Policing Vulnerability: Definitions, legitimacy and thinking differently Ian Hesketh and Emma Williams

This piece appeared in Policing Insight a couple of weeks ago:

Based on thoughts from the annual College of Policing Conference:

Policing Vulnerability: Definitions, legitimacy and thinking differently

Traditionally, it seems that whenever we mention vulnerability and policing in the same sentence the majority of people we speak to immediately think we are talking about vulnerable victims and the way that the police deal with them. That is why last week’s College of Policing annual conference on vulnerability was so refreshing. This year’s focus was on vulnerability, and the conference included extensive commentary on internal issues relating to police officer stress and wellbeing, as well as external vulnerability; with discussion on both victims and recognising the risks resulting from certain characteristics that might impact on vulnerability and vulnerable offenders.


A range of excellent and contemporary speakers provided fascinating insight into the policing realm, with the Home Secretary announcing significant additional funding to support the service in the area of vulnerability. There is no doubt that policing in the UK is experiencing an unprecedented transformation, and there is a considerable growth in demand resulting from vulnerability. This is partly a result of the impact of austerity and financial cuts to the social and health care facilities that would ordinarily be in place to deal with these individuals before they come into contact with the police. As a result there is an additional demand for specialist skills, time and people.


We propose that there has to be more thought given to the relationship this demand has with internal vulnerability. We do not think the two issues are mutually exclusive. Much of the emerging threat to police is complex and virtual in nature, involving multiple partners and often contested solutions. Frequently there are no easy, agreed or known resolutions, or indeed established evidence on ‘what works’. Counter terrorism, mental health, drink/drug-fuelled violence, sexual violence, child sexual exploitation, cybercrime and missing persons are all instances where both public expectations and the risks of getting it wrong are high for the police. We found it refreshing to hear the CEO of the College, Chief Constable Alex Marshall, discuss the need for the police as an organisation to move from a culture of blame to a culture that is willing to learn from mistakes, is creative, and is willing to try new ideas.


Policing is a business with high levels of emotional labour, and as such the policing environment has the potential to experience higher levels of stress than the general working population. The fact is that the police service is dealing with an increasing number of cases requiring employees to carry out particularly stressful functions as part of their roles within forces. This is exposing more staff, on a more regular basis, to investigations that might have a detrimental effect on their own wellbeing, resulting, in some cases, in psychological injury. With the policing mission being to protect the public, especially the most vulnerable, police staff and officers ought to have good mental and physical health to enable them to carry out those difficult roles. Focusing on the wellbeing of the organisation’s most important assets (the staff) that will, are, or have experienced these particularly stressful tasks will enable the service to achieve its mission.


Several important issues associated with methods of recruitment into these roles, and ensuring that staff have the right tools and support to equip them to deal with such complex issues, formed strong discussion points. Anecdotally, from our own research, there are officers who have been posted to roles in complex areas that they have not wanted, following a review or an inspection. This is neither a strategic nor an appropriate response to the problem, and paradoxically it might have the reverse effect on the issue than what was intended. Plus, at the same time, such decisions risk reducing productivity and discretionary effort, through officers feeling ‘done to’ and not supported. The honest and open discussions following this part of the conference were refreshing to see and contributed towards the CEO’s earlier call for a change in outlook. We also add a typical researcher response, in that it seems that more research is needed in this area!


A key theme that was woven through the conference was the issue of legitimacy. Perhaps when we think about this is terms of vulnerable victims we immediately think about victim credibility, and likely success at court following an allegation. Michael Brown (@MentalHealthCop) raised some concerning figures about the likelihood of cases reaching court if, for example, the victim had mental health issues. This is mirrored (alongside other vulnerable factors) in much of the research conducted on allegations of rape. It seems ironic that the most vulnerable have a lower chance of being seen as legitimate victims? If we refocus that conversation to inside the police we can also see how officers with stress, who feel vulnerable, have been considered as less legitimate crime fighters if they exhibit a perceived weakness in front of their colleagues? It seems that the issue of vulnerability and legitimacy is an under explored issue both internally and externally?


What became abundantly clear  throughout the day was the power of definition. The definition of what ‘vulnerability’ is maybe, therefore, subjective to the persons that consider themselves as vulnerable? This makes it very hard to wrap a neat description around the term. There are snippets of research that discuss this in relation to certain crimes and contexts (for example sexual violence), and we propose that it is something that needs analysis as a whole. A recent Twitter debate featured a sergeant, quite rightly, pointing out that perhaps everyone is vulnerable at some point, in some context, due to a particular circumstance. Therefore should the police not just treat all people the same, but access specialists to help with specific complex issues that need relevant skills? This is a pertinent debate to have, given the plans to introduce a license to practice for police. The other question to pose here is whether this could result in increased pressure on the police to identify ‘vulnerability,’ when it is long-established that this is something the police have been criticised for over and over again? Perhaps this debate is for another day, but it was interesting to see a similar conversation going on in Australia this week at an international conference suggesting that all people should be assumed to be vulnerable until proved otherwise. This essentially turns the debate on its head. However, what was reassuring was hearing Alex Marshall talking through the College of Policing’s definition of vulnerability. The definition states that a person is vulnerable if as a result of their situation or circumstances, they are unable to take care of or protect, themselves, or others, from harm or exploitation. To us this definition requires that we consider vulnerability to be about external characteristics as well as those actually being presented. If a person is under the influence of drugs and alcohol, for example, this can place those individuals in more vulnerable situations, which in turn makes cases more at risk to not reaching a criminal justice outcome.


All in the conference was excellent. The context of both internal and external vulnerability needs to be more fully evidenced, understood and applied to practice. The research-practice gap is seemingly closing, and the business of policing is aligning to the challenges ahead, ably assisted by robust academic inquiry. Our understanding of ‘what works’ and of ‘what matters’ is, through collaboration, maturing.





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2 Responses to Policing Vulnerability: Definitions, legitimacy and thinking differently Ian Hesketh and Emma Williams

  1. Thanks so much for this great blog.

    I loved your point about individual legitimacy. I’ve only considered, or perhaps, articulated, legitimacy in terms of the police as an organisation but your characterisation describes so perfectly how many police are reluctant to act in response to their own vulnerability. It also reminds me of Peter Manning’s reference to the police’s ‘impossible mandate’. Again, the phrase as I understand it described the organisation’s tendency to prop itself up as a crime fighting and prevention agency when in reality that is only a small portion of police work, as well as pol ice having little control over the societal factors which contribute to the incidence of crime. Your point about individual legitimacy has prompted me to think how police officers (here I’m generalising) set up their own ‘impossible mandate’ in regard to how a ‘good’ officer should cope or respond to the stressors and traumas of police work. An obvious example is the perception that mental ill health among police is a sign of incompetence or weakness. In an occupation so routinely exposed to trauma, I find it is indeed, an impossible mandate for police to deny their own vulnerability in the circumstances.

    Thanks again for this great blog which has helped me consider how Peter Manning’s concept could be expanded and how it relates to legitimacy – a key tenet of police professionalism.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Melissa! Appreciate that alot…. Emma x


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