March 2, 2021 12:49

Policing in the Time of Pandemic: Police operations and crises

In terms of incident management, what have been the key challenges created specifically by the COVID-19 pandemic for those in command roles responsible for dealing with and responding to current crises and recent events?

The current COVID-19 crisis event is not unprecedented, nor is it an unpredictable event. It is however causing a significant loss of life, and the long-term humanitarian impacts and economic and political consequences will last for years.

Emergency planners were all fully aware that such a pandemic could happen, even that it was likely to happen eventually. They could not predict that the event would happen in any given year, but the impact and consequences of the event would be catastrophic, and predictably so.

Emergency planners were all fully aware that such a pandemic could happen, even that it was likely to happen eventually. They could not predict that the event would happen with high probability in any given year, but the impact and consequences of the event would be catastrophic, and predictably so.

Consequently, policymakers should have listened to the warnings and should have taken steps in advance to develop a strategy and plan. They could have helped avert or mitigate the incident if they had done so.

Crisis managers are strategic leaders, and all strategic leaders should expect to have to manage a crisis at some point. So let’s start by unraveling what ‘strategic’ means, not with a wordy or conceptual definition, but with a sense of what the core function and purpose of strategic leadership is.

To be useful, the answer should be something that helps you organise your mind on your way to the control room and that gets you over that “What should I do first?” moment. You will want to know where to start and what to do first, in order to get some sense of control and give people the leadership they need.

SDA – ‘situation, direction and action’ – is a handrail which will guide you to that place, and should then continue to guide you as to how to carry on from there. We think that understanding strategy as SDA is a really useful tool. It’s always the first tool that incident commanders should consider.

In terms of incident management, strategically the first three core functions expected are:

  1. Situation: Establishing what is happening, and what it means.
  2. Direction: Defining what we are trying to achieve; it involves the strategic aim, enabling objectives and desired outcomes etc.
  3. Action: Making decisions, reflecting on outcomes, deciding next steps, and maintaining momentum/assurance.

What is situational awareness?

Situational awareness is having an accurate understanding of what is happening around you, and what is likely to happen in the near future. This has become part of the vocabulary since the original Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Principles (JESIP) programme, and in the UK we were teaching it some time before that.

The key points about situational awareness are that:

  • it’s predictive, at least potentially
  • it’s about ‘getting ahead’ of the problem
  • it’s very dynamic
  • it’s in team members’ heads, but can be represented in a common operating picture.

It’s a very flexible concept which – in the hands of those who understand it – applies equally well ‘over the car bonnet’ (such as current JESIP-level working) or in the strategic coordinating group’s higher-level, bigger-picture considerations. This should include UK Government at Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms (COBR) level, which would suggest that we have ‘national strategy’!

In my lectures, I explain this process and use it to suggest a strategy. I also make an assessment of the situation using SDI – an easy to remember way to consider the situation in its wider context, and assess the potential severity of a given risk or emergency. SDI is:

  • Scale – how big? Geography, how far might this thing extend.
  • Duration – how long? How long might this last, in terms of both acute, chronic and legacy impacts or response and recovery.
  • Impact – doing what, to whom and where? It is often easy to identify the immediate consequences, but tracing the wider impacts can be extremely difficult. The start of the impact analysis can be seen in this diagram (left).

 

The Government’s crisis management

For the second time in this year, England’s 56 million people are now enduring a nationwide lockdown aimed at curbing coronavirus. They are not alone; millions in other UK nations and our European neighbours face similar restrictions.

The cost once again to jobs and livelihoods, and to mental and physical wellbeing, will be hard to bear. But thousands of lives that would have been lost to COVID-19 will be saved. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has taken the right decision – though, as in March, it has taken him and his Government too long to reach this point.

Five weeks have passed since government scientific advisers urged ministers to consider a two or three-week ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown to slow a surge in cases. The Prime Minister did not do nothing. He preferred a regional, tiered approach which, when conceived, was a valid attempt to contain the virus while avoiding imposing tight restrictions on areas with low infection rates.

