Putting the public at the heart of policing strategy

Blog post

Putting the public at the heart of policing strategy

In this blog Andy Higgins explores how we can achieve a more sophisticated dialogue around the public’s expectations of the police. 

Defining the challenge that English and Welsh policing should be designed and prepared to meet requires more than just a threat assessment. Thinking strategically about the future means understanding how technology, social change and globalisation are reshaping crime, public safety and police ‘demand’, but it also means revisiting some fundamental questions about the role we want the police to play in our changing society. What objectives should they seek to achieve? What activities should they (as opposed to others) undertake in pursuit of these? And, how should they decide what takes priority?

In the Peelian policing tradition questions like these can only be answered with reference to the public, who not only pay for policing and elect the politicians who oversee it, but provide (or withhold) the legitimacy and consent on which it depends. It is appropriate therefore that we begin our work informing the Strategic Review of Policing in England and Wales with an assessment of contemporary public priorities for, attitudes towards and expectations of today’s polices service.

Drawing on the Police Foundation’s own recent qualitative work exploring public policing priorities, as well as representative surveys of public opinion, our first insight paper, published today on the public’s expectations of the police, offers 10 key insights. I’ve summarised some of the most salient below.

First, the British public support the police. This was true in 1962 when a survey for Royal Commission on the Police allayed anxieties about “a decay in respect for properly constituted authority” and it broadly remains the case today. Our modern surveys however provide a more nuanced picture. They tell us; first, that confidence and trust in is not consistently distributed across the population (specific ethnic minority populations, in particular, experience policing less positively) and second, that overall public confidence has recently started to decline. Concerns about crime have risen-up the public agenda and service ratings (although resilient through much of austerity) have begun to slip. This appears to reflect a widespread sense of police ‘withdrawal’, not just from public space, but from routine investigation work, responding to calls for service and other aspects of public-facing police work. The Review needs to consider both how these perceptions can be turned around and how trust can be nurtured where it has never previously existed.

Second, while it is easy, in an age of online threat, hidden harm and scarce resources, to dismiss the public cry for more visible policing as stale, anachronistic clamour, it is worth noting that it has some markedly current characteristics. The public have noticed a recent ‘turn for the worse’ in their local town centres, shopping precincts and other familiar public spaces. Empty shops, run-down high streets, street homelessness and public-place substance misuse make people feel less safe – particularly when they also hear media reports of an advancing knife crime ‘epidemic’. More officers on the streets may help to ‘take the edge off’ public security anxieties but addressing the underlying causes and amplifiers will require a broader set of investments and an (often locally) co-ordinated collegiate response.

Third, while (as the above illustrates) the public respond to crime and policing issues viscerally and instinctively, they are also adept at thinking rationally and universally, and embrace the opportunity to engage with prioritisation questions, not just as consumers of security, but as ‘citizen-policymakers’ as well. We should be careful therefore about assuming that the public’s priority choices necessarily default to local, visible, ‘low-level’ crime, nuisance and disorder concerns. When asked to rank policing issues people consistently feel that the police should focus on what is most harmful and what fits best with their preconceptions about what the police (rather than other agencies, communities or citizens) do – this results in a clear public direction for the police to focus on preventing and responding to serious and sexual violence and abuse.

Finally, our qualitative and deliberative research gives a clear indication that the public’s, rather ‘traditional’, views on the police function are more habitual than ideological. When given new contextual information about the realities of modern police demand, some time to consider it and an opportunity to discuss and debate with their peers, people often come up with new (sometimes radical) suggestions for delivering public safety and welfare services, they also tend to move towards consensus, recognise complexity, think about the longer-term and see the value in community involvement and engagement (in addition to local police visibility). Significantly, they also tend to become more supportive and sympathetic towards the police and the difficult choices and challenges now being faced.

Many of the challenges confronting English and Welsh policing in the coming decades – threats emerging from new technology or transnational organised crime, for example – may well seem opaque and remote to much of the public, as will the policing responses required to meet them. This only increases the importance of placing the relationship between public and police at the heart of the strategy. There is a need to redress the perception of withdrawal, build trust where it has never flourished, address security anxieties and align strategic priorities with public values; above all however, achieving this will require convening a more sophisticated public dialogue about the public’s expectations of the police and how we meet the safety and security challenges of the 21st century.