So this is modern neighbourhood policing (long read)

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So this is modern neighbourhood policing (long read)

It’s a tricky business making recommendations in policing research. However robust your methodology, accurate your analysis or insightful your findings, if your suggestions for change aren’t feasible, or overlook the complexities of real-world practice, you are likely to remain exiled to the Ivory Tower by those who might make use of your work. So it was reassuring and a relief to find out that in South Yorkshire many of the principles the Police Foundation argue should underpin the future of neighbourhood policing are (independently) being put into practice – showing not only that it can be done, but that when it is the future looks promising.
Our report, published earlier this year, pieces together the lost national narrative of neighbourhood policing since the end of the Home Office roll-out in 2008. It’s a story of erosion, but also of diversification, metamorphosis and more than a little rhetorical opportunism.

Although there has been a reluctance to abandon the symbolism of neighbourhood policing, as police numbers and budgets have contracted, the local assets built up in the early years of the century have been plundered to service reactive and protective demand. Freed by localism to experiment, force operating models have diversified, with some combining response and neighbourhoods into ‘hybrid’ teams, others relying on (or alternatively reducing) PCSOs, while some have settled for endemic abstraction as the norm.

At the same time the mission has changed – or at least expanded. Neighbourhood policing is still, to some extent, about reassurance, visibility and community responsiveness, but, as well as back-filling for response, it is also being asked to address hidden-harm and vulnerability through early intervention, partnership work and intelligence gathering; a shift that seems to be pushing it away from its problem-oriented roots towards a more ‘case-based’ mode of prevention.

One upshot of all this is that neighbourhood policing has become a nebulous and drifting concept, lacking clarity and consensus about what it is and what it should do. Indeed, at the end of 2016 there was a real possibility of it dissolving into anachronism as the NPCC and APCC’s Policing Vision 2025 chose only to refer to it as what “we have invested in”, remaining silent about the mechanism through which “proactive preventative” local policing might be delivered in the future.

Thankfully that slide has been arrested. HMIC(FRS)’s 2017 recommendation – taken up and recently delivered on by the College of Policing – that there should be a set of evidence-based guidelines on the “essential elements of neighbourhood policing which all forces should provide” has defined neighbourhood policing back from the edge of obsolescence, and provided a solid foundation on which forces can build their own ‘modern’ neighbourhood policing offers. Encouragingly 27 police forces, have agreed to share ideas and support each other through the process of implementing them.

Our own research recommendations are consistent with the College’s guidelines but, informed by our analysis of the current landscape as well as the evaluation evidence, and with greater leeway to address things like structures and models, we can go further in terms of how these principles should be applied. We argue that police forces must find new ways to deliver the universal access and contact once provided by the patchwork blanket of neighbourhood teams. Rather than stretching the diminishing neighbourhood resource ever more thinly, forces should design proactive prevention into their operating models by concentrating embedded capability where is needed most. Rather than combining these functions with response or routine crime investigation, we argue that locally embedded proactive prevention should be delivered by functionally distinct teams. While acknowledging the value of multi-agency case-work with individuals, we believe neighbourhood policing should remain primarily oriented towards problems – and solutions – framed in terms of communities, and that the skills and aptitudes needed to deliver this effectively should be trained, recognised, and rewarded as a policing specialism. Finally we call for greater transparency and discipline in the language used to describe police roles and functions.

* * *

And so to South Yorkshire where, until recently, local policing was drifting with national current.

In 2014, faced with the a need to make massive savings and with a growing public protection demand, neighbourhood and response functions were rolled together into thinned-out Local Policing Teams. The theory was that these ‘omni-competent’ local cops could be deployed more efficiently and flexibly; responding to emergency calls when needed, but engaging with the public and working on local problems, in support of neighbourhood PCSOs and named local inspectors, when things were quieter. In reality (as elsewhere) it led to a withdrawal from communities. Reactive demand continued to intensify while local knowledge, relationships and preventative problem-solving work ebbed away.

But now there is new leadership, new vision and a new model. The first step was getting to grips with the increasingly elusive terminology, by producing a concrete definition – with academics and local stakeholders – of what neighbourhood policing actually meant for the force. Crucially, this included a commitment to having police teams dedicated to places, a clear statement of purpose, “to reduce crime, protect the vulnerable and enhance community safety” and a strong steer on how this should be done – by listening to the community and ‘problem-solving’.

Next came the question of how to deliver this with a depleted workforce and multiple other pulls on resource. Part of the answer was to separate out the element of neighbourhood policing that provided universal coverage from the bit that did crime and harm reduction. With a patchwork of PCSOs providing the former across the whole force area, and with response shift patterns rebalanced to better fit the demand profile, a limited, but dedicated contingent of police officers could be carved out, to put back into the communities where they are most needed.

