly more likely to be very or completely satisfied rather than merely fairly satisfied – hence the value of the seven point scale.)

However suggestive this finding was, it was from a small sample (a little over three hundred) from only one police force, and related only to burglary victims. But soon afterwards, two other larger police forces incorporated my reassurance question (along with a series of other output questions) into their victim surveys, covering victims of car crime, violent crime and hate crime, as well as burglary. The analysis of the data from both surveys (with a combined sample size of over ten thousand) pointed clearly to the same conclusion: again, reassurance was consistently the most powerful predictor of victim satisfaction.

When the Home Office revised the measurement of victim satisfaction in 2001, the reassurance question was included in the new User Satisfaction Survey (USS) questionnaire, along with a battery of other output questions (newly named ‘diagnostics’). The satisfaction scales were also extended from five to seven points.

Since then I have had the opportunity to analyse USS data from different police forces at different times. All the data (and by now my aggregate sample exceeds 100,000) point to the same conclusion: consistently, across time and between police forces, reassurance is by far the biggest predictor of victim satisfaction. So if you want to improve victim satisfaction, provide reassurance to your victims.

And now for the bad news. ‘Reassurance’ is just a word in a questionnaire, and a rather vague one at that. If you tell police officers to go out and reassure people, they’ll interpret it in different ways. Perhaps the most obvious thing would be to say, ‘don’t worry, it probably won’t happen again’. That’s reassuring, right?

But if there’s bad news, the cliché demands follow up good news. In this case there are three pieces of good news.  First, reassurance isn’t just a word in a questionnaire, it’s a word that victims often use to describe their own experiences when given free rein (in an open-ended question, or in a focus group discussion). Secondly, by listening to how people use the word reassurance in describing their experience we can find out what aspects of the way they were treated were reassuring. Thirdly, this can be distilled into practical guidance for police officers and staff on how to reassure victims of crime.

I will explain all this in my next blog.  (Spoiler alert: it isn’t about saying ‘don’t worry, it probably won’t happen again’.)

This blog raises issues of performance management and performance improvement, relating among other things to outputs and outcomes. These subjects are covered in more depth in my forthcoming Performance Masterclasses and victim care course, held in partnership with the Police Foundation in 2023.