Well-Being and the Police Profession

I feel very privileged to be asked to write for the American Society. Having attended a couple of conferences in the States, and visited numerous PD’s I feel at least a little confident to have enough knowledge to give a view. Although ‘snapshots’ are not always helpful, with the right lens they can be incredibly insightful. What I can offer is to draw on 30 years of service as a UK cop, and a lifetime of caring, understanding, and experiencing life as a professional uniformed serviceman.

To provide some context, I now work for the College of Policing in the UK, as the lead for Wellbeing. Wellness, as I know you refer to it, is top of the agenda in the UK in many aspects of working life, not just policing. I am, however, focussed on the policing aspects and all that good officer (and civilian police department staff) wellness can bring to a community. I say community because they are the ultimate beneficiaries of us getting this right. Tired, bored, disgruntled, low-paid, and demoralised cops are not going to offer much of themselves; that is simple. What is slightly more complex, and often contentious, is how we battle against these psychologies. My work at the College is focussed on just that area.

If I begin with the elephant in the room. I have been astounded by the length of hours the US patrol officers work. Wherever I go with this debate, I find myself returning to what appears to be an engrained culture of non-stop work. I must say that I have seen no boundaries (in the US), with seemingly open-ended acceptance of the status quo. Simply put, this cannot be good for you. If you try to search any scholarly database for academic literature that makes a claim for a 70hrs + a week working schedule, I think you may find zero return? So, that said, how do you replace the extra dollars all these hours give you? That is the dilemma! What I can say is that this approach is gradually creeping into the UK police psyche also. But, as you may be aware, extra employ is not the norm in the UK police service, so this is largely achieved within the respected force areas. It being brought about by the simple equation that increasing workload and decreasing officer numbers results in only one thing. There is more than likely a mathematical equation model for this, but that is not my field so I won’t prospect! The outcome, however, is that we have overstretched cops trying to deliver a service designed for a considerably bigger workforce.

Having set the scene, we must now move on to looking at what we do about all of this, where can we make inroads to make life better for our people? Of course, I am going to propose that much of this can be improved by having better wellness interventions. I have always summarised three critical aspects, those being good effective leadership, a focus on personal resilience; and finally ensuring, as much as possible, that the working environment is such that we can lead a meaningful and purposeful life. That is, after all what we came to do, as they say! Policing, is at the very least, a vocation. Many see it as a calling and I have written about this also. I will pop some references at the end of the piece if you wish to read more about any of these aspects in further depth. However, I should give you a little insight into my thinking on these three areas.

First of all is the age-old issue of leadership. A Google search will leave you no better off I feel, but let me say this: for me, leadership is knowing enough about the people you lead to be able to spot when things are not right, seeing when your people are struggling, and have the knowledge, skills and ability to intervene both quickly and effectively. Simply put, it is about knowing yourself and how other people see you, knowing your staff, the people who work for you, and knowing your stuff, being operationally competent. All the other leadership skills can fall out of these three principle areas. My friend Terry Anderson has a superb book out called Every Officer Is A Leader, which is a digest of all you need to know about leadership within the context of policing.

The second area is personal resilience, which can be learned. The seminal work on this is by Southwick and Charnley, who developed a Resilience Prescription. Well worth a read if you get chance. This talks about Thinking Errors and concepts such as Bouncebackability, which suggests that we can consume trauma and hurt if we have enough in the tank. But be careful, everyone has a limit and I refer back to my leadership assertions that it is about others helping you along the way and spotting when you may be struggling.

My final area is that of creating the right working environment. Here I am talking about a multitude of things, from systems thinking to working relationships and engagement. To put simply I am suggesting we create a working environment in which officers can lead a meaningful and purposeful life. In essence this is why we all joined the police department isn’t it? If you take, for example the Engage for Success report, or Thriving at Work recently released in the UK, these points are well made out.

I will finish up by inviting you along to an IACP session on Psychological Risk Management I am doing in February 2019 in San Antonio, TX where I will speak about the journey of our UK Wellness program, which we call Oscar Kilo (OK). I will attempt, along with my colleague Andy Rhodes, the Chief with the unenviable task of landing all of this in the UK, about our journey from conception, gestation, and birth of the UK police Wellbeing Service. I will of course be tweeting about this, so you can follow that also if you wish.

I hope you have found this short blog interesting, and if you wish to read any of my work in more detail please find some references below. I will sign off by saying enjoy your time, in whatever capacity it may be, involved with this great occupation of policing and be careful out there!



