What is the preventative role of the police?

Blog post

What is the preventative role of the police?

I am on my way back from Oslo having participated in an excellent seminar addressing the question ‘what is the preventative role of the police?’ organised by Professor Birgitte Ellefsen at the Norwegian Police University College. By way of answering that question, here are a few reflections from me, informed by our conversation.

First, there is an ambiguity in attitudes to the preventative role of the police. On the one hand we generally like the idea that the police should play a role in preventing crime and harm rather than simply responding to it. On the other hand, we also legitimately worry about police overreach: in taking on a broad preventative role there is a danger that the police encroach on areas of social life that are beyond their core mandate, where they lack the skills to do the work and where their involvement may be counter-productive. These concerns are linked to adjacent worries about ‘over policing’ of marginalised communities and concerns about excessive police surveillance curtailing personal privacy (one version of preventative policing is a sort of digitally enhanced Big Brother system, which is manifesting itself under some authoritarian regimes around the world).   There is a connected concern about police ‘overstretch’, driven by concerns about a lack of resources and the need to focus on ‘core’ police work.

So, as one speaker put it, the police have a positive role to play in prevention, but it may actually be quite a small and contained one.

Second, it is important to distinguish between direct preventative work and indirect preventative effects.   The police have long had an indirect role in preventing crime and harm.  Their simple existence, and their role in upholding the rule of law, almost certainly suppresses crime to a certain point.  In their course of their duties investigating crime and bringing offenders to justice there is likely also a deterrent effect on future offending.    Similarly, the fact that we have an education system and a welfare state indirectly prevent crime, even though doing so is not their core purpose.  As one speaker put it, the police could be accurately described as mainly ‘a reactive institution with indirect preventative effects’.   The question then is should the police play a more direct role in prevention?

Third, the history of police involvement in prevention goes back a long way.   Some might start the story with the shift away from reactive random patrol policing in the 1980s and 90s in the US and elsewhere, and the rise of evidence based, problem oriented and intelligence led policing, which were all attempts to shift away from incident response and towards a more proactive policing model. Yet the role of the policing, broadly conceived, in prevention goes back much further than that, including as the seminar was told in Scandinavia to the Renaissance and in England to Peel (or those whose words are attributed to him) who argued that ‘the new police’ should be judged principally on whether they were preventing crime rather than bringing offenders to justice.   So, this is a long-standing theme, and probably one close to the root of our ongoing difficulties in understanding what we want the police to do.

Fourth, most preventative work is going to be done by people other than the police. Elsewhere I have argued that in addition to a criminal justice system we need a much more explicit crime and harm prevention system, made up of a collection of both formal and informal institutions who together can both directly and indirectly act to prevent crime and harm. If you were looking to design prevention from scratch, you certainly wouldn’t end up with something that looks like modern policing.

Fifth, the police should operate as part of that wider system and in order to deal with the issues of overreach and overstretch we therefore need to be clear about where their skills and powers play an important role in prevention.  As one speaker highlighted, the police are in many ways the sharp end of the system and therefore inevitably operate downstream rather than upstream.  Nevertheless, they will sometimes come across issues early as well as late – policework is replete with potential intervention points and ‘teachable moments’ -and regardless of the point in time, it is important that the police adopt a preventative mindset in dealing with them.  This involves the police asking themselves the question ‘what can I do now that could help stop this thing from happening again or getting worse?’

In thinking about a model for preventative policing, along with my colleague at the Police Foundation, Andy Higgins, we have been developing a ‘four P’s’ model which we think might be useful.  On this basis we describe preventative policing as having the following characteristics:

  • It is person-centred: so instead of just focusing on an incident, it is about looking at the people involved and thinking holistically about what can be done to improve their wellbeing or reduce their vulnerability.  We already see some of this in police attention to issues such as neuro diversity, mental health, trauma and adverse childhood experiences.  All of that work could be seen as parts of a more person-centred approach;
  • It is problem-oriented: again rather than just looking at the individual incident or offence, it is about understanding the problem of which those incidents are simply a manifestation and taking a tailored approach to dealing with it;
  • It is often place-based: the nature of the places people live in make those people more or less susceptible to crime and harm.  The degree of social cohesion, collective efficacy, poverty and community ‘spirit’ all play a role.    The police have a function in this wider ‘place-making’.   In particular, the procedural justice literature tells us that where people see police as legitimate they are more likely to obey the law and behave in prosocial ways (i.e. legitimacy is therefore, to some degree, preventative). More practically it also enables the person and problem oriented work, which rely on co-operation. This also potentially links to resilience: a community that trusts and can work with the police, particularly in a crisis, may be less likely to come to harm. 
  • It is partner enabled: while in light of their work in handling initial calls for help, the police may be an initiator or a broker, most preventative work will be done by health services, schools and social services, as well as community groups.   A preventative role for the police therefore needs to be situated in a wider system of collaboration, involving sharing data, having good referral pathways and shared objectives across professional and service delivery silos. 

The Oslo seminar was an energising event.  Not only were there a lot of people there (police and non police), keen to explore ways of doing things differently, but there was also a remarkable degree of agreement on where the police role is best focused.  I hope to continue to work with Norwegian and UK colleagues on these ideas in the months ahead.