Forensic Psychology : Friend or Foe?

Forensic Psychology – Friend or Foe? What is forensic psychology? What benefits and relevance does it have to the police? And why is there seemingly so much resistance to this approach by police officers themselves? MATTHEW EKINS recently attended a Forensic Psychology conference organised by the Open University and found some of the answers.

Forensic psychology, or the application of psychological knowledge and principles to legal issues, is a relatively young approach. The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology describes it as concerned with “the reliability of evidence, the reliability of eye-witness testimony, the role of human memory, decision-making, particular group decision-making (as in juries) and questions of the general credibility of witnesses”. Despite this broad definition there are widely differing, often competing, views on the subject. The use of offender profiling is covered in prominent news cases such as the Bulger abduction and the recent murder of Sarah Payne, but such profiling is just one application of forensic psychology increasingly used since the 1980s.

But what is the bigger picture? High-profile murder cases are of limited relevance to everyday policing because they are not everyday occurrences. More relevant were two presentations, one by Ken Pease, Professor of Criminology at Huddersfield University on repeat victimisation, and the other by Ian McKenzie of the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies, University of Portsmouth on the interface between psychology and the police. The two sets of issues succeeded where others failed in promoting forensic psychology as a tool which can be used by academics and police officers together in understanding criminal behaviour, rather than as a separate, almost élitist Sherlock Holmes-type approach to crime. Ken Pease’s research interests include criminology, crime prevention and the British Crime Survey, while Ian MacKenzie specialises in forensic psychology and the investigation of crime. REPEAT VICTIMISATION This is “the recurrence of crime in the same places and/or against the same people” and is too rarely applied to crime prevention. Most applications of forensic psychology are used following criminal activity.

Its principles were illustrated by the fairy story of Jack and the Beanstalk. Jack can be viewed as a prolific offender who commits varying crimes against the same victim (the giant and his wife) and it happens in the same place. Pease makes this analogy to illustrate that the “best” characteristics of repeat victimisation are: *that it tends to occur quickly, *that offenders later tend to take advantage of opportunities created by the first offence and *those who repeatedly victimise tend to be established criminally. The concept of repeat victimisation (rv) has, after 15 years of use, become a Police Performance Indicator. Research in Kirkholt in Rochdale in the mid 1980s look at the Greater Manchester Police area with the highest rate of domestic burglary, and discovered that victimisation the degree to which an individual has previously been a victim proved to be the best predictor of criminal behaviour.

This is the basic tenet of rv theory. Practically, by preventing repeats, burglary levels on the Kirkholt estate were reduced to some 35% of their pre-project level. In drawing on two decades of research, Pease argues that three measures of crime need to be captured for any meaningful conclusions to be drawn: prevalence (the number of victims per head of population), incidence (the number of crimes per head) and concentration (the number of crimes per victim). These measures become practical when they lead to unknown victims being encouraged to come forward and the system in place is effective enough to offset the need for repeat calls to the police. Concentration by police on high crime rates is often not effective because they do not take into account people being victims on more than one occasion. Only when these three measures are taken together, Pease argues, can crime figures be truly understood.

The concentration of crimes has, to date, largely been ignored and this has often hampered an understanding of crime rates and trends. An example of this was illustrated by a recent domestic violence initiative, where victims reduction an increase in prevalence was offset by a reduction in the number of callers (concentration), so that the total number of calls (incidence) stayed the same. Concentration has often been ignored, and to ignore it means that high crime rates are not seen in the context of people being the victim of crime more than once. [A widely-quoted statistic is that 40% of offences recorded in the British Crime Survey occurred in the 4% of people who are repeated victims.] The question then arises: Why have the above factors not been acknowledged? Pease offers four possibilities: (1) the nature of police recording systems; (2) the sometimes fragmentary nature of police work; (3) the non-reporting of crime; and (4) the arithmetic involved in calculating crime rates not being straightforward.

