Policing uncertainty: decisions and actions in a national emergency

Research Institution / Organisation

The Open University

Level of Research

Professional / Work-based

Project Start Date

September 2020

Research Context

​UK policing is and has been facing a range of new and emerging operational and organisational challenges because of Covid-19, which are expected to persist, and continue to evolve, in the coming months and, possibly, years ahead. Covid-19 has necessitated changes across all normal methods of policing service delivery. There is a unique window of opportunity to study senior policing decision-making in the context of the major uncertainties created by a pandemic. We anticipate the research will provide insights and lessons from the experience of policing leaders that will be a helpful contribution to debates within policing organisations and with their stakeholders about how to better organise for future resilience in the face of unanticipated events and ensure effective decision-making as they arise. We hope the findings will be of benefit both to individual policing organisations and to national conversations about the future shape of policing. We also intend that the research can contribute to a gap in wider evidence-based knowledge "to help decision-makers cope effectively and to determine ‘what works’, in contexts of radical uncertainty" as described in a recent report to the UK Research Councils.

The aim of the research is to identify what may be learned from the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic about the individual and organisational capabilities needed to decide and act effectively faced with major uncertainties in operational, political, and social environments.

In their report to UK Research Councils on the outcomes of the Challenging Radical Uncertainty in Science, Society and the Environment (CRUISSE)network, the network concluded that "although decisions under uncertainty are at the heart of what happens in government, business and the third sector, the existing research landscape reveals a significant gap in understanding how these kinds of decisions are taken and how they can go wrong ... there is a significant gap in research to help decision-makers cope effectively and to determine ‘what works’ in this context." This project will explicitly address that knowledge gap.

Research Methodology

​We will adopt a case study approach drawing on interviews with senior police leaders and archival data (e.g. meeting minutes) from two member forces of the Centre for Policing Research and Learning (CPRL). Our initial focus will be on the nature of the operational and political uncertainties faced by policing organisations and the high impact decisions that have need to be made in the context of those uncertainties. In discussion with policing partners we will select a set of key decision processes to investigate and these will become the focus of a set of decision-making case studies. In analysing the data, we will draw on existing research perspectives on decision-making in uncertain contexts, on sense-making, and on the role of formal procedures, policy, and regulatory and legal frameworks in shaping understandings and interpretation of events. We will bring these insights together with policing practitioner perspectives.

Date due for completion

December 2021
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