If you claim that ‘it happened suddenly’, then what you are really saying is ‘I didn’t notice it developing’. Actually, the likelihood is that you and the organisation (in this case the Government) were aware of the problem or vulnerability – but you did nothing about it.

As so often with the Government’s management of the pandemic, however, it was undermined by delays and fumbled implementation. It took three weeks to unveil the plan after advisers first pushed for action.

Financial support for businesses forced to close in high-risk regions was lower than that previously offered nationally, creating resentment and friction with local leaders. The test and trace scheme, vital to a successful locally targeted approach, proved sadly unequal to the task – as throughout this crisis.

Why is this? In my lecture I talk about the different types of incidents – incident, major incident and crisis being the standard terms recognised. However, while this is clearly crisis management, I believe the academic definitions are useful if not clearer when considering the COVID crisis management.

Rittel & Webber (1973) introduced the ‘Hierarchy of Events’ – tame problems, loosely structured, and wicked problems. The wicked problems perhaps describe the current incident management challenges – multiple ‘centres’, an inability to respond, lack of information, rapidly degrading conditions, high time pressure for response, an inability to prioritise, and a ‘no win’ situation.

In terms of incident management, there’s a belief that there is no such thing as a ‘random event’. There is almost nothing in nature that happens spontaneously; it’s often a failure of a process that develops over time.

If you claim that ‘it happened suddenly’, then what you are really saying is ‘I didn’t notice it developing’. Actually, the likelihood is that you and the organisation (in this case the Government) were aware of the problem or vulnerability – but you did nothing about it.

It’s been a turbulent time – both for society generally, and policing in particular – in the UK and globally, with a significant focus on police legitimacy in relation to the use of force, racial discrimination and community relations. How difficult is it for incident commanders at all levels to maintain the balance between the protection of life and property, police legitimacy, and maintaining the police-public relationship?

The critical services the police provide 24/7 include:

  • Protecting people and communities – 999 emergency response, and visibility for reassurance to communities.
  • Prevention of crime – resources for this task were stretched prior to the COVID-19 crisis, which impacts on community confidence.
  • Investigation of crime – street crime, organised crime, community safety, and supporting the criminal justice system.

The COVID-19 regulations have added another layer where policing has to deal with non-compliance and issues such as illegal gatherings, parties and raves, with the associated implications for the health and safety of staff.

Another impact has been that the police have had to manage a range of protests – Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists and others – all of which have impacted on the available resources and occasionally led to disorder.

Another impact has been that the police have had to manage a range of protests – Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists and others – all of which have impacted on the available resources and occasionally led to disorder.

The overall negative impact of the COVID-19 crisis on community safety and security is difficult to quantify. What is clear is that community cohesion has suffered on a number of levels. Specific groups have been affected, such as asylum seekers (the impact on detention centres and the attacks on overspill hotels and hostels) and religious groups (the closure of places of worship and of sanctuary). Increased anti-social behaviours – especially in relation to COVID-19 restrictions – and the potential rise in alcohol and drug abuse have also damaged community cohesion.

Some vulnerable groups have experienced more damaging effects of COVID-19 than others. For example, members of the BAME community have had worse health outcomes as a result of the virus itself, and children have been exposed to greater risk of neglect and abuse during the lockdowns.

The pandemic has also created conditions of greater risk and reduced reporting of some crimes, such as domestic violence and abuse, hate crime, female genital mutilation and modern slavery.

The impact on police resources since March has been immense. Senior officers are required to consider and manage the health and safety, welfare, wellbeing and security of staff; at the same time, the testing and training/education of both new recruits and existing staff has in some cases been cancelled or delayed.

Having been through a period of lockdowns and protests over the past six months, have there been any key lessons that UK policing will be able to take forward into policing in the pandemic over the next six to 12 months?

It has been widely reported that we were warned, both by the experts and by reality, of the potential impact of a pandemic, yet on most fronts we were still caught unprepared or behind the curve. We will need to understand why, and what we need to do to prepare for the next pandemic.

