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How do the police define, identify and respond to vulnerability?

This project will look at how the police identify vulnerable members of the public and how this impacts on their treatment of them.

Key details

Lead institution
Principal researcher(s)
Scott Keay
Police region
North West
Level of research
Project start date
Date due for completion

Research context

Emergency 999 calls have decreased by 23% since 2006/07, and this is mirrored by a reduction in recorded crime. However, there has been an increased demand on policing services and the Police Foundation (2016) report the landscape of policing is changing. This demand is increasing in the area of what previously have been hidden incidents, specifically involving vulnerable people.

Dealing with vulnerability is a relatively new and complex matter for the police, who are often the first responders. The question is how do the police define, identify and respond to vulnerability in order that a systematic and cost effective response can be made? 

This study will examine the concept of vulnerability, particularly how the police service respond to it. It will explore definitions of vulnerability. In essence the study will examine key features of calls for police service where a ‘vulnerable marker’ is added by the police call handler or responder. This will allow the study to consider why vulnerabilities are common and significant, as well as how often the caller is in contact with the police.

Research objectives

  1. To explore definitions of vulnerability in the context of policing.
  2. To explore why those with specific vulnerabilities interact with the police on a recurring basis.
  3. To provide a quantitative and qualitative overview of calls for service in which vulnerability is a specific element.
  4. To conduct interviews with police officers and police staff to explore their insights and professional experience as to what constitutes vulnerability, and what approaches the police should take in response.
  5. To compare the results of the quantitative and qualitative data to establish if and what vulnerabilities should be prioritised by the police.
  6. To disseminate research findings with key stakeholders and support the practical application of the findings to operational policing.

This project is supported by the College of Policing bursary scheme.

Research methodology

The study will use a mixed methods approach and the methodology comprises of two elements.

Firstly, the quantitative research will examine calls for service in Lancashire. The quantitative research will include descriptive statistics of vulnerable calls for service in order to quantify the potential issues and contextualise vulnerability within a policing context.

Data will be coded to maintain anonymity of the caller, in order to apply inferential statistical tests to determine key variables within calls for service where vulnerability is listed. Further analysis will be undertaken to understand situational context of cases.

The second method will involve the analysis of qualitative data. This phase will involve interviews and focus groups with police officers and police staff practitioners, using semi-structured interviews in relation to how policing has been influenced by the concept of vulnerability.

It will look at the changing face of the police service and if (and how) vulnerability has influenced police spending and resource allocation.

Interim reports or publications

'Defining Vulnerability: From the Conceptual to the Operational' in Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice

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