‘We’ve stood on that precipice’
Keywords:culture, police, risk, child protection
UK police services constantly endure pressures to reduce spending and to reorganise in ways thought to be more efficient. In these moments of scrutiny, non-standard work practices become more noticeable. We report a study of a specialist unit, the Child Protection Unit (CPU), in one police service. In 2011, an initial exploratory interview with the unit head was followed by two discussion groups carried out with a three month gap between them. We found the unit existing and working dynamically between two forces: (a) the needs and expectations of society regarding child protection and (b) how more general expectations and needs regarding crime are normally met by the police service. While ‘traditional’ policing might see the offender successfully prosecuted, there can be deleterious effects on the victim. In consequence, CPU members are: more focused on and sensitive to the victim leading to a risk management philosophy; are more team-oriented with greater awareness of and sense of responsibility for each other; receive greater public support than other parts of the service. These differences result in the CPU members having non-standard organisational and operational work practices: they are less performance target-based; they investigate and prosecute a smaller number of cases; they use different documentation; they are not available to help with other work at times of greater general demand on the police service. Thus existing dynamically and anomalously, the unit’s very vulnerability that helps its members to do their difficult job also raises their profile and increases vulnerability to financial cuts. Their precipice in the title quotation is at several levels. We theorise our findings using contingency and cultural theories believing the findings relevant to other organisations with specialist units.