How to keep politics out of policing

Just how independent are the non-party-affiliated candidates for the new Police and Crime Commissioner positions?

The Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections are almost upon us. On 15 November 2012, we go to the polls, in what will likely be an extremely disappointing turnout, to elect the future leaders of the criminal justice system in our local areas. Elections are taking place in 41 separate areas, with a mix of party-affiliated and independent candidates vying for our votes. The question is – how “independent” are these independents?

Much has been made recently about the fairness of the PCC elections. Independent candidates, whilst trying to keep up with their party counterparts, are still required to find a deposit of £5,000 just to get on the ballot paper – ten times the amount needed to stand in Parliamentary General Elections – and that’s before the campaigning starts. Additionally, in ordinary elections, candidates are only allowed to spend around £12,000 on their campaigns. For the PCC elections, the figure is closer to £100,000. So the question being posed in the press is: do party candidates have an unfair advantage?

Well, yes and no.

They do have access to party funds, making it easier to enter the race to begin with, and to campaign on a grand scale. However, a recent survey commissioned by YouGov found that 61 per cent of people were against the idea of party candidates being elected into PCC positions. When taking account of age, 74 per cent of the "over 60s" category (the group most likely to act upon their voting intentions) stated that PCCs should not represent a political party. Of everyone sampled, only 11 per cent thought it was acceptable for candidates to have party allegiances.

This sentiment has been a key argument in many independent manifestos. “Free from political pressure” seems to be the mantra of the day. However, upon delving into the manifestos of some independent PCC candidates, proposed policies seem to be dripping with popular punitiveness – the policies of the extreme right of Conservative thinking. For this reason, I suggest that, although candidates may be independent from party interference, they are certainly not independent from political ideology.

Take, for example, the following statements:

“I am advocating a hardline approach. Hardcore thugs must go to jail, not be let off as many are at present. Letting people off just makes things worse and in the end creates more problems.”

“First you may be reprimanded (several times), given final warnings and then formally depending upon age cautioned and then eventually end up in court. Court sanctions can be modest and even then often not complied with. The learned behaviour for this small group of individuals is one of petty crime pays, because the risk of real sanctions is frankly negligible. The sanctions available to the police and others who work hard in the criminal justice system are just not there. Outrageously prison sentencing policy is driven by the number of places available, not protecting us.”

Both of these statements refer to antisocial behaviour in local areas. The first was made by a Conservative MP – the newly-appointed justice secretary, Chris Grayling. The second is from a collection of soundbites from the website of Lincolnshire’s “only truly independent” candidate for the PCC role, David Bowles. These statements seem to portray the same thing, and it should not be forgotten that Chris Grayling was bought in to replace former justice secretary Ken Clarke – predominantly for ideological reasons – to appease the punitive Conservative right. It is evident, just from these short quotes, that, although some Independent candidates do not have party allegiances to contend with, the remnants of ideological thinking are absolutely on show in some of the Independent manifestos. 

So what would a truly independent manifesto look like?

For me, it would draw on evidence from the fields of criminology, and desistance-based research. Naturally, the topic that is foremost in people’s minds – antisocial behaviour – would take centre stage, as it has done in the majority of PCC candidates’ campaigns. Research shows that, after being reprimanded a small number of times, young people in particular will cease their antisocial actions. For this reason, an evidence-based manifesto would encourage community payback initiatives, incorporating the principles of restorative justice, as opposed to a more punitive approach, such as imprisonment, as advocated by the likes of Grayling and Bowles. 

To take this further, non-criminal arrangements, such as informal warnings from police officers, will often be enough to deter young people from engaging in antisocial behaviour. A scheme such as this non-criminal approach would also result in the young person not obtaining a criminal record, meaning that the negative impact of having a record – such as poorer long-term employment prospects – can be avoided, enhancing the likelihood of long-term desistance from crime.

Police visibility is also a hot topic. However, Officer numbers need to be balanced with the requirement set by central Government to make financial cutbacks. One way of doing this could be to recruit increased numbers of volunteers – Special Constables who, unlike expensive Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs), have the same powers of arrest as regular Officers. This increases local visibility levels, and harnesses volunteers’ enthusiasm and knowledge of their local areas, whilst keeping costs down.

It should be borne in mind that, eventually, the PCC role is likely to incorporate all aspects of local criminal justice, including the Courts, Probation, and some Prisons. With this in mind, a complete manifesto would address the challenges faced by these institutions, as well as the police. For example, PCC candidates should outline their support for sentencing policy that keeps many low-level offenders out of prison, and encourages community sentences that provide opportunities for community payback, as well as providing the offender with a chance to improve their employment prospects and education level.

