How can psychology improve policing?
A Goldsmiths, University of London PhD student’s essay on the role psychology can play in maximising efficiency in policing is now available to read, after being selected by the ESRC as one of the best entries to their annual writing showcase.
“In times of financial austerity, what role can psychology play in maximising police efficiency?” asked - and answered - Department of Psychology PhD candidate Rebecca Wheeler in an essay that made the top 10 in the ESRC’s ‘The World in 2065’ competition out of more than 70 essays submitted.
Held in partnership with SAGE, this year’s competition took a creative looked at what impact current research will have in 2065, inviting submissions that addressed the question of “what will the social sciences of the future look like?”.
2015 marks the 50th anniversary year for both the ESRC and SAGE. Since being founded in 1965, they have both been instrumental in supporting and developing academic research and social sciences.
You can download Rebecca’s essay in a PDF booklet alongside nine other shortlisted entries from the ESRC website, or read on below.
Policing in times of financial austerity and beyond: The role of psychology in maximising efficiency
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.