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Rapid debrief process giving Essex Police 'early, quick wins'

Fourteen rapid debriefs for homicide and serious violence incidents have been undertaken since the pilot process got under way in March.

Essex Police has been operating a rapid debrief process for incidents of homicide and serious violence since March this year, after a spike in such crimes prompted the force to find a way to analyse the key issues quickly to aid prevention.

This process involves a review team conducting a swift analysis of select incidents before making learning recommendations which will then be implemented.

Identified as good practice by the NPCC, the force’s pioneering work has piqued the interest of others. Yet one of its chief architects, Detective Chief Superintendent Lucy Morris, has admitted to sometimes questioning the wisdom of that label.

Essex’s Head of Major and Economic Crime told Police Oracle: “Between the three of us we’ve had the conversation a few times, to say that we’re not quite sure why this is on a pedestal as being pioneering because we’re just having a conversation about an incident soon after it’s happened – where’s the rocket science?.”

Though there is a relative simplicity to the process when it’s explained in those terms, DCS Morris shed some light on why rapid debriefs are not yet a nationwide practice.

“Ultimately, I think, what has been historically seen as a blocker is doing any kind of concurrent activity around debriefing for something where there is a serious crime investigation ongoing – particularly around homicides,” she said.

DCS Morris believes this prospect has made some SIOs “very nervous, especially if there is a potential for some kind of statutory review to go on”.

However, the process has been able to thrive because its parameters are clearly-defined: rapid debriefs are designed to look at strategic issues, not point the finger at individuals. They're about organizational learning, not attributing blame.

One of the founding trio is former SIO Mark Hall, who is part of the serious case review team within the Kent and Essex serious crime directorate.

He says:“We knew we had a gap, and the gap was that we were only reviewing debriefing, the tip of the iceberg in terms of those that met the statutory criteria, and there was a significant delay before those particular reviews were done.”

They couldn’t make any assessment on merit until they tested the process; to see whether rapid debriefs were a solution to this problem which could prove “effective in capturing learning early on”.

Those questions were answered quickly and emphatically, according to DCS Morris.

She said: “It was quite clear, early doors, we were seeing some repetitive issues around lack of awareness in certain areas, and a training need, or some tweaks to force processes. Those were some of the early, quick wins.”

Often the debriefs would uncover “similar themes” to those seen in a domestic homicide review, but in much less time.

She continued: “Because of the timeliness of the debrief, and the people we had around the table, we were able to influence that change really quickly”.

An example of this can be seen in a debrief undertaken last week which involved a domestic violence incident, during which Mr Hall said it emerged that the probation officer and manager in attendance didn’t have a full understanding of the proactive orders the force can apply for.

He continued: “So out of that came, ‘could we give them a presentation on the proactive orders enforcement team, and the work we do, so we coordinate better together’.

“We never would’ve predicted, when we talked about doing a rapid debrief on that case, that that was something that would fall out of it, because it wasn’t identified as an issue or a problem.”

Eligibility wise, there is no hard criteria for choosing which cases merit a rapid debrief and resourcing plays its part in decision-making.

DCS Morris said: “Clearly capacity wise we wouldn’t have the ability to do every incident that comes up. Initially some of our thinking was, this is about learning from the near-misses, and particularly the near-misses to prevent them becoming homicides. Actually, quite quickly we realised that there was still benefit to debriefing some of the actual homicides for that early quick learning.”

While a debrief is typically completed between 7-14 days after an incident, Mr Hall is clear that the priority is “doing it at the right time”.

This varies on a case by case basis, and he highlights that even if done outside this window this is still rapid compared to a statutory review.

As far as resourcing goes, debriefs are currently being managed within the existing structure, which consists of one researcher and two review officers.

Though they’d like more support, and an application to fund an additional post has been made to the Home Office, DCS Morris stressed that it was a choice to have a small number of individuals with the right skillset to take charge of this process.

Detective Superintendent Rob Kirby, Head of Major, Economic and Cyber Crime believes the key is ensuring that the debriefs are “not deemed as some kind of hindsight brigade investigation that’s going to drag officers over the coals”.

Referencing a case where “there was a suggestion that we might uncover misconduct in an individual officer”, he said: “There’s ways of navigating around that to make sure that it’s not that, because as soon as it is then the engagement from people will reduce and it will become less effective.”

Having that trust since the pilot process got under way in March has produced positive results. 

One example has been the learning around s135 warrants, which give police permission to enter an individual’s home amid mental health concerns.

Explaining that a debrief highlighted how these were being coordinated within the force, Mr Hall said: “We think some of the issues that arose were because a long-term operation that was running in Essex that had taken the staff normally engaged in that process away from it.”

This created a warrants backlog, an issue identified by the debrief as requiring resolution. The upshot is that, after redesigning the processes and procedures in this area, the force is now “managing that as we want to rather than how we were”.

Updated training on coercive control has also been provided, after more than one debrief revealed gaps in understanding.

DCS Morris said: “The beauty of this process is that we had one of these debriefs with the head of DA (domestic abuse) around the table, who was in the process of influencing what the training for frontline officers was going to be in the coming weeks and months, and was then able to really quickly influence to make sure that they had enhanced training.”

DS Kirby  is part of a working group which convenes every couple of weeks to run through any new debriefs that have taken place, and to ensure that any recommendations made are allocated. Ultimately, his role is to ensure that “learning’s embedded in the best way it can be”.

Does the rapid debrief process help with prevention? This is a difficult question to answer, admits DCS Morris: “Measuring prevention in any sense is really tricky, isn’t it, because unless you’re talking with volume where you can see a reduction in numbers – which homicide isn’t – it’s really hard.

"We would certainly know if we’d had a homicide which involved people that we had looked at from a rapid debriefing point of view. Touching wood, that hasn’t happened to date.”

Getting to a stage where there is “academic evaluation” around this forms part of her hopes for the pilot process.

In terms of other objectives, DCS Morris said: “Where I’d like it to go within the next 12-24 months is very much to embed it really nicely as business as usual, and what that means in reality is that we can resource it properly.

"In terms of capacity – Mark and the wider review team – we’d like to have some growth in that space to be able to deliver more of this.”

Mr Hall aims to maintain the level of engagement currently being seen within the force. He said: “A continued indicator of success would be people coming to us and saying ‘can you do a rapid debrief?’.”

For DS Kirby, proof of impact is paramount. His hope is that "we never come across something we’ve come across before".

He added: “It’s that embedding of the learning that is probably the toughest thing of all – and that’s much wider than the justice process, that’s policing in general, and probably every organization.”

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