To conclude, if we really want to keep politics out of policing, and develop an effective and efficient criminal justice system, we should leave ideological thinking at the polling station door, and vote for evidence-based policies. Only then can a candidate call themselves “truly independent”.

A full list of candidates for Lincolnshire, and the rest of the country, along with further information about PCCs and the election, can be viewed at


Photograph: Getty Images

Craig is a forensic psychology blogger interested in evidence-based criminal justice and desistance from crime. He tweets as @CraigHarper19.

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Tetris and sleep deprivation: how we can help emergency workers cope with trauma

First responders are at serious risk of developing PTSD during events like the Paris attacks. 

Some people seem able to deal with anything. They save a stranger from bleeding out in a bombed restaurant, protect passers-by from heavily armed gunmen, pull dead and dying people out of collapsed buildings, and they keep going because it is their job. These people are first responders.

When trauma goes on for days, as it has recently in Paris, however, the odds of them bouncing back from the violence, death and injury they are witnessing rapidly diminishes. They are at greater risk of developing a severe stress reaction known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One study found that the worldwide rate of PTSD among first responders is 10 per cent, much higher than the 3.5 per cent rate among those not involved in rescue work.

Tetris to the rescue

So how best to address the problem? Research is in its infancy, but there are some promising studies. Emily Holmes’ group at the University of Cambridge has been looking at the benefits of playing Tetris, a video game, after a traumatic experience. The idea is that this could block the consolidation of traumatic memories so they don’t “flash back” later on.

For the study, her team first traumatised people by showing them distressing footage from public safety videos. The next day they invited them back into the lab to reactivate the memories with still images taken from the videos. One group then played Tetris for 12 minutes while the other sat quietly. Over the following week, the group who played Tetris had about 50 per cent fewer unwanted memories from the films compared to the group who didn’t.

The team concluded that playing Tetris helped individuals because it soaks up their visual processing capacity, making it harder for the brain to consolidate the visual parts of a traumatic memory.

Since it takes about six hours for the brain to cement a memory, the key is to play the game soon after trauma or within six hours of re-activating the traumatic memory. How long the helpful effects of playing Tetris will last and whether it will translate into helping people after real-life trauma is still unknown.

Talking it through

Other techniques, such as “updating”, taken from a highly-effective talking treatment for PTSD, may be more practical and easier to implement.

Like a detective, updating is a technique that focuses on finding new information and linking it to the case, the past memory. This is necessary because when the brain and body are in survival mode during trauma, the mind finds it difficult to encode all the relevant facts. Often key pieces of information that could make the memory less traumatic are lost. Updating links new information to someone’s memory of their trauma to make it less upsetting.

But can updating help to reduce unwanted memories after trauma?

We carried out a study, published in PLOS ONE, in which we traumatised people by showing them terrifying films of humans and animals in distress. We then divided our participants into three groups. One group watched the films again but were given new information about how long people suffered and whether or not they lived or died – essentially, they were updated. The second group watched the same films again but without the new information. And the third group watched films of humans and animals who were not in distress. The updated group had fewer traumatic memories and PTSD symptoms than the other two groups.

Updating is now being used by some UK emergency services. First responders will gather after critical incidents and update their memories of what happened before they go home.

Sleep deprivation

There are other techniques that may be helpful. One study found that depriving people of sleep may be useful in the aftermath of trauma.

But the same study found that a week after the trauma, people who had been deprived of sleep had the same number of unwanted memories as people who had slept well afterwards. Consequently, it remains unclear whether there would be any long-lasting benefits using this method. There are, however, certainly health risks linked to lack of sleep.

Still looking for a solution

To develop preventative interventions, we need to study newly-recruited emergency workers who haven’t yet suffered on-the-job trauma and follow them over time, spotting which “coping styles”, present before trauma, may predict their reactions afterwards.

For example, some people naturally react to stressful life events by dwelling on them, thinking about why they happened for hours on end. This strategy, called rumination, has been linked to PTSD in people who survived car crashes.

If rumination predicts PTSD in first responders, then preventative interventions could train people to spot when they are dwelling on an event and refocus their attention to the task at hand.

When we have identified which factors heighten emergency workers’ risk of developing PTSD, programmes can be developed to target those vulnerabilities. Only then can an intervention, directed at first responders most at risk of developing PTSD, properly protect them in their line of work.

The Conversation

Jennifer Wild is a Senior Research Fellow in Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.