Policing in times of financial austerity and beyond: The role of psychology in maximising efficiency

Rebecca Wheeler is a PhD student at Goldsmiths, London. Her research is looking at improving memory recall in cognitive interviews.

Her piece ‘Policing in times of financial austerity and beyond: The role of psychology in maximising efficiency’ finished in the top 10 of the ESRC’s writing competition, The World in 2065 – in collaboration with academic publishers, SAGE

Wheeler pic

The UK is in the grip of financial austerity, with police forces among those adversely affected by budget cuts. The Government required a 20 per cent cut in police spending between 2011 and 2015, and the July budget suggests these cuts are likely to continue.The current challenge faced by police is to meet public expectations of policing during austerity, while minimising loss of personnel. Despite this there has been a 15 per cent drop in the number of officers and staff since 2010. This drop in recruitment, combined with the demands of minimising the impact of budget cuts on the public, means police officers are often overstretched.

One consequence of this overstretching is that training opportunities for officers are increasingly limited, with newer recruits – who often make up the frontline of policing – suffering the most for this lack of opportunity. Minimal time is available for training and, in particular, only one or two days may be allocated to basic victim and witness interviewing skills. This is in contrast to recommendations of HMIC, who suggest a need to improve the efficiency of frontline officers.

Within the UK the ‘Cognitive Interview’ (CI) represents the gold standard for acquiring information from a co-operative witness. The CI is widely studied in the psychological literature. Indeed, a 2010 meta-analysis conducted by Memon and colleagues reported that the CI has been the focus of at least 65 studies since its development. Yet, with minimal training provided, interviews often fall short of the desired standard. This is deeply problematic given the importance of victim and witness testimony to the criminal justice system. In May 2015 the New Yorker reported on a $20 million settlement awarded when it was established that use of the Reid interrogative technique had resulted in a wrongful conviction. The Reid technique is outlawed in many countries, including the UK. Nonetheless, this case shows the impact (financial and otherwise) which poor investigative procedures can have, and has opened the door for any number of similar court cases over the next few years. In light of the technological advances, which allow interviews to be scrutinised in a way not previously possible, it is more important than ever that interviews are conducted appropriately. It is plausible that scrutiny of interviews could reveal inappropriate questioning resulting from lack of training. At best, this could lead to dismissal of evidence. At worst, we could see similar false conviction cases in the UK.

It is by promoting researcher-practitioner partnerships and ensuring that the findings of laboratory studies are transferred to real-world settings that applied cognitive psychology can make a substantial contribution to changing the world over the next 50 years. A first step towards this is to promote the application of psychological research in the training of police officers. A vast amount of research exists on effective learning and memory recall. In recent years there has also been a shift towards research into the efficacy of online learning, something which is likely to continue. In addition, psychological research on how information is cognitively processed has hinted that the layout of teaching materials may affect motivation for learning.  Combining research from these areas will place psychologists in a strong position to advise police forces on maximising training time and improve the efficiency of their interviewing officers.

While further training for interviewing officers should remain a priority for academics and practitioners, researchers should also drive advances in interview techniques themselves over the next 50 years. When the CI method was developed in 1984 it represented a leap forward for investigative interviewing, providing an interview framework and playing a role in minimising the harmful effect of inappropriate questioning on testimony. However, in many ways the CI has not kept pace with memory research, and it is only in recent years that researchers have sought to address this. For example, current interviewing practice does not meet the needs of officers faced by non-cooperative witnesses – a particular problem in the case of crimes such as gang violence. My own research in collaboration with the Metropolitan Police Service and Greater Manchester Police has begun to explore these issues and consider possible solutions through combining principles from memory and social influence research.

Over the next 50 years it is vital that researchers continue to update interviewing procedures to keep pace with the changing demands of modern policing. It is through strengthening researcher-practitioner ties and developing initiatives in partnership with the groups we aim to support that psychologists are able to have the biggest impact over the next 50 years. In this case I hope to see applied cognitive psychologists leading the way to improve the efficiency of policing in times of austerity.

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