A year ago HMIC(FRS)’s annual report on the effectiveness of police forces, led with a headline concern about the continuing erosion of neighbourhood policing and the local preventative capability that goes with it. Soon after, I began a year-long research project exploring how and why neighbourhood policing has changed since the end of the Neighbourhood Policing Programme in 2008, making sense of the current fragmented national picture, and working out how the more proactive preventative, yet still tangibly connected, local Policing Vision promised for 2025, might be made reality.
My investigations, which included a force survey, focus groups with neighbourhood officers and PCSOs from across the country, and interviews with their leaders, clearly showed that the Inspectorate was right to be concerned. Despite official workforce data suggesting the neighbourhood head-count is holding up well, everywhere I went I heard ‘then and now stories’ describing how the numbers of officers and PCSOs available for core proactive, community-based police work had reduced dramatically. In the context of intense reactive demand, this had led to a marked decline in traditional neighbourhood outputs and outcomes including: community engagement, visibility, intelligence gathering, local knowledge and preventative problem solving.
It is cautiously reassuring to hear, therefore, that this year’s inspection – the report of which was published last week – found some signs of recovery. Neighbourhood policing, it seems, is off the critical list and is now being monitored to see how it responds to the injection of a new set of College of Policing guidelines. The recovery is partial; there are still concerns over abstraction, the health of problem-solving (and impact assessment in particular), and under-use of some powers; but, having encountered more examples of dedicated, specialist and targeted neighbourhood capability, the inspectors seem reassured that a corner is being turned.
I equate this step-in-the-right-direction to an emerging trend I witnessed for ‘de-hybridised’ policing models. By 2012, when the Home Office started publishing functional workforce data, a number of police forces (with Cheshire, Kent, Essex, Cambridgeshire and Cumbria among the early adopters) had already abandoned the traditional distinctions between neighbourhood and response policing, in favour of generalised or ‘hybrid’ local policing teams that performed both sets of functions. A host of other forces have since adopted partial or ‘semi-hybrid’ variations, and in other places, where traditional structures have been retained, routine abstraction (amounting to de-facto hybridisation) has become the norm. More recently, however, some forces have realised that, while these approaches might be good for servicing reactive demand, they do less to support local proactivity, and are therefore re-instating functionality distinct local preventative capabilities.
One of the main problems with combining proactive and reactive local policing roles isn’t apparent at the strategic planning stage, but is patently clear as soon as practitioners try to make it work on the ground. It’s not just that reactive demand eats into the time available for neighbourhood work; it’s that it does so unpredictably. On numerous occasions during my research, officers and PCSOs (who are also increasingly doing reactive police work) explained how meetings with partners or scheduled engagement commitments had had to be cancelled at the last minute, because there was something happening now they had to go and deal with. Neighbourhood policing requires diary-planning, response policing militates against this. Mixing the two inevitably means promises get broken; trust and public confidence can be compromised and practitioners start to anticipate disruption and adapt their depth of engagement accordingly.
Of course the first hint of a turn away from hybridisation does not mean a return to the early-century universal patchwork of well-resourced teams, working on community led-priorities. Those days are gone. These new offerings tend to be small ‘specialist’ contingents; selectively targeted to the places that need them most, and focused on reducing vulnerability and harm – although the best examples realise that this is best done through community engagement. In this regard (incidentally) the HMICFRS interpretation of the workforce data is off the mark; the reduction in the official ‘neighbourhood’ headcount (and expenditure) may be an positive indicator, rather than a concern, if it means that large cohorts of ‘hybrid’ neighbourhood officers are being replaced by smaller sets of dedicated ones.
The greatest concern however following this year’s PEEL effectiveness assessment is how forces respond. As neighbourhood policing moves out of intensive care, there are new patients to attend to. Under extreme pressure, emergency responses to vulnerable people have sometimes been dangerously slow and, with too few detectives, too many crimes are being ‘written off’ without thorough investigation. These warnings represent tugs on other corners of a local policing bed-sheet that is already stretched to tearing point; can these exposed areas be better protected without detracting from the nascent and fragile revival of neighbourhood policing? It seems increasingly apparent that the sheet is just too small, but if it is inevitable that resource and focus gets directed toward reactive local policing functions during the next period, it is essential that what we are starting to learn about the forms and structures that best support local proactivity does not get forgotten.
The Police Foundation’s report on the Future of Neighbourhood Policing will be published in May. If you are interested in attending our launch event book here.