Blueprints: Designing local policing models for the 21st century

Blog post

Blueprints: Designing local policing models for the 21st century

Introducing a new research project from the Police Foundation 

What’s the best way to deliver local policing? How should police forces configure resources, design processes and organise tasks and responsibilities to keep communities safe, respond to local need and provide value for money? What operating models not only meet today’s demand profile but can help the service develop the capabilities it will need tomorrow? 

Perhaps surprisingly, policing does not have a consensus answer to these questions. There are no clearly drawn lines of debate about the pros and cons of different organisational structures, and little hard evidence about which local policing models work ‘best’. In fact, across the country, local policing – comprising four basic components of response, neighbourhood policing, local investigation and public protection, along with various supporting functions – is delivered in myriad ways and (within some forces at least) has been subject to near continual change and remodelling over recent years, with no clear sign of a preferred ‘industry standard’ emerging. 

This is in marked contrast to the early years of the millenium when, responding to the New Labour agenda, the police service organised itself into a relatively consistent and formalised set of Basic Command Units (BCUs), through which most routine police work was delivered. BCUs, and the consistency they represented, began to recede, however, under the Coalition and Conservative governments as austerity, hands-off localism and shifting public safety priorities gave police chiefs the freedom and imperative to experiment with different ways of doing things. 

Notably, however, the cycles of innovation and reinvention have continued to play-out ever since – and show no sign of letting up (the data indicates a peak in remodelling activity around 2016/17, slowing to 2020/21, but since accelerating again). This suggests much about the shifting context of the last decade, and about the suitability of some of those initial redesigns. But it also hints at the systemic incentives for change over stability baked into policing’s leadership, governance, funding arrangements and culture. Perhaps, above all, it points to a deficit of proper evaluation, that means that oscillations between versions of localisation and centralisation, specialism and generalisation, civilianisation and de-civilianisation, continue to proliferate. 

To illustrate, workforce data shows that, as of March 2023, the proportion of local officers that police forces assigned to response policing roles ranged between 75 and zero per cent. The proportion designated as neighbourhood policing varied between 89 and ten per cent. The allocation for dedicated local investigation teams varied from 30 to zero per cent, and for public protection units, from 29 to zero percent. This does not mean, of course, that forces (necessarily) provide more or less (or better or worse) functionality in these areas, just that they have chosen very different strategies for combining or dividing local policing tasks, roles and remits, and have organised their workforce accordingly. 

The same data sets indicate the frequency and nature of the changes made in each police force over time, which varies considerably. Since 2012, there have been more than 100 abrupt, year-on-year shifts in functional officer allocations within police forces, indicative of significant remodelling activity. About a half of these involved a large-scale shift of personnel between neighbourhood policing and response designations, with about equal numbers going in each direction. There have also been multiple examples of sizeable shifts in and out of these functions, to and from dedicated local investigation teams, as well as less frequent movements in and out of public protection specialisms. 

Each change represents a leadership decision to redesign the way the force conducts its local business. Each shift has its own set of imperatives, intentions and consequences. Notably, about a quarter of them appear to have been reversed within three years. 

These organisational design decisions, and their rationales and outcomes, form the subject of a new Police Foundation research project. In it we will seek to:  

  • Describe and codify the variety of local police operating models being practised across England and Wales, explain why they have developed and explore the rationales behind them.  
  • Investigate what can be concluded about the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches. 
  • Look, in-depth, at the way policing models enable and constrain police practitioners working in the four functional areas.  
  • Explore what can be learned from the way local policing is organised in other countries. 
  • And finally, assess the suitability of different design options against future policing challenges, drawing on the analysis presented in our Strategic Review of Policing in England and Wales. 

We have already started the work and published an introductory paper setting out more details of the workforce data analysis described above and reflecting on initial conversations with senior system-level stakeholders. There is also a supplementary slide pack showing how each force local policing model has developed over time and comparing its current configuration against others. 

In the next phase we want to hear directly from police forces about their histories of change and continuity, the rationales and imperatives behind various phases of redesign; about what has been learned, and what is coming next. 

We invite those interested in sharing thoughts or reflections to contact us at