Exercises in empathy: the re-education of the Metropolitan Police

Victim care poster on display at Lewisham Metropolitan Police station, Pic: Callum Haslehurst-Mackenzie

 Malcolm Hibberd starts with a puzzle:

“A man and his son are driving down a country road. On a sharp bend, their car crashes, and both are seriously harmed. Emergency services arrive and the man is pronounced dead at the scene. The boy is assessed as having life-threatening injuries and is airlifted to hospital.

“He is prepped for surgery and rushed into the operating theatre. The surgeon enters, takes a look at the boy, and says: ‘I cannot operate on him, he is my son’.

“How is this possible?” he asks his audience, a mixture of plain-clothed and uniformed officers at Lewisham police station.

Only one of the forty or so people present, a female officer, offers the answer immediately. She squirms in her seat as Hibberd hushes her, waiting for someone else to figure it out.

After a chorus of predictable answers – “He’s the gay adoptive father”, “Case of mistaken identity”, “It’s a ghost story”  – Hibberd silences the confusion: the surgeon, of course, is a woman.

Built with biases

The point of this puzzle is to highlight preconceptions. While practically no one rejects the idea of a female surgeon, the gut response, both in and out of the Lewisham conference room, is to assume it’s a man.

Our brains, Hibberd claims, far more than we realise, are driven by subconscious stereotypes. Societally embedded biases, like this, covertly govern the way we think. As Hibberd, a psychologist, points out, if you’re told it’s a nurse who enters the room, the response is very different.

Malcolm Hibberd, psychologist delivering ’empathy training’ to the Metropolitan Police Pic: Malcolm Hibberd

The puzzle is part of a presentation Hibberd and his team are delivering to all of the Metropolitan Police’s 14,000 front-line officers. The presentation is about empathy, designed to help the service introduce greater humanity and understanding into the way they deal with the victims of crime.

And they certainly need the help. The Met has, for years, been the lowest ranked police force in England and Wales for victim satisfaction. Their ratings have steadily dropped since 2016, and their public image has taken a series of recent beatings; plagued by issues like embedded racism, deaths in custody, and the controversy of stop and search.

YouGov polling suggests that less than one-quarter of the public in London feel positively towards the police; the adjectives most commonly used to describe them including ‘discriminative’ and ‘untrustworthy’.

Hibberd’s presentation aims to change all this. The advice it gives seems blindingly simple: “don’t stereotype”, “reassure victims”, “remind people that you are there for them”; but the potential it has to change policing in London is huge.

Lewisham Metropolitan Police station, the site of several of Malcolm’s presentations, Pic: Callum Haslehurst-Mackenzie

Exercises in empathy

Met officers have not previously received ‘empathy training’ of this kind. Partly, it seems, because they don’t think they need it, and telling them that they do effectively stops them from listening.

Many in the force feel they have had a surfeit of institutional prejudice accusations, and deserve to just get on with their, admittedly gruelling, jobs. But much of the public disagrees.

The beauty of Hibberd’s presentation is that it meets these viewpoints somewhere in the middle. Rather than reiterating the worn out mantra of ‘Met police need a culture change’, it subtly holds up a mirror to the way their brains are working, and lets them decide it for themselves.

Using exercises in imagination and self-reflection, Hibberd transports his audience into the mind of the complainant, letting them experience the other side of the argument.

In his longest exercise, Hibberd selects one member of the audience to join him at the front. In Lewisham, this was Gary: a white, well spoken, early middle-aged front-line officer, who had kept his arms folded for the first two hours of the day.

Over 20 minutes, Hibberd gives Gary the scenario of a recently unemployed civil engineer, who, in search of work, moves to the (fictional) developing country of Dysphoria.

Hibberd describes how, in Dysphoria, Gary finds himself stared at in the street. No one plays with his children at school, and he only feels truly safe inside his new home.

But then Gary is burgled. The idea of the safe place disappears. Hibberd explains how, unlike his native Dysphorian neighbour, Gary cannot send his family to his Mother’s house to make them feel safe. She’s 7,000 miles away now, and they must stay in their tainted new home, terrified, waiting for help.

Hibberd says that, in less than half an hour, the police arrive. He says that they are brilliant: kind and understanding, seeming to feel personally responsible for what has happened to Gary in their country. The officers say that Dysphoria is not a place to be scared of, that Gary is welcome here, that his children are safe, and the police are always there if he needs them.

Hibberd asks Gary how he thinks the officers in the story did to make him feel more comfortable. His arms now by his sides, Gary says: “pretty well”.

‘Victim Care Card’, currently given by the Met to victims of crime, Pic: Debbie Ding

Looking forward

Early, unpublished January statistics, from the boroughs where Hibberd first trialled the program, imply that it is working; showing the first upward turn in victim satisfaction for years.

Hibberd, however, is wary. He knows how temporary change can be. Believing that without regular refresher courses, the lessons he has taught these officers will stick for around three months before sliding back to old habits.

At the end of his session in Lewisham, two young officers, both female, approach Hibberd. They praise him, and his presentation, wholeheartedly; speaking with the half thankful, half exasperated tone of people who liked what they heard but can’t believe it has taken so long for someone to say it.

They ask Hibberd if he has plans for a follow-up program, to keep the good work he is doing going. With a hopeful tone, he says: “We’ll see”.

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