Great expectations: what do the public want from the police?

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Great expectations: what do the public want from the police?

What do the public expect of the police? At a time of limited resources and shifting demand police forces are being forced to make difficult choices about priorities. Discussing this at this week’s Excellence In Policing conference it struck me that that there is now a considerable gap between what the public expect of the police and the current direction of travel within the service, around which there is a considerable degree of political and professional consensus.

Most observers reject the idea that the police are simply crime fighters. According to the College of Policing non crime related incidents make up 83% of calls to police Command and Control. This is not a new phenomenon: the police mission has always been characterised by its breadth. In 1974E Bittner wrote that the role of the police is to be on hand when “something is happening that ought not to be happening and about which someone better do something now.”

The police are expected to prevent crime, to help those in immediate danger, to investigate offences, to catch criminals, to sustain public order and to protect people, particularly vulnerable people, from harm.

This mission has expanded in response to social change. During the 2000s the police were asked to take on a greater enforcement role around antisocial behaviour. This was arguably the consequence of the gradual erosion of informal social controls over the post war period as society became more mobile, atomised and diverse. The weakening of informal mechanisms of social control is likely to have been responsible for an increased demand for a visible police presence on the street and increased calls on public service professionals to intervene in matters that in the past were handled by communities themselves.

More recently the public protection part of the police role has expanded with growing public concern about high harm offences such as domestic, sexual and child abuse. On top of this the crime prevention and investigation part of the police role has been made much more complex by the arrival of an internet based society.

However, public opinion data shows that the public’s view of what the police should be doing hasn’t changed as fast as the demand coming through to police control rooms. When asked about priorities the public typically favours crime prevention, emergency response and catching criminals over the growth areas of sustaining public order and protecting the vulnerable from harm. This is not just true of the ‘what’ but also of the ‘how’. If you ask the public how they want the police to go about their work they say pretty much what they have always said: they want more bobbies on the beat, speedy response to calls for help and for the police to be accessible and to engage with local communities.

It strikes me that if a representative sample of the public had been in attendance at the Excellence In Policing conference they would have been surprised at the (correct) focus on harm and vulnerability.

This gap between public expectations and what the police are increasingly having to do contains a danger. If we move toward a world, in particular with the increasing application of harm indices as tools for the deployment of officers, in which public protection tasks are prioritised over traditional crime, there is the potential for a public backlash. We saw some of this in the response to the Leicestershire burglary trial. In that case all that was being proposed was that forensic teams did not attend every attempted burglary, simply because it is known that the chances of picking up any useful forensic material are very low. But even this limited de-prioritisation of part of the response to traditional crime met with huge political resistance.

We should not despair, however. Survey data also shows that when the public are given real examples of the type of cases the police deal with day to day, they do prioritise protecting the vulnerable from harm over less serious volume crime. This leads me to conclude that if we are to close the expectations gap, the service needs to engage in a major exercise in public education about what it is that the police actually do.