23 March 2021

Personal perspective: researching vulnerability and how we apply labels in policing

College bursary recipient Detective Sergeant Rob Ewin, Cumbria Police, tells us about his experience of academic study which led him to complete a PhD in 2021, opening up opportunities to apply his research to policing.


What motivated you to start studying again?

I've not always been very academic, in primary school I struggled with reading and writing. On joining the police, I became motivated to examine some of the tasks I was being presented with and I was curious to find out more.  My academic journey began with a foundation degree because I didn't have A-levels. I found that having an interest in the subject helped me to overcome my fear about writing and I soon found my own style. I didn't set out to end up with a PhD. I didn't think I would get beyond a foundation degree. However, the support from the University of Cumbria, and my colleagues, made a huge difference to my self-belief. Having completed a full first-class degree with honours, I began to engage with the College of Policing about using research to inform police practice.  I soon found a place for my own interests which, at that time, were around evidence gathering and the psychology of witnesses. My post graduate study was then hugely supported by the College's Evidence Based Policing Champions network and receipt of a College bursary.

How did your role as a detective help to shape your research focus on vulnerability?

Moving from response policing, I joined the CID. This was a leap in terms of my skills and demands so studying at this point was more difficult. However, I became more involved with complex cases involving vulnerable witnesses and this helped to shape my PhD research. In practice, I could see that often vulnerable witnesses were not identified at the earliest possible opportunity during some investigations. This led to problems, not only with the way evidence was gathered, but also later court processes. 

In some initial findings, the law did not help distinguish witnesses correctly and there were some practices which could be attributed to misunderstandings about what constituted vulnerability. I identified that the term 'vulnerability' was also being used much more widely than when referring to witnesses and this had the effect of reducing the meaning of the term for most police officers. Soon, everyone became recognisable as being vulnerable in some way and this made the job of detailing measures required to support witnesses more difficult. Some vulnerability processes, applied in policing, didn't make sense to the people involved and the practical benefits of these referral practices became less clear to me over time. My passion became about understanding the psychology of policing interactions with so called vulnerable people and how legal frameworks defined, categorised, and recognised them. 

What research did you carry out?

My research had three studies revolving around practitioners; the first was a simple survey, the second involved interviews and the third an inquiry process. The aim was to understand what vulnerability meant in practice terms and how cases were shaped around vulnerable witnesses as well as how intimidation was recognised. This was not simply about interview practices but was also about the processes which may lead to an interview with a witness.  

What did you find?

My findings indicated that police investigators, whether specialist or non-specialist, may suffer from something known as 'mindlessness' in relation to their approach to some witnesses. Mindlessness is a distinct psychological event in which people may become dependent on overlearning and distinctions drawn in the past (i.e. fixed to events and experiences and not necessarily training). It can be related to fixed functional processing (i.e. autopilot) from a reliance on categorisation in which individuals lack context. In my findings I could see that the type of crime under investigation had a major impact on the identification of vulnerability in some witnesses, and that this was closely related to a lack of a comprehensive structure around assessment. Other findings within my study were around witness credibility, which was found to need more structure and training focus, court practices on verbal evidence, which will be revisited in further research, and training practices which need a focus on being evidence-based.

How have you applied your findings to policing in your force?

I am currently working on some practice models for dealing with vulnerability more effectively. Within Cumbria Police, I have been involved in designing and developing the investigative processes to support this area. In my current role as Detective Sergeant in learning and development, I am embedding my improvements in practice, including interviewing, into the training of new officers entering policing.  I will focus on developing some guiding principles for vulnerability, and I recently contributed to the National Vulnerability Guideline Committee where my research was considered as evidence. I have also published and shared some of my findings at conferences and with the College.

What transferable skills have you gained from studying?

I have benefitted hugely from studying and despite my initial beliefs that I was not good enough for the academic system, I have been successful and am now a Doctor! Using my experience, I now coach police colleagues with their degree work and I bring a focus within my force around research and evidence-based practice. It has increased my confidence about undertaking trials of changes in practice using scientific methods and has also meant that I am more critical about my own practice, and more alert to questioning practice that may fall below the mark. 

I didn't expect to get beyond a foundation degree, but now with a PhD I feel that studying is something that I can do, and more importantly, I want others to know that they can do it too. Police colleagues interested in academic study can use College resources to help them in lots of different ways, from applying for funding from the bursary scheme to becoming a member of the Academic Support Network and joining the National Police Library.  If you have taken the time to read this, please find the confidence to consider doing further study, and use the College resources to support you.

The Academic Support Network
​The Academic Support Network offers a peer-support system for police officers and staff who are undertaking academic study.​

​'How to' research guides
The College has produced a series of 'how to' guides which include a guide to conducting focus groups as well as hints and tips on designing and carrying out surveys.

The Policing and Crime Reduction Research Map
The Research Map plots details of relevant ongoing policing related research at Masters level and above. It is intended to increase opportunities for collaboration, and to enable forces to engage directly with researchers working on topics of interest to them.


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