More precision please: Can the Met bring community policing and data science together?

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More precision please: Can the Met bring community policing and data science together?

It was no coincidence that MPS Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley chose London’s Institute of Engineering and Technology as the venue for a speech last week, putting the first flesh on the bones of his plan to deliver “more trust, less crime, and high standards”, by reforming the Met. Among the eye-catching pledges: “the strongest ever neighbourhood policing”, a new Met leadership academy, and an intensification of proactive public protection work, one word cut through: precision

Precision is of course what engineers do. It’s about using science, data, and analytics to solve complex problems and make people’s lives better. It’s also about efficiency: achieving maximum impact without wasted effort (particularly useful when resources are tight), and it is something that technology promises to make ever more achievable. So, you can see why it appeals, and why the Commissioner has brought in Professor Lawrence Sherman – the founding father of Evidence Based Policing – to sharpen up the Met’s scientific and analytical edge. 

But Rowley doesn’t just want to make the Met smarter, he is promising “precise community crime-fighting” (a phrase I suspect we will hear much more of in coming months), and while the combined rhetorical weight of those three terms is considerable, we are justified in asking what exactly they mean when brought together to describe a coherent policing strategy. After all, ‘community’, in the context of policing, tends to conjure up rather fuzzy ‘analogue’ images of beat bobbies and community halls – important certainly, reassuring maybe, but precise

For insight, its instructive to turn to New York – a global city, like London in many respects, but (as Rowley pointed out) with more cops and more murders – where from 2014, Commissioner Bill Bratton brought in Precision Policing as an explicit response to the “Great Divide”: the critical deterioration in relations between American law enforcement and the Black community (in particular) that opened up that summer following the police killings of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri. 

According to Bratton and his NYPD colleague Jon Murad, Precision Policing is: “an organizing principle, to ensure that police work with the community in ways that add up to police legitimacy… It ensures that police use connectivity more than enforcement; but when enforcement is necessary, it is accurately and narrowly directed”. 

Now, as often in policing, what is written on the page doesn’t always match what is experienced on the street, and Bratton’s strategy has been criticised, including (ironically) for its lack of precision. But in this stated version at least, its clear that being ‘precise’ isn’t just about being more analytically sophisticated, technologically advanced or on the cutting-edge of police science, it’s also (perhaps principally) about gaining the cooperation and trust of communities by using police powers only where and when necessary, and by grounding those enforcement decisions in local knowledge, intelligence, and community insights, (all of which deepen as trust and cooperation grow, enabling ever-better decision making). 

So, precision here is closer to restraint than incisiveness. It’s as much about avoiding the damage of blunt, disproportionate, or excessive police enforcement (including to long-term police efficacy), as it is about intensifying the laser-focus on harmful criminality. And, it is powered by local insights and well-informed police discretion, as much as by abstract knowledge and predictive algorithms. It is, in basic terms, about policing by consent and with proximity, in keeping with the British tradition. 

This certainly sounds like what precise community crime-fighting could (and perhaps should) mean for London – and there is a hint of this thinking in Rowley’s reference to new research suggesting that police can cut serious violence and do less stop and search, by focusing its use on small hotspots. But one fears for the free-for-all such evidence might be used to justify in these troubled locations, and whether these are in fact the places where strategic restraint, ‘precision’ and community-informed police discretion are most critical in the longer-term. Is this precise crime-fighting at the expense of community crime-fighting? 

There is much in Rowley’s emerging plan to be optimistic about. The promised investment in Neighbourhood Policing is vital for turning the Met around. The commitment to Evidence Based Policing is essential for tackling complex crime in the 21st Century. Doing either – or indeed both separately – would be important progress. Unifying the two however, building a Met that brings sophisticated analytics together with the situated knowledge of embedded practitioners, to make better, wiser, more precise decisions about how, where and whether to deploy the force’s considerable crime fighting power: that is a challenge worthy of the finest engineers.