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Seldom Heard Communities Grant - The Role of Empathy in Police Contact with Young People from Disadvantaged Backgrounds: (Policing Young Care-Experienced And LGBTQI+ People)

Professor James Moir, Dr Corinne Jola, Dr David Scott, Jan Law

This report is concerned with a study that was funded by the Scottish Institute for Police Research as part of the Seldom Heard Voices project.  Seldom-heard voices refers to groups or communities who may be less likely to engage with the police for a variety reason such as race, religion, sexuality, disability, age, or deprivation. In the case of this study, we were interested in young people identifying within the LGBTQI+ community and with the additional intersectional criteria of being care-experienced.  

We have taken a critical-interrogative approach that seeks to examine the issue of policing in relation to seldom heard voices through three modes of investigation. The first examines Police Scotland’s overall strategic approach in terms of policing within various communities. Police strategic reporting can be considered as displaying similar practices found in the corporate and commercial world. A key aspect of this type of reporting is laying out the future direction of the organization in terms of the vision of senior executives. Police reports in general belong to a wider reporting genre while strategic plans can be considered as part of a colony of planning genres. The aim of the first part of the investigation was therefore to examine the discursive construction of Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority’s Joint Strategy for Policing (2020): Policing for a safe, protected, and resilient Scotland. This is a key document for publicly communicating Police Scotland’s overall strategic intent with regard to community-based policing. The way that the report is rhetorically constructed is therefore important in conveying a commitment to engaging with different sections of society. In this regard the extent to which the report embraces the latest model of public sector management based upon public values is examined. It is evident the report does at times mimic the genre of strategy reports in the corporate and commercial world as well as deploying elements of the new public governance model that seeks to adopt a more inclusive and “for the public good” tone. We have chosen to depict the analysis as seeking to understand the discursive anatomy of the report as this seems an apt metaphor in getting into the ‘body’ of such writing. Although the rhetorical construction of the report does not set hard targets in terms of quantifiable outcomes with specified target dates, it does have an indirect impact on policing practice in terms of the strategic role adopted by higher middle level managers as the recent work of Elliot et al. (2020) has found.

The second mode of investigation was to examine police recruit training lesson material on the issue of dealing with diverse groups. Our aim was to find out the nature of what is covered in recruit training and to explore the underlying basis of what was taught in terms of prevailing concepts and ideologies. The teaching materials are analysed from a discourse analytic perspective in order to reveal discursive dilemmas within the lessons. On the one hand there is an affirmation of diversity and inclusion, while on the other prejudiced views are located ‘down’ at the level of individual attitudes. Overall, the teaching material presents criminal actions where diversity and inclusion are challenged as being ascertainable through suspects’ discourse, often presented in the teaching material through declaratives that indicate prejudiced motives. In a similar vein, the operational nature of policing, for example in relation to dealing with youth crime or stop and search, is pitched in terms of a dilemma of duty of care versus due investigative process. This places officers in the position of operationalising rules and procedures which are sometimes presented in somewhat abstract and static terms. 

The third mode of our investigation was to explore what young people have to say about their experience of coming into contact with police officers. The aim was to find out if the strategic direction of Police Scotland’s approach to community policy and the training given to recruits on engaging with diverse groups was reflected in young people, some of whom identified as belonging to the LGBTQI+ community. However, we also wanted to explore an additional dimension in terms of care-experienced young people. This is important as we take the view that many of the issues that confront young people are intersectional and cross-cutting. For example, a young person may not simply identify herself as lesbian but also care-experienced. These identifications, and the concomitant experiences associated with them in terms of any contact with police officers, are crucial in understanding young people’s view and reactions. In order to access these young people’s views, we ran a small number of focus groups with care-experienced individuals. Our approach involved draws upon interpretative phenomenological analysis in order to tap into the young person’s lived experience. What these focus groups reveal, almost without exceptions, is how participants talked about how they struggled with police interactions in the past and present. Three themes were prevalent: (i) embodied mistrust of police, (ii) being made to feel like a suspect, and (iii) policing without empathy. Across all themes spans the core issue of ‘respecting boundaries’. While police officers have personal responsibility and accountability in responding to incidences, it must be acknowledged that certain contexts are arbitrary, and boundaries can be blurred and there is the potential for inappropriate responses.


  1. We recommend that Police Scotland’s overall strategic direction with regard to contact with diverse groups should be based explicitly on a model of new public governance that recognizes and promotes modern policing for ‘public good’. This could involve continuous professional development (CPD) training based on real-life contexts and associated understandings of the changing nature of society and the role of modern policing in it. 
  2. We recommend that Police Scotland’s approach to police recruit training with respect to inclusion and diversity should focus upon ‘real life’ hate crime in terms of the kinds of abuse directed at certain group. This could involve experienced officers sharing with recruits in training cases of dealing with such crimes and the difficulties involved in charging offenders.
  3. We recommend that Police Scotland’s approach to policing young people from the LGBTQI+ community should recognise their wariness of police officers in terms of the issues of ‘boundaries’ in encounters. This could involve adopting ‘policing with empathy’ as workable solution to this problem through more research on how police officers can successfully work with young people in creating a safer and more tolerant society.
  4. We recommend intersectionality should be recognised by police officers in dealing with diverse groups, especially those who are care-experienced. A demonstration of such recognition would be to act as a role model in declaring being care-experienced a protected characteristic with regard to policing in Scotland.

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