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Facing Violence: Assessing the Training and Support Requirements of Police Constables in Scotland - Research Findings

DescriptionThe detailed information gained through this research provides a picture of the changing realities of police work in contemporary urban Scotland.
ISBN0 7480 6979 8
Official Print Publication Date
Website Publication DateDecember 29, 1998

Crime and Criminal Justice Research Findings No. 19 (1998)

Facing Violence: Assessing the Training and Support Requirements of Police Constables in Scotland
Margaret Mitchell, Michelle Cowan, Rona Hamilton, Jon Jackson and Ewen Speed,
Police Research Unit, Department of Psychology, Glasgow Caledonian University

ISBN 0-7480-6979-8 Publisher The Scottish Office Price £5.00

Police officers frequently face threats in various forms in the course of their work. The aim of this study was to identify the main aspects of incidents which officers find particularly threatening. This knowledge is of the greatest relevance in informing training for officers, and in providing post-incident support for them. The detailed information gained through this research also provides a picture of the changing realities of police work in contemporary urban Scotland, and the effects that this might have on individual officers. The research was commissioned by the Home Department of The Scottish Office and carried out by Dr Margaret Mitchell at the Police Research Unit, Department of Psychology, Glasgow Caledonian University.
Main Findings
  • Almost three quarters of the officers surveyed believe that police work is becoming more dangerous
  • Isolation increased officers' sense of threat with over half of the officers surveyed experiencing heightened concern when attending a potentially violent incident on their own or with no immediate backup.
  • The presence of alcohol or drugs is closely related to the risk of assault and significantly increased the perceived risk for over half of the officers in the survey.
  • The role of the supervising officers in providing support, maintaining morale and in correctly identifying a need for support is seen as crucial by many officers.
  • The occupational context of the police, and the potential stigma associated with help-seeking appears to present a barrier to individuals due to concerns about the possible impact on career prospects
  • 94% of police officers surveyed believe that policing skills are learned exclusively or primarily on the job, rather than through formal training.
This paper summarises the results from a research project aimed at understanding the nature of threats encountered by police officers in Scotland in the course of their work. The work was motivated by the attention which has been paid recently to the impact on police officers, and other emergency service workers, of larger scale traumatic incidents, e.g. civilian disasters. Relatively little attention has been paid to the possibility that smaller scale incidents can affect officers emotionally, and in how they approach their work.
The main purposes of this study were to (i) provide information about the nature of the threats faced by police officers in violent public encounters, including incidents in which they have been physically injured; and (ii) to assess the training and support which the officers feel they need in order to manage such incidents.
The data collected are highly detailed accounts of the characteristics of incidents which officers find threatening, and these contribute to our understanding of such encounters beyond simple categorical descriptions (e.g. 'assault'). Information on police officers' use of, and opinions about, the new protective equipment (the expandable side-handled baton and the rigid cuffs) have also been obtained.
Data were collected by questionnaire completed by operational police constables from two Scottish Police Forces, and through using an adapted cognitive interview technique with a small sample of 37 officers who had experienced a threatening incident very recently (within the previous 14 days). The main sample of 373 (n=300 usable responses) represented a response rate of 59.4% from a random representative sample of age and gender groupings. This gives reason to be confident about the results, providing a balanced picture of the difficulties facing officers and what they see as appropriate training and support needs. Without this there is a real danger that initiatives can be designed and implemented which do not address the real day to day challenges of the job.
The nature of the threat
Of the 300 threatening incidents which were described in our survey 55% were more serious assaults, 'resisting arrest', or incidents involving injury to the officer; 26% involved threatening behaviour or language, and the remaining 18% were incidents with potentially serious outcomes which were resolved relatively easily. Weapons were used in a third of the incidents, and in a further 40 incidents (13%) there was opportunistic use of objects (e.g. bottles) as weapons. Knives were the most frequent type of weapon (in 10% of incidents), followed by other objects, e.g. bottles, sticks (8% of the incidents), and firearms (n=9). Other items were used as weapons, including a car being driven at the officers in four of the incidents. Exposure to blood or saliva was mentioned thirteen times which, despite its relative infrequency, carries with it considerable and serious threat for officers. No weapon was used in a third of the threatening incidents, and the officer was hurt in only 64 incidents (20%). Of these, a minority (n=15) took time off work to recover.
Risk appraisal
The appraisal by the officers of the risks they face shows that they continue to assess risk in an orderly way throughout the incident rather than only at the outset, as is often implied in police training material. Officers made specific reference to unpredictable elements in the situation, either because of a sudden change in behaviour of the suspect, or because the officer felt they were entering a situation about which they had insufficient information (n=26).
