Friday, 4 March 2016

The Importance of the Pocket Book

The other day I was out for drinks with some friends and got chatting to a lady who works as a Police Community Support Officer (PCSO). It was really interesting to hear stories from someone working on the front lines of the police force having spent the last few weeks immersed in the policy making side of the service. Something she said particularly reminded me of something I’d come across in the Association of Chief Police Officer (ACPO) records the week before. She mentioned that people always they knew they were in real trouble when she got out her notebook. While I was box listing some of the ACPO papers I found a booklet of lesson notes published by the Home Office in 1960, entitled ‘The Training of Probationary Constables: Initial Course, consolidated edition’. Lesson 1/18 regarded the role and use of ‘The Constable’s Pocket Book’.

Pocket book cover

The importance of the notebook as a tool is made very clear in the lesson notes – not only does this book form ‘the basis for all reports and record of duties performed’, it serves as ‘a safeguard for preserving truth’. Using the acronym ELBOWS the lesson stresses that pocket books must be used in a way which both prevents tampering (by not leaving any blank pages in which additional information could be inserted later), and demonstrates that none has taken place (by not tearing out leaves suggesting that information may have been redacted). A quick search online reveals that the pocket notebook remains an important police tool, with many police forces making their procedures for use of these documents publicly available on their website.

Pocket book inside page

I find this attention to detail in the creation of a record especially interesting as an archivist. The use of pocket books as a ‘true’ record of events – as accurate, objective and unchallengeable as possible, depends upon its being created in a certain way. When encountering records in an archive researchers often have to ask themselves the same questions as a court would when considering the contents of a pocket book as evidence – ‘under what circumstances was this written? Is there any evidence of tampering? Can this be considered an “accurate” account of events?’ Unfortunately for us, the creators of most of the records in our collections had not taken lesson 1/18 on the importance of good record keeping! This means that often when working with archival records, some assumptions have to be made, and the verity of the information they contain is not quite guaranteed.

Pocketbooks have not only been used as evidence to support the police in the execution of their duties, they have also been used as evidence when investigating police conduct. Also in the ACPO collection is a copy of Sir William Macpherson of Cluny’s 1999 report of the inquiry into the 1993 murder of Stephen Lawrence. This document makes multiple references to the notebooks of the officers who initially attended the scene of the crime. Section 11.5 observed that with one exception ‘No other notebooks or satisfactory contemporary records of police action at the scene exist’. The existence of such records, which would have provided vital evidence not just of the crime but of satisfactory police conduct, were not created. This absence, along with many other factors, contributed to the inquiry’s findings that the Metropolitan Police Service’s investigation was ‘palpably flawed and deserves severe criticism’ (section 2.10).

Stephen Lawrence inquiry document

That records can have impact by their absence is also something to be remembered when using collections of primary resources for research. When investigating the history of an organisation what does it tell us if there are no records relating to large parts of their activity? How can we find out if this information was never recorded, has been innocently lost, or deliberately destroyed? Working with archives is so much more than just accessing information from primary sources. It’s about understanding the environment in which the records were created and used, asking questions about their provenance and building the whole picture. And that brings me to where I am with the ACPO papers (U DPO) at the moment. The box listing is nearing completion and I’m starting to gain an understanding of its overall content which will help me create the final catalogue. Some records may not stay at the History Centre - the report of the Inquiry into the Murder of Stephen Lawrence, for example, is freely accessible online. However, it’s important not to remove documents which would raise questions by their absence.

I find it really interesting that something so small and apparently insignificant as a notebook can, in the right hands, carry so much power. It seems apt that I’m thinking about these things while working with the papers from ACPO – an organisation who at times were criticized for their lack of transparency and accountability. In the same way that police notebooks can be used to hold both criminals and the police to account, I hope that the final catalogue for this collection will help these records fulfil a similar purpose

Alex Healey, ACPO Project Archivist

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