Leadership at Critical Incidents: A precis

This blog was originally published in February 2012

Last week I arranged a seminar for the Liverpool Hope University research centre – CREST (http://crest.hope.ac.uk/).  The subject was Police Leadership in Critical Situations and the guest speakers were Deputy Chief Constable Jerry Graham (Cumbria Police) and Chief Constable Michael Barton (Durham Police).

The idea came from a lecture that I saw at the National Police Training Centre (Bramshill) some years ago.  Detective Chief Inspector Hamish Campbell was the SIO dispatched to the scene of the murder of Jill Dando on 26th April 1999.  En route to the scene he received a series of telephone calls from senior officers altering him to the name of the victim and ‘encouraging’ him to get the crime cleared up with haste.  This made me think about the emotional pressure faced by senior police officer while dealing with critical incidents.  It is to be expected that a senior officer will bring their training and experience to the fore and start the process of logging decisions, deploying resources, cataloging actions and dealing with the media, but what are they thinking as they go through the ‘investigation process.’ 

Jerry Graham was the ACPO officer on duty when Derek Bird decided to conduct a shooting spree in Cumbria that resulted in the death of 12 people and injuries to 11 others on 2 June 2010.  At the time Jerry was chairing a meeting when a colleague excused himself saying that there had been a report of a shooting.  Jerry continued the meeting for a short while before instinct told him that something was not right.  I will not cover all aspects of Jerry’s outstanding presentation that covers the time line, however, the interesting aspect in relation to the subject matter was the emotional response.  

The chaos of the situation was such that Jerry felt that he ‘had command of the situation, but did not have control.’  This was an uncomfortable place to be as critical incident training at all levels tends to focus on single incidents such as that facing DCI Campbell.  In this instance reports of shootings and injuries were reported out of sequence resulting in confusion as to exactly where Bird was in Cumbria.  At one point Jerry spoke of walking into the force control room and being faced with chaos.  Almost all of the operators were standing up and shouting as they tried to make sense of the situation.  Jerry too the command and control logs into a quiet room to make sense of the situation only to be faced with a type of readers block where all of the words appear jumbled on the page.  This situation is all the more difficult as those in the control room, partners attending the Gold Control and those on the street are looking for leadership, decisions and help.  As the incident unfolded decisions that had to be re-thought; issues relating to interoperability caused great frustration and had a significant impact on resources. 
Whilst Jerry provided the leadership that his staff needed there were a number of examples of front line leadership as police officers and PCSOs took control of the situations they faced on the street dealing with fatalities and injuries whilst not knowing whether Bird would walk around the corner and confront them.  Having been fortunate enough to see this presentation I have nothing but admiration for Jerry and the staff of Cumbria who were faced with an almost impossible situation.  

The presentation given by Chief Constable Barton was concerned with the report of a number of people trapped on the shores of Morecambe Bay while they were picking cockles on 5 February 2004.  Like Jerry, Mike was dealing with an unrelated incident and was told of the issue unfolding elsewhere.  At the time Mike was dealing with a request from a senior officer who was requesting resources to look for a young girl reported missing.   Mike had to leave this officer without his resources and head to Morecambe to deal with a situation that was growing worse by the minute.

The interesting aspect here is that Mike has been cockle picking in this area and was aware of the threat caused by the incoming tide.  As with Jerry’s situation the number of deaths began to rise and Mike had to deploy resources across a breadth of investigative roles that were confused by the fact that the survivors did not have English as a first language and had multiple identities.  

Mike spoke of how in similar situations he uses a three stage model using strategy and people to try to deal with the chaos.  In this case he needed someone who spoke a particular dialect of Chinese, he needed someone who could deal with body recovery and identification and he needed the assistance of a neighbouring force as many of those dead, missing or injured lived in another force area. These were resources that were not immediately at hand, yet they were needed immediately.

Another similarity between the two incidents was that fact that in the initial stages the number of dead and injured was unknown.  Some of Bird’s victims were shot in their own home and it was not realised that there more fatalities until later in the timeline.  The number of Chinese people who died on Morecambe Bay is still unclear, and again staff looked to senior officers for decisions, actions and help.  

The feedback from those in attendance made reference to the ‘loneliness of command’ and being pleased to hear from ‘authentic leaders’ who were prepared to share the unreported aspects of leadership in critical situations, aspects that are influenced by emotion.

I am grateful to both Jerry and Mike for sharing their experiences with students on the Police Leadership master’s programme.  They benefited from a couple of hours spent with police leaders of the stature that results in British policing being held in such high regard the world over

Published by thebluelocust

Former police superintendent. Current university lecturer, police trainer and Director of Blue Locust Network Ltd

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