There is a clear need to plan for local debriefs to identify organisational learning and the inevitable public enquiry; I hope this was achievable during the summer, but it does require time, resources and effort.

I have some sympathy for the current crisis leaders and feel I should acknowledge that even foreseeable problems can be inherently hard to prepare for. But we need an honest appraisal of why we couldn’t grasp the scale of the threat.

Learning the lessons

The UK Emergency Response and Recovery guidance provides principles, good practice and advice for all agencies. At section at 4.6 (Identifying and learning lessons) the key themes are:

  • 4.6.1: Keep records to facilitate operational debriefs and evidence for enquiries. Capture information while memories are fresh.
  • 4.6.2: Comprehensive record of events, decisions, reasoning behind key decisions and actions taken.
  • 4.6.3 Identify lessons and make more widely available for those who might be involved in future emergencies.
  • 4.6.4: Debriefing should be open and honest.

In relation to individual and local debriefs, to support the public inquiry and facilitate learning I believe there needs to be an agreed structure for the individual agencies and local resilience forums debrief. This will require some planning and, in my view, central guidance.

Dr Kevin Pollock, in a report commissioned by the Cabinet Office Civil Contingencies Secretariat, consistently found the same or similar issues raised by the 32 inquiries and events he examined covering the period 1986-2010.

The methodology will be important for us to identify ‘what went well’ and ‘what did not go well’, and how we can use this information to improve our future preparedness, response and recovery. The process normally starts with a summary of the event, and the debrief may well reveal more information about the event, an opportunity for individuals to reflect on their role in the event, an opportunity for open discussion, and a facilitated plenary discussion, perhaps on the key issues emerging.

In order to identify the post-event organisational learning, the facilitator will need to create a single debrief report, analysis of where the response was effective and where it was not, consider whether any general or specific review activity is required, identify ways in which the response could have been improved, and develop action plans.

However, it’s easy to identify lessons; for organisations to learn those lessons, they need to change plans, training and exercising. Dr Kevin Pollock, in a report commissioned by the Cabinet Office Civil Contingencies Secretariat, consistently found the same or similar issues raised by the 32 inquiries and events he examined covering the period 1986-2010. This was identified as a ‘cause for concern’ and Pollock suggests that ‘lessons identified’ from the events are not being learned to the extent that there is sufficient change in both policy and procedure to prevent repetition.

So how can we ensure the ‘lessons identified’ become ‘lessons learned’ for pandemic events? It will require a commitment from central government and politicians, monitoring and auditing of the process to ensure that the resilience programme is being followed, and for all recommendations to be pursued to conclusion.

On the international stage, the British policing approach to incident and crisis management has often been praised, and held up as an example to aim for; is that still the case, and what lessons can we learn or good practice adopt from other countries?

Understandably, the current focus of governments and organisations tends to be on the response to, rather than recovery from the crisis. This focus will need to change if organisations want to achieve a return to normality and a sustainable resilience.

The British policing model – where each constabulary enjoys a high degree of operational independence, overseen by a chief constable who in turn is accountable to an elected police and crime commissioner – is often significantly different to overseas, where government ministers give ‘direction’ or interfere with operational policing.

However, the incident management concepts and structures used in the UK are often copied abroad, mainly the Integrated Emergency Management (IEM) model and Gold/Strategic, Silver/Tactical, Bronze/Operational levels of command.

The current COVID-19 crisis, which began in December 2019, presents a significant challenge for the entire world. Understandably, the current focus of governments and organisations tends to be on the response to, rather than recovery from the crisis.

This focus will need to change if organisations want to achieve a return to normality and a sustainable resilience.

Roger Gomm QPM retired from the Met Police in 2012 after a 34-year career; his unique background in operational command saw him take a pivotal role in all major events in London for over 14 years. He now works as an advisor, trainer and consultant for the Cabinet Office Emergency Planning College, the College of Policing, several universities, and a number of other agencies. You can find more details and book a place at his workshops on Wednesday 11, Thursday 12 and Friday 13 November through these links.

 

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