BLOG: EBP and operational tasking

The question has come up about taking an evidence based policing (EBP) approach in tasking. This has prompted some initial discussion – your views are invited to take us forward!

On one level perhaps, firstly, it can be suggested that there are different forms of research and different levels of evidence. In the thick of the moment in operational policing you haven’t got much time for either! But, tactical options (such as within public order and firearms) have been developed over time and can be drawn upon in an operational situation. Here, we’re reliant on somebody somewhere having taken an evidence based approach to recommend a tactical option for others in the future (when you need ideas – fast!).

On a second point, there is some well-established work on the role of crime analysis (geographical and temporal clusters – ‘where and when’ to inform where to ‘hotzone’ patrol). This, quite rightly, sits on the basis that policing is way too important to be left to chance (so working on hunches alone may not be the only or best way to do business); that reactive policing alone has limited impact on prevention and reducing calls for service; and also that the police hierarchy itself might inhibit ‘bottom up’ innovation. So while we can have a discussion about the Koper Curve Patrol Principle for hot spot tailored police presence – in between reactive calls – on another blog (I can just hear your excitement building), here the attention is going to have a look at that ‘hierarchy’ issue.

It’s pretty difficult in many ways to stand back from routine business when you’re doing it every day, but if we are to consider the idea that the police hierarchy has both pros and cons that’s what we need to try and do. Bear in mind, blogs like this are informal and intended to provoke discussion – they are a start to a conversation which need you to get involved in! Everything is ‘up for challenge’ – and our style (to borrow a phrase from Lord Lindsay) is the ‘pursuit of truth in the company of friends’ – so where we debate we can still remain amicable! Debate, critical debate, (where time and place being appropriate!) is healthy – remember that old quote by Walter Lippman – “where all think alike, no one thinks very much”?

Tasking is normally a planned meeting (not a blue light run) so there is time – the question is how is that time spent? It might not be just about what is done in tasking, but how it’s done?

Tasking runs at different levels in policing but the principle is the same and is influenced by the National Intelligence Model so is fairly standardised. The point is to review what’s happening, why and what to do about it. It’s an ideal opportunity to stand back and consider, challenge assumptions and commission an evidence based approach – to track what’s happening and test the data. It’s an ideal time not to have kneek jerk solutions but to have an investigative mindset.

Tasking is a form of prioritising of scarce resources and is a form of problem solving. It has been commented that tasking is sometimes more about what resources we’ve got (or not!) and where they are to be deployed than what is happening – a ‘solutions first’ stance. Depending on the level of tasking it might be more tactical (here and now) or strategic (with an additional longer term impact).

Nick Tilley’s now famous ‘SARA’ model (scan, analyse, respond and assess or evaluate) is still relevant today. Nick pointed out many times that not least because of the time pressures policing has, the ‘scan’ part happens but there’s often very little analysis (for example ‘why?’), the response is usually clear (something somewhere ‘gets done’) but the assessment or evaluating is often missing. The point of this observation – which shouldn’t be read as ‘arm chair criticism’ of policing more of a suggestion where we need to ‘balance’ our focus – is that if we deploy a response without fully understanding what something is and why it’s happening, we risk inefficiency.

This isn’t to suggest policing should not act; there is much talk within policing about the frustrations when policing alone seems to act when others don’t! There is some truth to this – but that equally doesn’t mean that policing can’t or shouldn’t consider the point that ‘fast thinking’ alone without ‘slow thinking’, as Daniel Kahneman describes it, means operating at a ‘gut’ intuitive level alone.

Thinking Fast and Slow (Penguin Books) by Daniel is well worth a read, if you have the time, but in a nutshell, he describes how humans can be ‘faulty’ at reasoning and making choices / judgements. Daniel calls this ‘biases of intuition’ – how we might think we’re really clever and know because of whatever but we may end up being over confident (in what we believe we know) and unwilling to stand back and question. Daniel said his purpose in writing the book was to get people to talk about this issue as this in itself would raise awareness which in turn would limit bad judgements and avoidable errors.

OK, you may say why should I listen to Daniel in the first place? Well, he started his psychology of perception and decision research around 1969, so he’s been at it a while and he’s managed to win a Nobel Prize. Daniel noticed how intuition (which may well save our lives several times a day!) can also hinder us. He explains how what is termed ‘heuristics’ (the title’s not important) is like intuitive suggestibility. Not to get bogged down in this – let’s say intuition (gut instinct) might be explained as ‘recognising’ something – like a pattern (that you’ve already had an exposure to). It helps explain, for example, how what is ‘available’ to you (what’s on your mind) influences what you do next. Yet that recognition might come from elsewhere too. It might be from what you’ve seen in the media for example.

Daniel says that in a pressured, fast paced environment we might end up answering the wrong question – rather than ‘what is happening and why?’ we might simply go with ‘what do I feel I should do?’; and this can be automatic ‘fast thinking’. Fast thinking has its many uses, but it’s not the only option

The same argument applies back to Nick Tilley’s point as well in ‘assessing and evaluating’ (afterwards). Hindsight might inform what we do next time because we just ‘know’ what happened last time. But did we? Was crime reduced by a sergeant and six in a van or was it more random, like it rained?! The comment ‘policing operations always being doomed to success’? There’s a difference in recording something happening and us understanding why it happened. Working on ‘what to do next’ really needs to be informed by why and how it was happening in the first place.

Daniel isn’t having a go at policing in his book – he barely mentions it – he does talk about though the whole of humanity and all sorts of industries and professions So don’t feel picked on by any of this stuff on how we might jump to faulty conclusions – it’s a human condition! The point is though if we’re aware of the possible tendency we can guard against it.

Policing already has ‘built in’ structures of thinking that encourages us to not only question what has happened but how do we know this – firearms, intelligence, investigation and so on. The point is policing does know how to think systematically; but does it do that consistently? Operational tools, like the National Decision Making Model, serve policing well – and should also be used in tasking. Not knowing the answer to everything is also pretty normal.

Pretending to know an answer to ‘something’ and just doing ‘something’ (anything!) is also pretty normal but it isn’t necessarily the only or best way. This might all fall under Nick Tilley’s ‘analysis’ stage – where whatever data we have is chewed over to try and understand it, make sense of it, in order to decide what response might be best. If we skip analysis, and don’t discuss ‘what’ and ‘why’ (and run off presumptions and hunches) then we may miss fundamental points.

Although this sounds simple, it takes some moral courage to adopt a rationale that acknowledges what we don’t know, but that’s the start of finding out!

All this may boil down to is taking a more thoughtful approach to policing and given the critical nature of policing, the impact it has on people’s lives and the scarcity of resources that surely isn’t a bad thing?

What do you think?

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