Dr Ian Hesketh

Wellbeing Lead

College of Policing
Leamington Road


Coventry UK


+44 (0) 7889 704370


Oscar Kilo Website



Managing Health and Wellbeing in the Public Sector: A Guide to Best Practice


Wellbeing at Work: How to Design, Implement and Evaluate an Effective Strategy

View of Education and Research for 21st Century Policing: Collaboration, Competition and Collusion

Canteen Culture: The Potential to use Social Media as Evidence in Policing

Measuring the People Fleet: General Analysis, Interventions and Needs

Wellbeing and Engagement in Policing: The Key to Unlocking Discretionary Effort? 

Leaveism at Work

Wellbeing, Austerity and Policing: Is it Worth Investing in Resilience Training?

Leaveism and Public Sector Reform: Will the Practice Continue?





The Role of Theory in Evidence-Based Policing

September 10, 2018


by Joel M. Caplan, PhD

Associate Professor, Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice

Deputy Director, Rutgers Center on Public Security


Theory is to evidence-based policing (EBP) as water is to shoreline. They help define each other. Theories shape evidence-based practices, and newly tested practices help to advance theories. A spectrum of theories from criminology, ecology, psychology, geography, sociology and economics, are commonly used to craft research, experiments, and data analyses for police agencies; and policing initiatives are routinely helping to validate and advance theories. Theories are ‘translational’ in that they’re renderings of scientific discoveries synthesized into sets of expectations about phenomena that police can consider for policies or practices. According to psychologists Tversky and Kahneman, the job of decision makers is not always to be right, but to figure out the odds in any decision they have to make and play the odds well[1]. Theory guides these decisions.


A theory is a supposition or a set of ideas intended to explain something. Theories arise from repeated and independent testing of hypotheses, in different settings, over time, whereby sets of principles emerge when similar research findings appear. Theories are testable, and may be proven wrong. But a theory is distinct from a hypothesis. Theory is derived from numerous sources of evidence and academic study. A hypothesis is a proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation. In the realm of policing, if a theory is ‘clear and convincing evidence’, then a hypothesis is ‘reasonable suspicion’.


For EBP:

  • Theory safeguards against arbitrary decision-making.
  • Theory offers guidance about which variables to include or control for in analyses, and how to make results actionable.
  • Theory enhances accountability and helps share the burden of crime prevention among multiple agencies and stakeholders.
  • Theory adds context and meaning to data and helps to answer why and in what situations results matter.
  • Theory can guide the coordination of multiple intervention programs at once, and help to anticipate unwanted side effects.
  • Theory helps explain human behavior and, thus, crime events and patterns.
  • Theory guides innovative and creative solutions to problems.


Big data and sophisticated technologies do not guarantee easier or more certain decisions for police. With a growing reliance on fusion centers, real-time crime centers, and software to manage, analyze and communicate data, there’s a danger of thinking that numbers will speak for themselves[2]. The opposite is true. Theory plays a crucial role in decisions about what datasets or variables to include in statistical analyses, how they might interact, what could confound, mediate or moderate results, what the results mean, and so on[3]. Without a theoretical framework, analysts can be distracted from critical decisions they must make[4]. According to Wise and Shaffer[5] theory is a tool to safeguard against arbitrary decision-making “by providing a coherent and reasoned framework” from which to act. Theory enables actionable results.


Policing has witnessed the consequences of poorly woven analysis, theory, and responsive actions. Notable examples include activities performed at crime hot spots that are solely offender-focused and, thus, disconnected with the ecological theories and spatial analyses that informed the place-based deployments. Although hot spots policing is sometimes coupled with Broken Windows Theory, the operational practices often implemented for crime prevention (such as stop, question, frisk) are detached from the root spatial causes, attractors, or generators of illegal behaviors (e.g., the actual broken windows) and instead focus reactively on offenders (i.e., without fixing the actual broken windows). A result is that hot spots persist and appear resilient over time, despite the many foot patrols, arrests or citations utilized there. As was recently questioned in The New Yorker “What if vacant property received the attention that, for decades, has been showered on petty crime?” Police can use theory to engage non-police stakeholders and justify sharing the burden of crime prevention with coordinated activities at the most vulnerable places.