This involved a detailed mapping analysis, combining data on the distribution of harm-weighted crime, anti-social behaviour, police incidents and deprivation, to provide the evidence-base for a differentiated approach. In ‘complex’ areas like central Rotherham, (largely) ring-fenced police teams have been put in place, with individual officers taking responsibility for the smaller neighbourhoods within it. Their job is to re-engage with the community, build local insight and instigate action against the problems and issues that generated local crime, harm and demand.

Urban areas like Sheffield city centre present different challenges. With the shifting footfall of commuters, businesses, students and shoppers requiring a different take on ‘neighbourhood’ and a more plural approach to community engagement – but with the same focus on understanding, unpicking and interrupting the structure of problems – like the use of Spice in public spaces – that corrode the health of the city.

Complex social problems like these need multi-dimensional responses that go beyond the policing, and so, to be effective, neighbourhood policing needs to integrate and interface with the other agencies that play a vital role. At the heart of the South Yorkshire model, is the creation of four new Community Safety Hubs, within which – in Rotherham, for example – the local neighbourhood team share desk space, information and ownership with colleagues from the Local Authority, mental health services, drug and alcohol treatment services and probation.

Ultimately, building this capability comes down to vision and leadership; with the bed-sheet of policing pulled ever tighter it would be all too easy for the neighbourhood corner to come loose again, if not anchored in place by a shared and steely commitment from the top. The will to do so is not to be found everywhere. During our research a chief officer (from another force) explained how their ‘neighbourhood’ teams were used to handle local crime investigations because, even though they complained about being abstracted, they struggled to articulate what it was they were supposed to be doing. He clearly did not think it was his job to make sure that they could.

For his benefit and for others struggling to grasp what modern neighbourhood policing should look like on the ground, this is what I saw when I spent a very hot day in Rotherham last summer.

* * *

“So, what’s Rotherham got going for it?” I’m in a police van with the Rotherham Central Neighbourhood Policing Team and I ask because, as we drive through the town centre, this looks like a place that’s known better times. There are empty shops, grime and disrepair and amongst the faces on the streets some show the stress-signs of poverty, homelessness and addiction. More than once I’m told that the Marks & Spencer’s has packed up and moved out; a tipping point passed, a badge of everyday respectability revoked. Apart from the football stadium and the new council offices, where the neighbourhood team are now based, there is little that sparkles here, even in the thirty degree sunshine that is slowly cooking my companions in their patrol boots and stab vests.

The long pause and the first part of their reply confirm my impressions “there’s some great countryside nearby and there are some really nice parts of Rotherham, but we don’t get to go there much,” but I’m surprised by the next bit “and everyone is really friendly, they’ll always talk to you. Not like in Sheffield”.
I’m surprised because there would be good reasons to expect some reservation, even distrust from the people of South Yorkshire, and Rotherham in particular, toward their police force. Roundly criticised over their handling of the Hillsborough inquests and exposed by the discovery-in-plain-sight of endemic Child Sexual Exploitation in the town, there is a catalogue of police controversy here stretching from Orgreave to Cliff Richard’s Berkshire mansion. Yet, as the cops see it, if there is any gap to be bridged, or ground to be made up with the local public, it’s as much to do with the way day-to-day policing has been done here over the last few years, as any national headlines – up until recently at least.

After several years of erosion and drift neighbourhood policing has been brought back to the parts of South Yorkshire that need it most – places like Rotherham town centre, and nearby Masborough and Eastwood. There simply aren’t enough cops to go back to the universal patchwork of local teams rolled out nationwide in the early 2000s – and policing has moved on – but each of these small places now has one or two dedicated neighbourhood officers, working with colleagues nearby and with clear routes into other agencies. They are not there to respond to 999 calls or to investigate crimes, but simply to know and be known, to figure out what needs doing and how to get it done.

But there is only so much you can do in ones or twos, so every now and then the team comes together to work through a joint task-list covering their combined areas. And that’s what we are doing today; there are seven items on the agenda.

First, elsewhere in the country a man has been arrested for trying to instigate a day of anti-Islamic hatred. Although there is no specific threat, the EDL and other far-right organisations have been active here and two of our number peel off to phone round local Mosques and Muslim groups and visit any who have concerns. The rest of us are for less discrete work; the kind of work best done in numbers, yellow bibs and a van with a bright orange and blue stripe down the side.

