Detective Chief Inspector Mark Dimelow, MSc Criminal Investigation
Senior Investigating Officers (SIOs) are those detectives expected to deal with the most challenging investigations within policing in England and Wales, but in order to provide this service to victims of crime and wider society they must be able to make effective and insightful critical decisions day or night. This short article discusses key findings from a small qualitative project that interviewed SIOs from a police force in the North of England. Effective decision-making, the study finds, requires a culture of robust well-embedded organisational welfare and wellbeing processes to support SIOs, along with adequate training to normalise such critical decision-making under pressure.
The College of Policing (2021b) recognises that the SIO is responsible for managing all aspects of the investigative response, inclusive of the resources to effectively manage threat, risk and harm, in addition to staff welfare and effectiveness. This wider recognition of the responsibilities routinely absorbed by SIOs is described by Carson (2009) as a creative skill, with Tong and Bowling (2006) labelling it a science and rendered into more emotive language in the Senior Investigating Officers’ Handbook with the observation that:
“being an SIO is a craft and art form that is not the easiest to learn and master. It most certainly carries with it a sizeable amount of reputational risk and personal accountability. It is however, by far the most enjoyable, satisfying, and personally gratifying role in law enforcement” (Cook, 2019, p.3).
SIOs, as the lead detective, operate within a sustained culture of pressure defined by high demand and continual scrutiny (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Service, 2019) even before additional impact factors such as On-Call, decision-fatigue and sleep-deprivation are considered. It is likely therefore that because of the time and professional focus required to become an SIO, such individuals will have been exposed to the normal trauma of policing (Elliott-Davies, 2022), and then have gone on to willingly seek and accept a role such as On-Call that will routinely demand from them full emotional investment for prolonged periods of time, within a challenging working environment, in the knowledge that others will then critique their perceived effectiveness (Turnbull and Wass, 2012).
The stereotypical, dominant and dated image of police leaders inclusive of SIOs being macho figures, able to control required outcomes as articulated by Mastrofski (2002), simply adds to the pressure faced by a contemporary SIO when performing an On-Call function. SIOs can be faced with unrealistic expectations to achieve desired results (Davis and Silvestri, 2020), with this stressor potentially being generated by the SIO themselves, or alternatively emanating from within policing, local communities or the media.
Sir Thomas Winsor, as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary, commented that:
“many police officers are at risk of suffering from mental ill health. Not only do they come under great stresses in the exercise of their duties, but they also face the most appalling and dreadful things” (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services, 2020, p.14).
Research has concluded that general policework is in itself a fatiguing activity (Miller, 2022), and this theme was recognised as a key factor amongst the interviewed SIOs, that was compounded not only through the system of On-Call (Glasgow, 2019), but also the unavoidably lonely professional position occupied by SIOs as the lead investigator and primary decision-maker (Cook, 2019). Study participants reinforced earlier findings that simply being in a position of authority, and operating in such a challenging environment (Turnbull and Wass, 2012) was in itself part of the wellbeing issue negatively impacting on an SIOs operational effectiveness. Another potential dynamic impacting on SIO effectiveness was that of ego-depletion (Baumeister et al, 2007), alternatively labelled as decision-fatigue (Johnson, 2020; Berg, 2021). This psychological phenomenon provides that individuals have a finite capacity to make critical decisions, and whilst these studies were not focussed on policing, the findings translate across into the profession. It was clear that participants recognised aspects of this theory as an issue when performing On-Call, although there was an indication from their comments that operational focus and public service ethos diluted the potential negative impacts of this.
The study by Turnbull and Wass (2012), whilst not focussed on SIOs provided an insight into policing culture and the pressures faced by supervisory officers of Inspector rank when conducting their duties. This included limited qualitative awareness in respect of the resulting fatigue and adverse effect on decision-making when officers work excessive hours, including through systems of On-Call. Building on this understanding, this research on SIO perceptions aimed to reach a more contemporary comprehension of the issues presented, but also provide a unique and focussed perspective on the reality faced by operational SIOs striving to deliver On-Call within a pressured policing environment (The Police Foundation, 2018).
Research by Lazurus and Folkman (1984) would suggest that this process of induced fatigue actually commences not when having been called-out, but simply in the waiting. This would indicate that the mere fact that an SIO is On-Call in addition to performing their other core office-hours role starts to degrade their effectiveness, without any positive tangible impact to them or the organisation that requires this function. An aspect of this fatigue is likely to manifest amongst those effected through a negative impact in sleep patterns and sleep health; this has been subject to research outside of policing and has transferable relevance because it focusses on cognitive performance and effectiveness. Study findings by Goel et al (2013) have been reinforced by Domagalik and Beldzik (2015) in which clear links have been established between a lack of sufficient sound sleep recovery and a deficit in the ability to maintain alertness and a:
“degradation in waking neurobiological functions as reflected in sleepiness, attention, cognitive speed and memory” (Goel et al, 2013, p.1).
This is clearly a less than optimum position for an SIO who is already likely to be working excessive hours (Turnbull and Wass, 2012), even before the imposition of On-Call on their professional routine.
This research focused on a small and well-defined area of policing with the aim to increase topical academic knowledge, and to provide the practical benefit of stimulating both wider debate and further research that will ultimately increase the effectiveness of practicing SIOs. This study was undertaken by a practitioner-researcher (Robson and McCartan, 2016) with a well-developed understanding and experience of the challenges faced by SIOs when conducting their duties, and therefore provided flexibility for the researcher to react in a more informed manner to the topic, whilst maintaining overall focus.
My small-scale qualitative research focussed on the perceptions of SIOs operating within a police force in the North of England, and explores factors that impact their ability to make effective decisions due to performing an out-of-hours On-Call function. This study employed semi-structured interviews to collect primary research information from this under-researched, insular group to develop an understanding of the thoughts and feelings of how they perceive that being On-Call is detrimental to achieving the effective decision-making required of them. As such I started from a positional statement that SIOs who perform an out-of-hours On-Call policing function are rendered less effective decision-makers (Driver et al, 1990) by a system that requires them to be decisive leaders (CoP, 2021a), who are able to professionally and proficiently tackle emerging serious crime incidents.
In seeking to determine the veracity of this statement the research established a clear interdependency between the welfare of SIO practitioners and their ability to provide sustained effective decision-making as required when responding to emerging serious crime incidents. The provision of SIOs able to provide this skillset to the standard required by policing in England and Wales becomes the key factor. The findings of this study strongly suggest that the current method of providing this necessary investigative leadership through the function of an On-Call system negatively impacts on both the operational aim of effectively managing critical incidents out-of-hours, and also personally on the welfare and wellbeing of the SIOs responsible for delivering this service. A conclusion can therefore be reached that reducing the frequency of On-Calls required of individual SIOs, or replacing this with a rota of on-duty SIOs both day and night would have a positive impact on the welfare of SIOs and in turn serve to improve the ability of these practitioners to lead major crime investigations, make more effective critical decisions and reduce the risk of burn-out as identified by Fyhn and Johnsen (2016). The unavoidable reality is that police forces must continue to anticipate the need to respond adequately to emerging critical incidents (CoP, 2021a), and suitably accredited SIOs naturally assist in this requirement by formally being continually available at short notice, day or night, but the challenge remains in balancing this need with the wellbeing of those involved in this process to the ultimate benefit of all through the removal of factors negatively impacting on SIOs ability to make effective critical decisions under pressure.
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