Even acknowledging these problems does not solve the difficulties, certain constraints stop it. RV can make intuitive good sense, but announce that a blitz on crime prevention is about to happen and criminality drops even before the changes are inplemented. Make no changes to a recently-robbed bank and it is vulnerable to further crime. Rather it is change which is the repeat burglar’s biggest enemy. Pease also briefly raised the concept of ‘virtual repeats’, instancing this by repeated burglaries of a certain oil company’s petrol stations because their floor plans are identical. Practically, if it is well-applied, Pease presents repeat victimisation as “an excellent deployment measure” if it is focused on areas of high crime, but he argues that an “integrated crime science” is “urgently necessary”. FORENSIC PSYCHOLOGY – “MORE THAN PROFILING” Dr Ian McKenzie chose to examine the wider role of forensic psychologists in various areas in the criminal justice system. He acknowledged the contribution of both experimental and consultant psychologists in the investigation of crime, in areas such as investigative interviewing, interrogation, offender profiling, and the examination and criticism of identification methods. He also argued for the scrutiny necessary for psychologists to take in cases which are alleged to be, or which have been found to be, miscarriages of justice.

A former Superintendent at the Met, McKenzie spent time as chief psychologist for the police in Fort Worth, Texas, so he is well-placed to comment on forensic psychology on both sides of the Atlantic. His opening remark – that forensic psychology is “a good deal more than profiling” – is important because it dispels some of the myths surrounding this strand of psychology. Its application to policing extends back to 1982 when Peter Ainsworth, a former police officer, presented the results of a survey to the British Psychological Society. The survey examined the extent to which the police believed psychological knowledge was relevant to their job. Roughly 50% believed it had little or nothing to offer to the police service or the practical officer.

McKenzie does not seem to think much has changed in 20 years. He believes a key obstacle to its acceptance is resistance to change – if it is not accepted by the “grass roots” then its use is unlikely to be successful in the main. For many years, forensic psychology was synonymous with the prison service. Research in this area had been going on for years; work done by Ray Bull and others in the mid-1970s had examined the problems involved in eye-witness accounts, identification parades and what made the most effective briefing methods for police officers. When the research proposal was first sent to the publishers in 1976, the author was told that no copies would be sold. In fact, many copies of the book were sold; it was hugely influential to police officers and to the criminal justice system in general. Hundreds of psychological studies followed, in the areas of human memory, distortion and eye-witness testimony and case law. More relevant to police officers were the controversial views expressed by Adorno and colleagues, that officers are authoritarian, anti-democratic, and resistant to the ideas of science.

This view has understandably been challenged. Forensic psychology can be – and has been – applied to police work in three ways: (1) to the police themselves, (2) to the handling of suspects, and (3) to the interface between psychology and the criminal justice system. In relation to the managerial aspects of policing or the embedding of psychological methods in police training, the status of forensic psychology has changed very little in recent years. Despite the Scarman Report of 1981 recommending the use of psychological tests in relation to racism, 20 years on nothing seems to have changed. In the US psychological testing for police officers is compulsory, with at least two psychometric tests being used in training. McKenzie raised a valid point: such tests are of little or no use unless they are embedded in something else such as a clinical interview. The persistent difficulties involved in trying to measure racism illustrates this point; good tests must be embedded in police training, they do not ‘stand alone’. Training must be ‘up front’ about psychology and ‘up front’ about the code of ethics it uses.

The HMIC criticises tests that are used as “bolt-on optional extras disconnected from service delivery”. It is worth noting that the That’s Yours! test piloted in the last few months (see June issue of Police – Vol. XXXII No. 6) is a solid example of a practical psychological tool which can be integrated into police training. In addressing the handling of suspects, McKenzie acknowledges that changes have occurred in police interview techniques. These changes include the use of cognitive interviewing to combat effects of memory bias, as well as changes in codes of practice, although McKenzie warns against equating confidence with accuracy in their use – they are not always the same thing. Offender profiling was also discussed, the goal of which must be “to identify factors that are specific to those who commit a particular type of crime”. Profiling can – and is able to – work but it has limitations.

One main limitation is that it cannot be presented as legal evidence, although this can possibly be overcome if ‘profiling’ is not used as a blanket term for different types of procedure. In conclusion, Dr McKenzie argues that forensic psychology, whilst it has clear legalistic boundaries, is not constrained by the various schools or fields of psychology. In addition, two overarching and essential requirements should be borne in mind: (1) service to the court and; (2) attention to the rules/properties of evidence and evidence gathering. Forensic psychology is becoming increasingly relevant to the police, as highlighted by the recently-established Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science and the increasing use of DNA profiling in murder investigations. Terms like ‘behavioural science’ and ‘forensic experimental psychology’ do not help forensic psychology to be accepted by all police officers. There is a mystique, often fuelled by those who pioneer the techniques involved, that can increase tensions between psychologists and the police. Only when this tension starts to be resolved can forensic psychology be in a stronger position to fulfil its potential in the fight against crime.

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