Our first stop – agenda item two – is a patch of public land between a main road and a residential suburb where a group of travellers have recently arrived. With perfect timing we pull up just as the front wheels of a van touch the pavement, on route from the scattered encampment to the road. A convenient ice-breaker. As we climb out, we attract the attention of a stocky man in tracksuit and sandals who marches purposefully towards us from a caravan 150 yards away. I follow the sergeant as he walks amiably to meet him but he contours around us heading straight for the constables dealing with the van; his vehicle perhaps? His teenage son behind the wheel? He looks straight ahead and as he passes I can see he is missing an eye.

Others from our party receive a friendlier welcome. Two female PCs are surrounded by a group of children and small dogs; the kids play with the small torches and tubes of hand sanitizer clipped to the cops’ vests and ask a hundred questions at once; one of the boys is given a woman’s police bowler to try for size. A little later the hat vanishes into a caravan, and although the team are prepared to abandon it rather than escalate, some sterling diplomacy sees the hat returned intact.

The man we need to speak to lies on his side on a leopard-print blanket in the shade of a tree, head propped up on one hand. He’s heavy-built and wears only shorts. A small woman, four or five kids and a couple more yapping dogs sit nearby. He moves only to wave us towards him; we are granted an audience. He’s amiable and forthcoming, the sergeant asks about his plans and his reasons for being here. Elderly family have hospital appointments in the area we are told, they’ll be moving on by Wednesday, heading for the coast – but with instinctive imprecision there is talk of both north Wales and Lincolnshire. We are told that a dog has gone missing and they want to see a community nurse; they ask for bin bags – an act of rehearsed compliance – and say they’ll get the kids to clean up before they leave. The sergeant will make arrangements. There is history here and a reasonable record of word being kept, as much is said and the expectation is set; photos are taken, vehicle registrations will be logged, we will see what happens on Wednesday.

Next up (item three), a brief period of presence in the area around the town’s Minster. There is a Public Space Protection Order in place which means spot fines can be issued to anyone found drinking in the street, but more importantly evidence is being compiled against local shopkeepers suspected of selling white cider and strong lager to the street denizens. It’s quiet here today; we buy too-warm soft drinks at a convenience store and are served with knowing politeness.

Fourth, we call in at a faith-based project for the homeless. One of our group knows the manager, and another, whose patch we are on, is being introduced. The client groups of the two organisations intersect and each will need the other’s support on occasions, but beyond this there is a genuine sense of being on the same side. Ideas for skills and diversion projects are shared and the police take boxes of cards to hand out; doubtless they will soon come across those who need the hot meals, showers and support provided here.

On the way to item five we spot three lads, ten or 11 years old, on the flat roof of a garage. Our driver pulls over and jumps out, we are on her patch. They come down and explain they have been practicing their parkour. One pulls out a phone and proudly shows clips of them jumping off walls and over town roofs, they are left with some safety advice and a friendly impression of their local police officer.

Just down the road we stop again. Two well-known faces have been spotted along with a third man; one of the regulars rides off on his bike. The remaining two are as friendly as I was told they would be; they have no objection to being searched and chat about associates and family members as they are patted down. One has the skinny frame and brown teeth of a heroin addict. He has a laptop in a carrier bag, doesn’t know the password, says it’s his dads and he’s on his way to buy a charger. The cops ask him if he’s going to Cash Converters, he tells them he’s not because he’s barred; the cops say they know this because they did the paperwork. The computer is taken from him so enquiries can be made. He’ll get a knock on his door soon, either to give it back or for a trip to court – I don’t fancy his chances.

His companion seems younger but bears the scars of a tough life, he looks healthier than his friend and the police are taken aback when they realise who he is, another well-known character, just out of prison with flesh on his bones and new qualifications to his name. He is congratulated and told not to waste the chance – he says he won’t, but the company he’s keeping, the recent scar on his back and the open bottle of cheap rosé in the pocket of his sweatpants suggests it might be tough to stay out of trouble. They are sent on their way to find a shady spot, away from the dry-zone, to enjoy their wine.

We finally arrive at our fifth assignment. An address in a low rise council block where a person of interest is believed to be living. This is just a courtesy call; a knock on the door to see what happens next. A dog barks inside, the cops take two practiced steps back. Another skinny frame and set of bad teeth appear from behind the door, the person we are looking for is not here, lives in another town, hasn’t been seen in ages. Again, the occupant is as amiable as promised, but talks loudly and with tension in his face and neck; withdrawing perhaps or making it known to neighbours – who do not hide their attention – that he is saying all the right things.

