President's Column: When context is lacking

NZPA - Greg O'Connor | Wed June 1st, 2016

We live in a world where the tasks and activities necessary to achieve goals are narrowly defined, broken down into their component parts – it’s called specialisation, and it makes sense.

Police is an excellent example. Tasked with administering the criminal law to keep individuals and society safe, we define roles and train individuals to carry out those roles. They work towards the goals of the organisation, which, in turn, is playing its specialist role in achieving the best for the modern state.

What is essential in this, is that the leaders at each level understand their role in their area of responsibility, from small work groups up to the Commissioner.

For anyone examining the activities of any component of the group, it is essential they also understand the group as a whole so they can apply that most vital of factors – context.

Without context, it becomes impossible to fairly pass judgment on the actions of individuals working in their particular roles. Which brings me to this point: Often when I read IPCA reports that are highly critical of the actions of individuals responsible for a very specific task, I find that context is lacking.

Reading many of these reports, as detailed and specific as they are, you might get the impression that the incident being reviewed was the only thing happening at that time, in that place.

The IPCA is doing what it is tasked to do, which is inquiring to see whether policy, practice and procedure (PPP) has been followed, and will invariably comment negatively if it hasn’t been followed, even where such non-compliance is irrelevant to the outcome.

That’s fine, but it means that very real contextual issues, mostly but not exclusively workload ones, are ignored, and blame is apportioned to an individual who may have slipped up on an aspect of PPP.

We do not excuse poor performance, but failing to take a broader account of the context in which some of these failures occur is to miss the opportunity to prevent repeats.

Merely recommending that yet another procedure be put in place means only that there will be another PPP box to be ticked, and an admonishment if it is not. Such failures invariably provide media headlines, relevant to the outcome or not.

Police, like many other organisations, are under considerable pressure to do more with less. Significant increases in calls for service, especially P1s and mental health callouts, have meant more and more marginal calls having to be made right through the system just to ensure we can attend the most urgent calls.

Prioritisation is the overriding principle, and people just hope the incident they deprioritise is not the one that will have disastrous consequences.

When a call backfires, as one invariably does, it would be helpful if those tasked with reconstructing what occurred also examined the contextual factors that contributed to the outcome.

Because, without that context, the real opportunity to prevent a repeat is lost, and apportioning blame to individuals means the organisation as a whole does not benefit.

And, even more broadly, nor does society when only police actions are scrutinised while the contributions of other organisations and agencies are ignored.

Context, it seems, has become a victim of the evolution of specialisation. The Police Association endeavours to provide such context – not excuses – to cut through the noise that can surround events so informed observers can at least have some understanding of why individuals may have acted as they did.

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