The College of Policing has just launched a set of evidence-based guidelines for modernising neighbourhood policing. These respond to HMIC(FRS)’s recommendation – made following a period of significant and sustained ‘erosion’ – that the College, working with the NPCC and APCC, should set out “the essential elements of neighbourhood policing which all [police] forces should provide”. Having done so, we should assume that the guidelines will inform the standard against which force provision will be judged during future HMICFRS inspections.
The guidelines were developed using a process borrowed by policing from medicine, and involved a committee of practitioners, subject matter experts and academics considering the output of the College’s thorough evidence review – and assessing its implications for practice. The process coincided with my own research on recent developments in neighbourhood policing and I was honoured to be asked to be part of the committee.
By following this process, an extensive body of research literature was distilled down to seven practice guidelines, (alongside a much needed definition of neighbourhood policing, which should help to curtail the conceptual drift and elastic terminology that has developed in recent times). The guidelines relate to:
- Engaging communities; formally and informally, with a purpose and in a tailored way to provide information, support and an accountable presence, and to inform local priorities and problem solving.
- Solving problems to prevent crime, harm and demand through a structured approach to understanding the nature and causes of local problems, and involving the community, other agencies and other police functions in tailored responses – then reviewing their impact.
- Targeting activity and prioritising according to threat, risk harm, vulnerability and need, in a coordinated way with other agencies.
- Promoting the right culture, across the organisation, based on the principles of procedural justice.
- Building analytical capability in terms of new tools and practitioner mind-sets as well as dedicated analysts.
- Developing officers, staff and volunteers through learning and professional development.
- Developing and sharing learning, particularly around more recent aspects of practice where the evidence base is thin.
One striking feature of the guidance is that each of the seven points is explicitly addressed to chief officers (the sixth and seventh being shared with the College), rather than the PCs, PCSOs (and others) who actually deliver neighbourhood policing on the ground.
This is in recognition of two crucial factors. First, that effective practice requires those at the top to design structures and systems that enable locally embedded proactivity to flourish; and second, that success depends on chiefs embracing and articulating a clear vision for local policing and embedding this within the culture of their organisation. I’ll comment briefly on each of these two ‘essential elements’.
In relation to structures and systems, the guidelines can only go so far. Little research evidence has been generated on the comparative efficacy of the various local policing models that have proliferated in recent years, for supporting neighbourhood policing (although within the small print of guideline seven there is recognition that we should seek to know more). The College must also tread carefully here as these are matters over which the current policing settlement gives chiefs and PCCs particular privilege. Appeals within the guidelines for practitioners to be afforded time, space and continuity, and for them to be ‘responsible for’ communities, provide necessarily understated hints at the design choices chiefs and their overseers might wish to consider.
Based on my own research, and with the leeway to go a little further, I would argue that these guidelines can best be put into practice by:
- Embedding particular practitioners in particular neighbourhoods, ideally for an extended period of time.
- Giving them a functionally distinct neighbourhood remit that is not blended (or ‘hybridised’) with significant quantities of reactive response work or routine investigation.
- Framing that remit in terms of prevention through in-depth local understanding, (rather than, for example in terms of visibility, public confidence, safeguarding or reactive local policing functions).
- Providing a geographically differentiated model which concentrates resource where it is most needed, based on an assessment of local need.
- Clearly distinguishing problem-oriented prevention from person-centred case-work – and ensuring neighbourhood policing is focused toward the former.
Turning next to the strong leadership required to embed clarity of mission within the organisational culture, it is notable that the guidelines, while firmly rooted in objective research evidence, also provide a value-rich framework on which a compelling vision for local policing might be developed and articulated.
As well as promoting technical ‘what works’ efficacy, the seven guidelines describe a service that is connected not remote, human not just transactional, collaborative not authoritarian, incisive not blunt, inquisitive not ignorant, proactive not reactive, responsive to need but also fair and just, committed to becoming smarter and better skilled and yet cognisant of gaps in its own knowledge. There is a moral not just technical manifesto on offer here – a cradle for the soul of 21st century policing – which police leaders should embrace, develop, champion and use to inspire, align and enable their workforce.
Finally, we should watch what happens next very carefully. This is perhaps the first – certainly the most high profile – example of the contemporary, national, police self-improvement eco-system operating at scale. Can the grinding together of policing’s big institutional cogs – the College, the Inspectorate, the NPCC and the APCC – generate real and positive change on the ground, within a devolved and localised system to which erosive forces have already done significant damage and are as strong as ever? The outcome may tell us much about the adequacy of the national policing infrastructure for delivering meaningful reform.