LONG READ: Victims of crime need to tell their story

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LONG READ: Victims of crime need to tell their story

Last July I wrote a blog in which I said that police officers should see themselves as applied psychologists. I’ve come to this conclusion gradually, through developing courses for officers on how to provide reassurance to victims of crime. A couple of years ago I began to raise the idea with groups on these courses, and the idea landed rather well: many officers liked the idea, and we had some interesting discussions about it.

One such discussion was initiated by an officer I’ll call Matt (not his real name). He was in his late 30s, but had only been in the job a couple of years. He asked me if psychology could be of any help to officers who have the unenviable task of giving death messages.

Yes, definitely, I said, and invited him to say more. Matt went on to tell me and the assembled group of about 30 of his shift colleagues that he had recently had to deliver a death message for the first time. Having given the bad news as best he could, he was taken aback to see the recipient start to laugh uncontrollably, and then horrified to find that he too, Matt, was laughing out loud along with the bereaved person.

That must have been awkward, I said.

“It wasn’t actually”, Matt said, “it was OK.  But the problem is, now I’m terrified that the next time I deliver a death message I’ll laugh again, and it definitely won’t be OK”.

I explained to Matt that the physical sensation of emotion – the churning of the insides we know as ‘butterflies’ – precedes our labelling of the emotion (I feel nervous, or I feel angry, or I feel sad) which usually depends on context. But when we find ourselves in a new situation, an unfamiliar context, we feel the emotion without necessarily having an immediate name for it, which can be bewildering, with the result that the emotion can be expressed in an inappropriate way.

This explains not only the reaction of the recipient (laughter at sad news), but also Matt’s ‘sympathetic’ reaction (Matt was anxious, and responded to the cue provided by the recipient). For that reason, I reassured Matt, it was unlikely that he would laugh the next time, when the context and cues would probably be very different.

“So do you think it would be possible to provide a course on the psychology of giving death messages?” asked another officer in the audience.

“Certainly”, I said, and made a few suggestions of what such a course might cover. Making a mental note that this idea was worth developing, I returned the discussion to the needs of victims of crime.

We’re not as rational as we like to think

I have always thought that teaching officers to deal empathically with victims of crime has wider implications. After all, if you teach people how to develop and practise empathy, it needn’t be limited to one particular group of people. Empathy is a generalisable skill.

For example, I have just completed a series of courses on this subject for police officers working in a department specialising in complaint resolution. The senior officer in charge of this unit knew my work on victims of crime, and saw that his officers needed similar skills of reassurance.

Some of the similarities are easy to see. Both victims and complainants have had a negative experience, and have brought it to the attention of the police, for whatever reason. And many complaints arise from shortcomings in the way the police have responded to a crime report.

But there are other, less obvious similarities, which bring us back to applied psychology.

In both cases – crime report, complaint against the police – the victim/complainant has made a decision to report something. As I discussed in my earlier blog, there is sometimes less than meets the eye in the decision to report.

When we look at our own behaviour and the behaviour of others, we tend to assume that we are more or less rational. When we do something, we do it for a reason. The reason comes first, and then the action follows.

So if a victim of burglary, or car theft, wishes to make an insurance claim, she will need a crime number, which can only be had by reporting the crime. So she reports the crime because she needs a crime number.

In other cases, a victim might report because they want the perpetrator caught, or stolen property recovered.

So there are plenty of cases where the decision to report, or to make a complaint, can be seen as rational action.  And if we ask the victim/complainant why they reported (in a questionnaire survey perhaps) they will be able to tell us their reason.

But many victims/complainants do not have such clear reasons for reporting. It’s just that something out of the ordinary has happened to them, they’re upset, and feel the need to do something. And the obvious thing is to report it to the police. After all, it’s what the police are there for (among other things, of course).

This isn’t to say that these people won’t give you an answer if you ask them why they reported. People generally like to present themselves as rational, and if they are asked to justify their actions they will reflect and come up with an account, as much for themselves as for the person asking. (This is why we need to be very cautious in interpreting the findings of questionnaire surveys.)

Don’t egg me on

I know this personally because of something that happened to me many years ago, in the early 80s, when I had only been working with the police for a year or so. I lived in east London at the time, and was coming home after a night out, walking after midnight down Leytonstone High Road. A car drove past me at some speed, I heard some rowdy shouts of abuse, and felt something hit my hand, something that felt both hard and wet. My immediate reaction was that I had been hit by a half-empty can of drink. I turned to see a pale-coloured, medium-sized car speeding away.

When I recovered from my initial confusion, I looked down to see that I had actually been hit by a raw egg, which had broken on my hand and spattered across my favourite jacket.

I was filled with a confused swirl of emotion, predominantly rage and humiliation, with a background of admiration for the aim of my assailant. But I was mostly angry. OK, so I had been out with friends and had had a few pints, but I wasn’t drunk. Honest.

I didn’t know what to do with my emotion, but I felt the need to do something. I was a ten minute walk from my house, and was keen to get home to sponge the egg off my jacket. But I knew that my route home took me past Leytonstone Police Station (long since closed), so I decided to go in and report it.