The importance of operating as part of a team is shown by some responses indicating that lack of back up or a sense of isolation was threatening in just over half of the incidents (54%). A perception that the suspect was out of control due to the influence of alcohol or drugs was reported in just over half of the incidents (53%), and was also related to a greater chance of the officer being assaulted. Disorder continuing after the officers had arrived, and the suspect appearing to be mentally out of control (although only eleven of these concerned actual diagnosed mental illness) were also found to be threatening.
Decision making
The way the incident is managed appears to relate to how the officer 'copes' with it psychologically afterwards, with the majority thinking they had managed quite well. Just over half found momentary difficulty in deciding what to do, citing slow back up, or too many suspects to arrest as the most frequent hindrances to decision making. The officers reported several practical difficulties which contributed to the overall threat of the incident, for example, working in confined spaces, or being unfamiliar with the physical environment.
Skill learning and the impact of threatening incidents on work practices
The importance to officers of on the job experience, compared to formal training, is evident from the fact that 94% of those surveyed believed that skills are mostly learned on the job. The types of threatening incidents described had led over half of the sample to "expect the unexpected". Again of practical significance is the potential that dealing with such incidents has an impact on other aspects of the officers' working practices. A majority reported a greater wariness, suspicion and vigilance in their interactions with the public as a general effect of dealing with threatening incidents. A third of the sample acknowledged an effect on relationships with colleagues and supervisors, primarily to do with a greater recognition of the importance of team work, and respect for colleagues and their abilities. Seventy three per cent of the sample agreed or strongly agreed with the general statement: "police work is becoming more dangerous".
The implications for support provision
A preliminary question for understanding the health of the police, and in planning formal support, is the degree to which these relatively routine incidents are considered 'traumatic'. In fact following these incidents (which had occurred during the previous year) very few reported symptoms associated with trauma, with under 2% reporting recognisable symptoms. Using an index of the relative significance of this incident compared with other events in the officer's life, only 12% rated it as extremely significant.
The suggestions officers gave for the best ways for the organisation to provide support after such incidents varied. A third mentioned debriefing or 'counselling' as the best means to provide support, although great significance was attached to the pivotal role of the supervisor in providing encouragement and support. Several emphasised the importance of mutual support amongst peers, a fact which is best understood with reference to the spontaneous informal discussions which took place between the participants at the incident. These took the form of a more or less thorough review of operational aspects of the incident.
Age and gender was found to be related to whether a post-incident discussion took place or not, with officers younger in service and female officers reporting more frequently that such a discussion took place. Specific mention of the supervisor, whether providing support or not, featured in 21% of the accounts of the conversations. This underlines the pivotal role of the supervisor to morale and to the sense officers have of being supported.
  • It is evident that the 'threats' faced by police officers in the course of their duties are highly varied, and change throughout the course of an incident.
  • It is self-evident that to be physically threatened, or actually injured, is a concern to officers, but equally threatening can be the unpredictability of incidents, particularly when officers are working under less than optimum conditions.
  • Officers have an apparent need to recount their own experiences and these are the best source of raw material for initial and in-service training purposes. The experiences which officers have on the job cannot be left simply as 'experiences' but need to be consolidated as learning. This can be accomplished in a range of ways, using a range of media, but all of which depend on reflective practice. The scenarios used in training and refresher training provided for officers should be highly realistic, representing typical threatening and dangerous situations within the officers' own experience. These should also encourage officers to reflect on their own actions and reactions, and not only on those of the suspect.
  • The issue of the best way to provide social support for officers is complex requiring consideration of individual needs, the hierarchical nature of the police service, the need for public acknowledgement of a job well done, coupled with private acknowledgement of any distress. A range of services of different types need to be offered, in different ways and at different times, and all within the context of valuing the officers' work.
  • After the incident, a lack of recognition by supervisors that the officer has been through a threatening incident can contribute to whether the incident is coped with appropriately. The supervisor is an extremely important element in creating positive morale, and in the degree to which the officer feels supported in facing danger at work. Supervisors should be provided with intensive training again based on reflective practice to more highly develop their skills in managing human relations and to support them in recognition of their multi-faceted roles.
Copies of the full report entitled "Facing Violence: Assessing the Training and Support Requirements of Police Constables in Scotland" are available priced £5.
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Further copies of this research findings may be obtained from:
The Scottish Office Central Research Unit,
Room J1-0,
Saughton House,
Broomhouse Drive,
Edinburgh, EH12 3XA,
Tel: 0131-244 2114