22 January 2019

Researching the police control room: A personal perspective

Joanne Traynor is a control room supervisor at Essex Police and is currently a doctoral candidate at Anglia Ruskin University, carrying out a research study on police control rooms.  She was a successful College Bursary applicant.

What led you to start your research?

I wanted to apply evidence-based research methods to a real-world policing issue of which I had first- hand experience.  My aim was to show that expert practitioners can conduct research; providing insight and creating real impact at minimal organisational cost. 

Why did you select the police control room as the topic for your research?

The research question developed from my experience and observations working in police control rooms.  I was aware that information did not always flow through the force control room in a uniform way. As information was passed from caller to call handler and then to radio dispatch operator, it often appeared to undergo changes and alterations.  In turn, incident logs often included alterations to both incident gradings and headers. 

My review of the literature revealed that policy makers and operational police officers usually assume that information flows in a linear manner, where each interaction does not impact or influence the next (Garner, Johnson 2006).  I found there was no existing measure to indicate the accuracy, adequateness and relevance of incident log narratives and no framework to measure or compare forces' performance in this area. 

Given that a proportion of crime undergoes desk-based investigation informed by the narrative of the incident log, the importance of ensuring incident log accuracy to record crime both precisely and efficiently (to avoid reclassification and duplication) is key to delivering a quality service with limited resources.

Does your role as a control room manager help you to conduct your research?

Being an expert practitioner is both an advantage and possible disadvantage when conducting research.  Whilst an academic needs to spend time immersing themselves in policing culture, I was already part of it.   However, being part of policing culture can carry the risk of being blinkered and so it is essential to think reflectively, keep an open mind and constantly question assumptions.  This continuous reflection can help you to become more aware of your own biases.

My dual position as a control room supervisor and a researcher reinforced the need for reflection in my research.  I asked myself: Are the participants simply telling me what I want to hear? How do participants alter their behaviour because of my position within their 'community'? 

Ultimately, adopting reflection as part of an ethical approach to my research aimed to reduce the influence of my presence on the participants' behaviour.  The ability to reflect honestly is the best tool to counterbalance these concerns.

What is the focus of your research?

My research focuses on the transformation of information as it travels from caller to call handler; call handler to radio dispatch; radio dispatch to police officer.  Police incident logs are the transformation of a caller's narrative by the call handler or a 're-telling' of their request for police onto the policing command and control system.  The incident log and its narrative travel from the call handler to be interpreted and actioned by radio dispatch operators who have no knowledge of the original discourse or its provenance.  I wanted to know:  How well do these narrative texts travel? How many alterations occur as the text travels? Are incident logs accurate, adequate and relevant for the policing purpose for which they were created?

The research employs a mixed methods approach including detailed observational work (ethnography) together with an analysis of the changes made to information as it is communicated through the call handling system.  Call handling data will be gathered over two 24-hour periods. I will develop a framework to measure the accuracy, relevance and adequacy of the incident log narratives against the original call for service.  The quantity of incident header and grading changes, and the reasons for these changes, will also be recorded.    Qualitative data will be gathered using participant observation and interviews with call handlers and radio dispatch operators using the retrospective think out loud method.  This method, often used in nursing research, encourages the participant to articulate the decisions they made whilst completing a process. In this case, either call handling, radio dispatch or decisions relating to the alteration of a grading or header.  This reflective interview should occur immediately after the event or process.  In this way, I will be able to 'dig deeper' to understand not only what control room work looks and feels like to communication officers but also explore the interpretive nature of their work.

Do you have any early findings?

The results of my pilot study show that a third of incident headers and gradings are altered by radio dispatch prior to the allocation of an officer.  Some header categories were altered more often than others.  For example, a third of calls categorised by call handlers as 'concern for welfare' incidents were altered to 'missing person' by radio dispatchers.  This suggests that radio dispatchers find an incongruence between the narrative of the incident log and the grading and/or header.  Findings from interview data suggest a complex interplay of cultural and procedural factors which influence the decisions made by radio dispatchers and call handlers. 

How has adding your project to the Policing and Crime Reduction Research Map helped you?

Initially, the Research Map supplied a valuable resource to show me what was happening within policing research in my area of interest.  In my case, the Map showed that there had been no other shared ongoing research in this area.  Moving forward, the Map highlighted my research to other Research Map users who have offered both support and access to their data.  Furthermore, knowledge that my research project (and the findings) was of interest to others gave me a real feeling of validation.

How has the College Bursary helped you to carry out your studies?

Without the College Bursary I would be unable to carry out this research.  Whilst academics in the field had shown interest in my research proposal, funding for the project remained elusive.  The Bursary provided not only financial support but also legitimacy to my research idea; giving me confidence in its unique nature and context.

What are your top three tips for conducting research while working in policing?

Tip One: Be brave; reach out to the academic community, they don't bite! 

I emailed my ideas to academics in the field who offered words of advice and practical support; such as signposting me to funding opportunities.  As a result, I applied for and was granted Cardiff University's Language and Law Residency Scholarship.  This scholarship provided enough funding for me to live in Cardiff for one month in order to really immerse myself in the relevant literature and spend time with influential academics.

Tip Two: Don't worry about your ability. 

If you have identified a unique area of research and can look up a book in the library, you can complete a research project.  Your university will support and develop you. 

Tip Three: Be kind to yourself

No one feels motivated by having too much to do, having to do it too quickly or too perfectly.  These are all unrealistic expectations.  Only focus on the next step in front of you. One step at a time.  One goal at a time. Ensure that you take one small step each day towards your goal.

For more information contact Joanne at joanne.traynor@pgr.anglia.ac.uk or joanne.traynor@essex.pnn.police.uk

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