Good victim care isn’t dependent on spending more time with victims of crime

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Good victim care isn’t dependent on spending more time with victims of crime

Victim care has long been an interest of mine. I’ve been doing research on it, as well as giving advice and training to police forces, for more than 25 years, but that work has really taken off in the last ten years. Although I haven’t kept a precise count, in that time I have given courses on the subject to well over 6,000 police officers and staff who deal directly with victims of crime, either in person or over the telephone.

I know the sort of questions people ask, and the objections they raise. And I have learned how to address their concerns, and counter their objections.

Sometimes people will raise objections as a way of dismissing something they don’t want to do, or defending against a way of thinking they don’t want to engage with. But these are very much the minority. Most questions and objections reflect genuine concern about the difficulties in delivering better victim care.

By far the commonest objection is about time. The argument typically goes something like this.

We accept that victims need to be cared for, and we would like to go the extra mile. If we could spend half an hour with every victim, we would be able to improve victim satisfaction rates. But we simply don’t have the time.

This seems a reasonable objection. Police resources are stretched, often to the limits. And consequently so is the time available to talk to victims. So if improving victim care depended on spending an extra 10 minutes – let alone half an hour – with every victim, then it simply wouldn’t be feasible.

But my research, which is based on interviews with more than a 100,000 victims over the years, points to a different conclusion. It isn’t about spending more time with victims. It’s about how you use the limited time you have.

Last July I wrote a blog in which I suggested that we should see policing as applied psychology. To illustrate my argument, I talked about Jim, a 20-year-old student, fit and healthy, who was mugged late at night as he was walking home.

He wasn’t hurt, and what he lost was trivial. He didn’t get a clear view of the assailants – he knew they were two men, but it all happened so quickly – so he knew there was little chance of their being caught. Nonetheless, he thought it was important to report it to the police, if only to let them know that something had happened. So he took himself off to the local police station.

While he was reporting it, he was calm and apparently unaffected. But it turned out that Jim was affected quite badly by the experience, only he didn’t show it at the time. Three days after the robbery he began to suffer anxiety attacks, flashbacks and insomnia, all symptoms of PTSD.

This delayed reaction took Jim by surprise. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, he thought he was fine, and that the experience would be, in his own words, ‘water off a duck’s back’. And because he presented as calm and in control to the police, he was dealt with accordingly: if he isn’t upset, there’s no need for any show of sympathy.

But imagine the police officer says these words to Jim at the end of their encounter:

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.

Three days later, when Jim does experience his symptoms, he will probably be left with a lasting impression of an insightful and compassionate police officer, and the reassurance he derives from this will push his from a mere ‘fairly satisfied’ to a distinctive ‘very’ or ‘completely satisfied’.

When I run this as a role-play demonstration on my courses, these words take a mere 30 seconds to say. And this often provides a compelling answer to the “we don’t have time to do this” objection.

Going the extra mile doesn’t need half an hour, or even 10 minutes. If you say the right thing, it can take as little as 30 seconds.

Or even less.

Something I have learned from the answers to open-ended questions in victim surveys – and I have read many thousands of them! – is that many victims feel a certain amount of inner conflict when they decide to report something to the police.

Victims are often well aware that police resources are stretched. This, by the way, means that they probably won’t be expecting the police to stay for an extra 30 minutes! But it also means that they are aware that they are adding to the burden by making a crime report.

My research has taught me that victims are often concerned that they are wasting police time. When I say this to a group of police officers, they tend to respond with nods of agreement, because their experience has taught them the same thing: victims are often apologetic about reporting their crime to the police.

Police officers should be on the lookout for this. If they suspect the victim is worried about wasting police time – and sometimes the victim will actually say so – then they should take the time to say:

You’re not wasting our time, you’ve been the victim of crime, and you did right to report it, it’s what we’re here for.

Five seconds, that’s all the time it takes. Backed up with appropriate body language, facial expression, or telephone manner, of course.

And it makes a big difference, as these three verbatim responses show:

I just felt that they were very respectful and treated us with compassion. I did think they took it seriously. It was a minor theft, but it still impacted us a lot.

I think they were very understanding. I think a lot of the time when you call the police you’re conscious of the fact that you’re wasting their time because no-one is dying, so it’s nice to have the reassurance that it was ok to call them.

To me it was a fairly minor crime and I didn’t think much was going to happen. I just wanted to be a good citizen and report the crime. I didn’t want to waste police time, and they reassured me that I wasn’t wasting police time.

All three of these victims were completely satisfied with the way the police dealt with them. Reassuring the victim – which is the best way of achieving higher satisfaction rates – is not a matter of how much time you spend talking to them. It’s about what you say, and how you say it.

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Photo: Erik Mclean on Unsplash