Of course we can come in, he says. The place is a tip, undecorated, no carpet, a sparse collection of old furniture, the ubiquitous rusting bench and gym weights in one corner. A spray of foil wrappings, papers, small bags, lighters and a home-made pipe indicate class-A drug use. A young woman is spotted trying to keep out of the way on a balcony, say she’s waiting for her boyfriend; she is 19 and has a foreign sounding name but a local accent. Checks are made and there are questions about immigration status, concerns about exploitation. From the contents of her purse, heroin use is suspected, although, as yet, she shows no physical signs of attrition. She is allowed to leave, but clearly plays on the minds of some of the officers. There will be follow-up. An ugly looking knife is found, the occupant professes ignorance. It is taken away with a small tin of unidentified substance and put on the dashboard of the van alongside the laptop. The talk is candid, much is learned.

Items six and seven will have to wait for another shift. The sergeant has a presentation on domestic violence to give; others are working on a local organised crime group and have enquiries to make out of town, but on our way back to base there is a call over the radio. One of the PCSOs, with a renowned eye for faces, has spotted a wanted suspect in the town. She calls in his movements from a safe distance as we throw the van around the back-streets to head him off. The briefest of foot chases and he is apprehended. He has his arm in a cast, has been sleeping rough and has spent too much time in the sun. Smart phones are checked and show he’s wanted in Manchester for smashing up an ex-partner’s flat and failing to appear in court. He claims the case has been thrown out, all dealt with, and I don’t imagine anyone will be rushing over the Pennines to interview him, but the cogs of justice will turn and he will sleep indoors tonight, once we have collected his bag of belongings from the bush where he’s stashed it.

As we settle him into the van there is a clatter and groan from outside, a cyclist has hit the curb and stays down on the pavement, an expensive looking mountain bike resting on his chest. He wears pink shorts, dark glasses and carries a collapsible white stick, “only in Rotherham” the constable says as he gets out to check on him, he’s winded and embarrassed but requires only advice not medical attention.

* * *

So this is modern neighbourhood policing – South Yorkshire style at least. Much of it is highly visible, but it’s not patrol-based; today has been bold, bright and confident but it’s far removed from the plodding, nodding Bobby on the beat. Everything has been done with purpose and as part of a bigger plan. It’s also not fixated on public confidence or reassurance; those things will follow if the team can consistently get the right things done.

I’m left wondering about how the plan gets made, what gets prioritised, how the in-tray and inbox get sifted; ‘neighbourhood’ nuggets panned from the thick-running silt of general police-work, as it becomes increasingly indistinct from that of other agencies. Some of the supervisors I speak to are clearly thinking long and hard about this too; the risk of too much top-down tasking and the slide back to reactivity needs constant vigilance.

As in many places, the poorly-attended church-hall meetings, where each neighbourhood’s policing ‘priorities’ were once set, have been abandoned here – given up as anachronistic and unrepresentative in an age of digital engagement and hidden harm. It is now for local officers, and in particular the sergeants and inspectors who supervise them, to understand the public ask and interest, weigh this in the balance against the harms and risks the public cannot see and decide what needs doing most. As so often in policing the value lies in the discretion; the applied expertise in blending pragmatic, actuarial, diplomatic and value judgements – there is not necessarily a single right answer but the potential for many sub-optimal ones. It could be argued that more structured efforts might be made to bring local people into the loop and involve them in decisions about, and solutions, to the local problems that need tackling; perhaps that is for the future? For now there is ground still to be won back, foundations to be re-laid. It will be achieved with consistency, commitment and openness.

I’m also left thinking about processing – in the procedural, cognitive and emotional senses. From our five (or so) hour tour we have brought back a prisoner, a knife, a small quantity of drugs, a lap-top, photographs, new contacts, new information. There are partners to be contacted, checks to be made, information to be submitted and shared, appointments to be arranged and next steps to be decided. But there is also reflection to be done, a big-picture to be subtly amended, depth and detail to be added. We have shaken a few trees and we need to take stock of what has fallen out. In addition, even on a safe and successful shift like this, there are moments of unease to be revisited and resolved, gut responses and nagging concerns to be reconciled and addressed. It would be so easy for some of this to wash over into tomorrow, lost in the next set of emergencies, forgotten in the rush to get back out there and be visible; but this is where the gains are made, where the pay-off happens.

Can this solve the complex social problems of long-term deindustrialisation and under investment in a place like Rotherham? Of course not. What it can start to do however is show those who live here that someone notices what is happening and is thinking about what needs to be done. That when people do things that bring misery to others and wear away at the fabric of community, there is someone there to listen, understand what is going on and provide the occasional well-aimed nudge in the direction of orderliness. It is not enough, but it is massively important.