Recording Crime 1: What is Recording Crime and why is it important?

Recording Crime logo - image of police officer writing in notebook and old-fashioned dymo-style letteringThe main aim of the Recording Crime project is to examine the laying down of regional policing history by establishing patterns and practices around the preservation of police records. It’s the public name for my Arts and Humanities Research Council funded PhD research which I’m carrying out in the History Department at The Open University.  Having worked as the curator for a police museum and archive for nearly 13 years and currently supporting the Crime and Punishment Collections Network, I’m passionate about the preservation of policing history.

Why I feel this research is important
Unlike the Metropolitan Police, regional police forces have never been covered by The Public Record Act and management of records – particularly around their selection for retention and destruction – has been left to individual forces.  Although most now comply with guidance there is little to assist forces in identifying or preserving records of potential future importance to historians, families (of both police staff and victims), criminologists or sociologists (to name just a few).  Much has been written about the history of the UK police but little about how this history has been selected and preserved, or about the relationship between information management, legislation, history, organisational pride and the perceived “lack of transparency” in the way the police manage their information (highlighted by recent enquiries).  Research will aim to provide a balanced reflection of the police’s relationship with their own history and the necessarily complex area of managing sensitive information alongside the public’s growing expectations for rights of access.

How I’ll be carrying out research
The project will involve three interlinking stages:

  • examining legislation, regional policing history and culture to identify key events such as force amalgamations and other organisational, political, technological or legal changes that may have affected patterns of records retention or disposal;
  • undertaking surveys of local record offices to identify how, why and when regional police forces were, or still are, depositing material, as well as the types of records present – for example whether they record corporate narratives, administrative processes or detection of crime;
  • gathering oral histories: The Oral History Society describes oral history as “the recording of people’s memories, experiences and opinions” and this will form a vital part of the research process in that it will collect the stories of retired police officers and staff who created or managed records.  This will throw light on the effects of force amalgamations, organisational pride, changes in working practices and personal views and knowledge of policing history.

Progress to date …
I’ve completed initial surveys at East Sussex Record Office and Cheshire Archives & Local Studies.  Why these two?  Simply because they hold large quantities of police files.  These were real testers for me in that I learned a lot about what I need to look for and also how I am going to take the project forward – for example, anchoring the oral history interviews to the same areas in which I have examined the record offices will provide useful comparisons. I’ve also just completed a pilot interview in the Avon & Somerset policing area.

What next?
I’d like to write some thoughts on the archives I have surveyed so far and what I found … so please continue to follow the project.

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