I want to begin by saying that starting your degree and having no idea what you will write your dissertation on is completely normal. Not everyone has a plan, and I certainly didn’t plan on working for Surrey Police as a Records Officer when I began my MLitt, let alone writing my entire dissertation around my job. Luckily however, I did.
I expressed my interest in History and archiving to my manager and I was given responsibility over Surrey Police’s historical documents. Knowing the historical value of some of the records, I started looking at if and how they could be made publicly available and discovered that this was a subject that had been contended over for a number of years. This is where my dissertation research began. I looked for all and any literary work on the archiving of Police records and found a lack of current literature on the subject. In order to get a better understanding, I arranged visits to other information professionals working in police forces including the Metropolitan Police Service, Norfolk and Suffolk Constabulary and Surrey and Sussex Police, as well as emailing Gloucestershire Police and researching the work that Angela Sutton-Vane carried out with Devon and Cornwall Police. I then looked at the respective archives to each police force to see what (if any) information they held to see if there were any consistencies between the police forces. From this research, I also began to build a picture of the police records that could be deposited and how police records could be archived, either by using Heritage Lottery Funding, independent police museums, or by working with local councils and records offices.
The findings that came out of my research revealed, unsurprisingly, that there was little consistency in the way that police forces were depositing their historical records, if at all. From speaking to the different police forces and their local records offices, it became apparent that there was a slight lack of understanding from both sides. On one hand, police forces were not always aware that they could deposit material and that it could be closed and would be protected by information legislation such as the Data Protection Act. On the other hand, local records offices were not aware of just how many restrictions are preventing police forces from archiving their documents – in particular the Management of Police Information code of practice which effectively governs the length of time that operational police records are kept for, which can be up to 100 years. These cases are the most serious, and also the ones that may be considered the most historically interesting. However, another question I had to consider in my dissertation was whether or not they should be deposited and some of the most intimate and horrific details of someone’s murder or abuse be made publicly available? There is also a risk that depositing these records would reveal the identity of victims, witnesses and defendants who had otherwise remained anonymous.
Moreover, I found that vicarious trauma (the effects that you can feel from dealing with cases of trauma) is something to be seriously considered when looking at depositing police records with local records offices. It is something I suffered with myself, but was able to gain support through my work as it is expected in my role. However, it is not always expected in a local records office, and the education and support around it for archivists, or even the researchers accessing this material, is not always apparent or there at all.
The conclusion of my research was that in order to make sure that appropriate records are being deposited, by police forces or retired officers, a formal police archiving network and code of practice should be established between police information management staff, local record offices and archivists to work together to preserve police heritage, without risking public confidence in either profession. Coincidently, six months after graduating, I was invited to part of a Heritage Portfolio which is being developed by several police forces, information professionals and historians, to look at creating an Authorised Professional Practice to ensure the consistent archiving of appropriate historical police records, taking into account vicarious trauma and maintaining confidentiality.
I would like to give special thanks to Karen Watson from The Keep in Brighton for supporting me through my MLitt and my dissertation and for sharing the brilliant work of Nicola, Michaela and Kirsten on Vicarious Trauma. I would also like to thank Iain Gray for his feedback on my dissertation, the many Skype calls, and the shared experiences of the challenges of working with police records.
Daisy Murray-Smith is an Information Manager Officer for Surrey Police. She completed her MLitt in Archives and Records Management from the University of Dundee in 2020.