Reflections on the Police Effectiveness in a Changing World project

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Reflections on the Police Effectiveness in a Changing World project

The Police Foundation has recently published two comprehensive site reports that bring to a close our in-depth exploration of Police Effectiveness in a Changing World. The documents also provide the bedrock material for a series of earlier thematic papers which I have linked throughout this blog.

The site reports tell the stories of two five-year processes (running between 2011 and 2015) that aimed to develop new responses to persistent local crime problems, but were also vehicles for exploring a wider set of questions about local policing, in the context of societal and organisational change.

With the generous support of the Dawes Trust and guided by a eminent group of academic experts, the project involved Police Foundation researchers accompanying police and community safety partners, in two similar English towns (Luton in Bedfordshire and Slough in the Thames Valley policing area), around a long-term revolution of the problem-oriented SARA cycle.

Guided by a review of the crime reduction evidence-base, the project progressed through a number of phases: identifying priority locations and persistent crime problems, using a broad range of research techniques to improve the way these were understood, developing and implementing appropriate interventions, and then assessing both the outcomes of these and the challenges of doing so – all with an eye to the wider forces of social change affecting local communities and the crime problems they faced.

In Luton, guided by prevailing local priorities, the project focused on burglary and on two town-centre wards that were experiencing substantial inward migration and transient populations. Alongside well-documented features (concentration in hotspots, seasonality, locally-resident problematic drug-using offenders, and repeat and near-repeat victimisation), burglary patterns were found to be responding to the way the town was changing. In particular, the explosion of the ‘low-end’ private rented housing sector was linked to poor standards of home security that offered plentiful targets for opportunistic offenders. In addition, the correlation between burglary rates and areas with the greatest levels of population flux brought questions of ‘collective efficacy’ – the protective potential of strong, established communities – into focus.

Drawing on these insights, a multi-agency intervention programme was drawn up which included street surveys to identify vulnerable premises, a new home security assessment service, and several strands of tailored support for residents to better secure their homes – including for those renting from private landlords. It was also hoped that community development work focused on enabling residents to improve their local areas might help bring neighbourhoods together, bolster community resilience and increase neighbour watchfulness resulting in a protective effect against burglary.

Meanwhile in Slough efforts were focused on violence and two parts of the town with contrasting sets of challenges. Although analysis threw up some intriguing findings – for instance that much of the recorded violence, (domestic and other violence) took place inside dwellings and was thus beyond the reach of many standard policing tactics – overall, violence in the town resisted formulation into one or more cohesive ‘problems’. Instead, it presented most vividly as the corollary of multiple, unique and complex case-histories, relationships, disputes and confrontations – and it was at the fined-grained level of individual cases that the best opportunities for intervention were felt to exist.

Using repeat offending and/or victimisation as the trigger, the response to the analysis in Slough was to form a multi-agency practitioner panel (including local police, probation, social services, drugs and alcohol treatment services, mental health services, domestic abuse support and other third sector organisations) which met fortnightly to share knowledge, co-ordinate activity and ‘problem solve’ individual cases, with the aim of mitigating the risk factors for victimisation and offending inherent in circumstances of each individual subject.

However, neither initiative worked.

And in many ways the most interesting insights in these reports come from exploring why that was. While the project produced evidence of the way globalisation, societal change and technological progress were impacting on local crime problems, it also became clear that a set of internal, organisational changes within policing (and the wider community safety infrastructure) were unfolding during the project period that were at least as consequential for the effectiveness of crime reduction activity. Looking back from 2018 these shifts are more clearly understood, but to the practitioners grappling with them at the time they represented significant disorientation. Hence, on one level these reports can be read almost as recent social histories, providing situated accounts of how police officers and partners grappled with new challenges as they arose and played out in contrasting locations. I’ll briefly touch on three dimensions to this.

First, the project period coincided with a 25 per cent reduction in central government funding for policing and thus with forces’ attempts to absorb and adapt to this new reality – alongside significant cuts and reorganisations to many of their partners. In part due to differential economies of scale and council tax cushions, this manifested differently in the two force areas; Bedfordshire’s response involved adopting a ‘back to basics’ policing model, focused on emergency response and investigation, to the detriment of proactivity and neighbourhood policing in particular, which had led to some discord with partners. As a result, implementing the project’s response phase proved highly challenging and came up against the barrier of un-engaged and reticent populations in hotspot areas. Thames Valley appeared more resilient; neighbourhood policing was well established and provided a strong foundation for the multi-agency panel process, but it became clear that, while there was appetite to embrace more collaborative working methods across agencies, those coming to the table had little extra to offer in terms of intervention capacity when they went back to their day-jobs. Arguably, time and effort spent on partnership process improvements were not justified by the resulting outputs.

Second, during the time frame of the project, policing (along with local authorities and other institutions) went through a perhaps unprecedented moral realignment in terms of what they considered most important. Falling rates of acquisitive crime coupled with revelations about the failure of institutions to adequately respond to abuse across multiple settings, precipitated a shift in priorities away from volume crime and towards ‘threat, risk and harm’ and then vulnerability. This impacted on the project in Luton in particular, where burglary – a top priority for both the police and Community Safety Partnership in 2011 – became seen as increasingly less important, and thus more difficult to resource, as the project progressed. In contrast, Slough’s focus on violence fitted much better with the prevailing current, and a strong commitment from a range of partners was retained throughout. This momentum however came along on a wave of new orthodoxy, in the form of multi-agency case management practices, for which the evidence-base remains unnervingly thin and which may, in hindsight, have proved to be an ill-advised departure from (well evidenced) problem-oriented principles.

Thirdly, and on a slightly different level, the project period was one in which attitudes towards evidence-based policing, and the whole process of conducting research in a policing context, shifted. From being the goose that would lay the golden egg of police effectiveness in lean times, to the gradual realisation that the randomised control trial – for all its rigour – was of limited help in dealing with the situated crime problems that form the bread and butter of everyday police work; then to an emerging recognition of the value of a broader church of research methods and of ‘experience’ in interpreting and applying evidence. If nothing else, we hope that these reports provide examples of how the effectiveness of small-scale, real world, locally tailored interventions can be thoroughly and usefully assessed and local learning generated (see chapter 6 of each report). More broadly, we hope that the project demonstrates the value of studying and documenting specific, situated examples of policing in context, including through the eyes of those delivering it, to provide insights into the broader themes and challenges of the day.

Overall, the Police Effectiveness in a Changing World project leaves us with the high level conclusion that in conditions of internal (policing) and external (social) change, problem-oriented, proactive prevention is both more important, but also more difficult to achieve. Looking ahead to the next period, our time in Luton and Slough leaves us with two big questions:

First, how much does policing really want to shift from being an emergency response and criminal justice agency to being a crime/harm prevention and community safety service – and how radically is it prepared to change to do so?

And second, with the imperative to identify and respond to vulnerability and individual risk profiles growing ever stronger, how can the police and those who share their mission, ensure they also understand and act upon the wider, but still local, problems and causes that give rise to that risk and create that vulnerability?