I’ll tell you later how it was dealt with by the police officer behind the desk. For now I want to focus on my motives: why did I decide to report it?

Did I think the culprit could be caught? No, not the remotest chance. There were no witnesses, and I had only the vaguest description of the car.

Did I want someone to, empathise, sit down with me, give me a cup of tea and say ‘poor you’?  No, I wanted to get home and sponge the egg off my jacket.

So why did I report it? There was no reason – in the sense of ‘rational action’ – for my reporting it, no outcome I wanted or expected. I just needed to do something with the emotion I was feeling, and that involved telling someone about it, preferably someone official.

Furthermore, I only reported it because I was passing the police station anyway. Had I had to take a detour to the nearest police station, I wouldn’t have bothered. And had there not been a police station there, I wouldn’t have reported it by telephone when I got home (only landlines in those days).

This is a useful insight for anyone who has to respond to a report, or a complaint. There won’t always be a clear outcome that the victim/complainant wants to achieve (though sometimes, of course, there will be). Sometimes the victim simply needs to tell the story of what has happened, to have it listened to. And to have it officially recognised by way of a formal report, which I call procedural reassurance.

Telling the story 

An applied psychologist understands that we fulfil important needs simply by telling stories.

In a recent edition of the Radio 4 programme Word of Mouth, the excellent Michael Rosen was interviewing Kathryn Mannix, a doctor and palliative care specialist, about how to have difficult conversations.

She described the first occasion when she had to break the news of the death of a loved one. A man had had a heart attack, and they had been unable to restart his heart. It fell to Kathryn to tell his wife that her husband had died. She said the words according to her training, but pointed up mistakes she had made: she was nervous, she spoke to the seated woman while she stood.

So while she had done it ‘by the book’, her delivery lacked human compassion and empathy. The woman’s reaction was dramatic: she jumped up from her chair, accused her of lying, started hitting her physically, then sank back down on the chair, howling in grief, while Kathryn stood by, helpless and bewildered.

At which point the staff nurse Dorothy came in. Dorothy sat down with the woman, put one hand on her shoulder, stroked the woman’s hand with her other hand, saying you poor soul, this is so difficult, I’m so sorry, how awful for you. As the woman gradually calmed down, Dorothy started to ask her questions. Did you know that he wasn’t well?  Yes, we’ve known for years that he had a bad heart, ever since he had his first heart attack six years ago, thought we were going to lose him then. Oh, said Dorothy, so you knew he had a bad heart and you even thought he might have died six years ago. Oh yes, said the lady, and then I didn’t want him to go back to work, but he insisted on going back to work. And how has he been recently? Oh he hasn’t been well, lots of pressure at work, that job was no good for him, he looked so grey this morning, I told him not to go to work.

Dorothy had taken the bereaved woman back in time and encouraged her to tell the story of her husband’s illness and death. It taught Kathryn Mannix that doing things ‘by the book’ was not enough. To have difficult conversations – such as giving a death message – you need a different attitude to listening, to be alongside someone, and to create the space for someone to tell their story.

When we tell a story, we are telling it to ourselves as much as to the listener. It’s how we make sense of what happens to us, and an important way of coming to terms with traumatic experiences.

In my work with victims of crime I have run many focus groups, in which about ten or twelve victims are invited to come along and talk about what has happened to them. At the end of the event I always thank people for taking part, and for sharing their experiences. Then, as they leave the room, many participants make a point of thanking me for giving them the opportunity to talk. Sharing their experiences – telling their story – and hearing other victims’ stories, helps them process the trauma, and to draw a line under it.

Back to reassurance

We know that crime victims who say the police were reassuring are much more likely to be satisfied with the way they were dealt with by the police. But we need to be clear about what reassurance is.

It is definitely not about saying ‘don’t worry, it probably won’t happen again’, or ‘it’s not as bad as you think’.

Reassurance is more complex and nuanced than this, and there are different ways of providing it. But ultimately it seems to be about feeling that you are in good hands, that you are being listened to by someone who understands and recognises what you are saying, and what you are feeling.

A good friend can do that, of course, if she or he is a good listener.

But police officers can do something extra, by giving the formal recognition of an official institution, in addition to empathy and understanding.

When I reported my egging incident in east London in the early 80s, the police officer was visibly amused. When I insisted that it was technically an assault, and that I wanted it to be recorded as such, he grudgingly wrote my details on a piece of paper and said he would record it. But, as I found out subsequently, he didn’t. So it was as if it hadn’t happened, and that somehow made it worse.

Victims need their experience recognised and validated. By officialdom, if you like. But officialdom with a human face, and with human understanding.

These are the words of the victim of an assault, who not only tells us that he was reassured by the police, but goes on to say exactly what he meant by that sometimes rather vague word:

The police officers reassured me. They said what I was feeling was normal. They said what happened to me was serious. They said even if they had to close the case it still meant that they had a record of the crime, and it would be because of lack of evidence, but it didn’t mean the crime didn’t happen.

That’s applied psychology in action.

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