by Dr Nicky Miller, Dr Emma Williams and Richard Harding of the Open University’s Centre for Policing Research and Learning
Learning in policing should be continuous, iterative and lifelong, taking place throughout the career journey of a police officer or member of police staff.
While many of the problems facing policing are complex, contested and wicked, it operates in a constantly changing field, which is not static and unidimensional but complex, dynamic and often transient.
This means that knowledge resources, accessed via a variety of different methods and means, are both critical and central to the continued development of practice, effectiveness and the service delivered to the publics that policing serves.
These different knowledge resources might involve research evidence, policy developments, legislative change, and data analytics to mention but a few. However, what are rarely systematically captured, critically evaluated and shared are reflections on practice and experiences as a method to enable learning and improvement.
Given the extensive knowledge and experience held by officers, standardising its organisational capture could be considered in the drive to improve efficiency.
Reflective practice and RASSO
Reflective practice is more than simply looking back on an event. Reviewing retrospectively is the first step on the path to development. It is about understanding our actions, our current levels of knowledge, and our existing skill set. It is the ability to recognise gaps or deficits and then identify approaches to remedy any issues and address shortcomings.
Reflecting on experiences, both negative and positive, offers a channel for individual, team, and organisational development, all of which are central to the creation of an effective learning environment and subsequently organisational improvement.
The Centre for Police Research and Learning (CPRL) is currently involved in Project Soteria Bluestone, a Home Office-funded project exploring the investigation of rape and serious sexual offences (RASSO).
The pillar of work CPRL is leading on is examining ‘learning and development and officer wellbeing’. There are several factors attached to this pillar of work, but one of the strongest themes emerging from the work to date is the importance of reflective practice as a form of continuous professional development and iterative learning for those involved in investigating RASSO.
In this short piece we will draw on our work in Avon and Somerset Police to highlight the potential of reflective practice to improve the investigation of RASSO and access to justice for victims of these crimes.
Given the extreme complexity involved in the investigation of RASSO cases reported to the police, iterative learning, the critical assessment of practice and the establishment of feedback loops into learning cycles is essential.
While we would always advocate specialism through the delivery of specialist knowledge to officers that investigate these highly complex crimes, to date in our Bluestone work, we have predominantly seen didactic approaches to learning, a limited application of learning into practice and options for CPD, and no dedicated time for reflective practice and critical thinking about decisions made or the application of learning for the purposes of creating further personal and professional learning.
Improved service delivery and wellbeing
Officers we spoke to provided a clear narrative about the benefits of such reflective approaches more specifically from both a learning and wellbeing perspective.
The wider benefits of reflective practice per se, but particularly in the context of RASSO, link to the potential improvement to the service delivered to victims and survivors – and more broadly the quality of investigations as they move through the criminal justice system – as well as officer wellbeing.
Furthermore, integrating reflective practices at the heart of operational and learning activities offers individuals and organisations the opportunity to use these reflections on what worked well and what did not to create more iterative approaches to learning.
Such methods would facilitate the integration of lessons learned into a more effective learning cycle, and help to identify core areas for focused self-directed and organisationally provided CPD sessions.
Such learning might also provide examples of cases to support more blended learning approaches which explore ‘real’ cases to better connect theory and practice using learning content that resonates with practitioners in a more applied way.
Finally promising or innovative ideas that help to improve the delivery of a professional investigations for the victim could be shared.
By having key reflection points and dedicated reflection time within the process of an investigation strategy or case review, certain assumptions and regular patterns of thoughts and behaviours that can adversely shape thinking, decisions, actions and outcomes can be challenged.
In a crime type that involves such high levels of attrition at the police investigative stage of the criminal justice system these challenges are clearly required if we really hope to achieve transformational change in this space.
In organisations that are risk averse, admitting failure can be challenging. Organisations have a responsibility to allow for and provide a safe space for officers to talk through untoward outcomes, mistakes and perceived failures, in order to move forward and improve outcomes for victims and survivors of RASSO.
We are cognisant of the fact that officers are overworked, demand is high, and time is limited for reflective processes. However, the gains associated with building this into an investigation process are key to investigative effectiveness, officer competence and confidence, access to justice, and organisational health.
A powerful tool
Our research has found clear links between the wellbeing of personnel involved in RASSO investigations and their levels of professional competence, which highlights the critical roles that both formal and informal learning play in creating these.
Critical questions focused on case and victim needs, learning gaps, officers’ own wellbeing, victim/survivor needs and how these factors interact with organisational and wider CJS factors are worthy of ongoing contemplation and reflection in order to iteratively understand and adjust systems, cultures and approaches from a more whole systems perspective.
There was a desire for more time to reflect on decisions made and increase learning from the officers; therefore we suggest that embedding reflective practice more centrally in both investigative and learning practice is a powerful tool to achieve this aim.
Policing already employs forms of reflective practice in certain disciplines – for example, firearms operational debriefs – but the practice is not widespread or instinctive.
Avon and Somerset Police, led by their Chief Constable, Sarah Crew, have started this journey by implementing a new investigative strategy developed by our colleagues in Bluestone, Dr Kari Davies and Professor Miranda Horwath.
This strategy features reflective practice at the centre. We believe that this process will link to ‘on the job’ professional development, and offers further learning across teams and the wider organisation in the longer term.
Ultimately, in this context the police are learning to ask new and different questions and to grapple with the challenges of how to be better at delivering outcomes for victims and survivors of RASSO.