Police who ask ‘where’ should also ask ‘why’. Theory provides a framework for explaining results, and for elucidating why and in what contexts the results matter[6]. Theory can help police prescribe responses to existing crime problems or emerging threats, and also to understand the impacts that their presence at targeted areas will have on risk calculations of people located nearby. Routine Activities, Rational Choice and Deterrence theories might come to mind. But so could Crime Pattern Theory or the Theory of Risky Places because the police are integral features of the environmental backcloths they patrol. Their movements add to its spatial dynamics, with varying levels of guardianship and vulnerability throughout the jurisdiction at any given moment in time. In fact, frequent directed patrols at particular target areas may inadvertently become expected or predictable qualities of spaces that motivated offenders adapt to[7] [8] if theory is not used to inform matters of timing, frequency and saturation.


EBP needs ongoing, continued impact. It could prosper from theoretically informed adoptions of newly proven practices that are phased in and out at the right times to optimize their crime prevention benefits with sustained impacts. Theory can guide the coordination and complementarity of multiple intervention programs at once, and serve as a barometer for balancing variety, intensity and timing of crime prevention programing.


Crime is an outcome of behavior. Theories help explain human behavior. A meta-analysis[9] of 11 intervention programs reported that decreases in crime relate not only to the offender-centric strategies but also to steps taken to modify the environments in which they operate. This finding complements criminological and psychological theories that reveal how environments influence behavior[10]. For example, environmental psychology[11] suggests that situationally-induced emotions can provoke a criminal response among both rational or irrational people. If people commit illegal behavior enough in the same setting, the physical environment (itself) can shape the subsequent human behavior (even unconsciously)[12]. The Theory of Risky Places (TRP) offers a way of modeling crime-prone settings for situational crime prevention. It assists in recognizing patterns of crime attractors that appear in the landscape, accounting for spatial relationships of environmental features that change over time. Police departments such as in Atlantic City have operationalized TRP to activities aimed at disrupting key ‘crime risk narratives’ through planned changes to the environment, including strategically allocated vehicle, bicycle and foot patrols. Violent crimes decreased 36% and the benefits have been sustained for well over 18 months to-date[13].


EBP isn’t merely about ingesting published research. It’s more than just methods and results. It’s about police agencies challenging themselves to turn theories into practice and then measure outcomes. Theoretical frameworks inform thinking behind new or innovative trials, the decisions that are made during a tour of duty, and how translations of empirical research provide new directions for operational practices[14]. Marcia Finlayson[15] summarized it well: “Theory defines and sets parameters on the way we think, what we focus on, and how we interpret what we see.”


Theories offer a check on our assumptions or preconceived notions. They shape evidence-based practices, and vice-versa. Theories help to move policing forward.


[1] Lewis, M. (2016). The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds. W. W. Norton & Company: NYC, p248

[2] Wise, A. F. and Shaffer, D. W. (2015). Why theory matters more than ever in the age of big data. Journal of Learning Analytics, 2(2), 5-13. http://dx.doi.org/10.18608/jla.2015.22.2

[3] Wise & Shaffer, 2015

[4] Wise & Shaffer, 2015; Leek, J. T., & Peng, R. D. (2015). Statistics: p values are just the tip of the iceberg. Nature, 520, 612. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/520612a

[5]  Wise & Shaffer, 2015, p 6

[6] Wise & Shaffer, 2015

[7] See Chapter 4: Caplan, J.M. & Kennedy, L. W. (2016). Risk Terrain Modeling. Crime Predictions and isk Reduction. Oakland, CA: University of California Press. https://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520282933

[8] This may also be relevant for ‘patrols’ via CCTV cameras. See: Piza, E. L., Caplan, J. M., & Kennedy, L. W. (2017). CCTV as a Tool for Early Police Intervention: Preliminary Lessons from Nine Case Studies. Security Journal. 30, 247-265.

[9] Braga, Anthony A., and David Weisburd. 2010. Policing Problem Places: Crime Hot Spots and Effective Prevention. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[10] Louiselli, J. K., & Cameron, M. J. (Eds.). (1998). Antecedent control: Innovative approaches to behavioral support. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing. –and– Kennedy, L. W. and Forde, D. R. (1998). When push comes to shove: A routine conflict approach to violence. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

[11] It is concerned with the effects of the natural and built environment on human behavior.

[12]  Spiegel, A. (2015, January 5). What heroin addiction tells us about changing bad habits. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2015/01/05/371894919/what-heroin-addiction-tells-us-about-changing-bad-habits

[13] For the full report, see http://www.rutgerscps.org/uploads/2/7/3/7/27370595/acpd_rbpinitiative_2017report.pdf

[14] Finlayson, M. (2007). Why theory matters. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 74(4), 291-291. https://doi.org/10.1177/000841740707400401

[15] (Finlayson, 2007, p 291)