The public want the police to be more visible and to focus on core tasks, according to new research

The public are concerned that the police have withdrawn from visible local policing, particularly in town centres, according to a new report by the Police Foundation think tank. The report finds that the public want the police to focus on tackling sexual and violent crime rather than being stretched into covering the work of other agencies.

The research is based on an analysis of public opinion surveys and 28 focus groups undertaken in seven different police force areas. The Police Foundation found that when the public are asked to choose between competing priorities for the police, they consistently prioritise tackling areas such as sexual and violent crime, organised crime and terrorism, which are seen as causing serious harm and as core police business. The public tend to deprioritise areas such as dealing with anti social behaviour and illegal parking, which are seen as less harmful. They also give less priority to activities such as dealing with mental health crises and welfare concerns, which they think should mainly be dealt with by other agencies.

The report has been prepared to inform the work of the Strategic Review of Policing in England and Wales, a major independent enquiry into the future of policing, which is hosted by the Police Foundation and chaired by Sir Michael Barber. Commenting on the report, Sir Michael Barber said: ‘This new research shows that there is a strong bedrock of support for the police but there are also high expectations which are not, currently, being met. The public feel that the police have withdrawn from the street as resources have become more stretched. It is good that the government has begun to address this problem with the commitment to 20,000 extra police officers. More positively, we found that the more fully citizens are engaged in discussion about crime, the challenges facing police and the need to prioritise, the stronger their understanding of, and respect for, the police becomes.’

Drawing on a number of recent surveys and the Police Foundations own qualitative research, the report concludes:

• Most people retain a positive opinion of the police service. 5 times as many people said their local force had a good reputation than reported a negative one, twice as many people said they would speak highly of their local police than would be critical and nearly 9 in 10 people said they had a favourable opinion of the police as an institution.

• Trust and confidence in the police is markedly lower among some population groups. Black and mixed ethnicity groups are at least five percentage points less likely to agree that local police would treat them fairly, with respect and that they could be trusted. They also trail white people by six and eight percentage points (respectively) on overall public confidence in the police.

• Crime and policing have risen up the national agenda and ratings of local police are declining. In the last year public ratings for police understanding and acting on local concerns, being reliable, treating people fairly and of confidence in local police all declined. This appears to reflect a widespread perception of police ‘withdrawal’ across multiple aspects of service. In 2019 just 16% of the public said they saw a police foot patrol once a week, compared to 39% in 2010.

• The public want more visible policing and there are some specific reasons for this at the current time. Our qualitative research suggests the current call for greater police presence is linked to a widespread sense of local town centre deterioration and concerns about knife crime.

• When asked to rank policing priorities, the public do not tend to prioritise ‘low-level’ local crime and disorder issues. In the focus groups the public’s top priorities were tackling sexual crime, violent crime, investigating serious crime, responding quickly to calls for help, tackling terrorism and taking action on organised crime.

• The public have a ‘traditional’ view of the police role. People’s priority decisions also draw on assumptions about what the police (relative to other agencies and actors) do and should do. Traditional ideas about police remit are in tension with the current trend towards responding to acute welfare and safety demand (such as dealing with people in mental health crisis or other concerns for welfare).

• When people have more information and opportunities for deliberation, their priorities adjust and they become more positive towards the police. As people learn more about the police operating environment and discuss priorities with their peers they tend to move towards consensus, take on a longer term perspective, recognise complexity, see that they have a part to play themselves and view the police in a more positive light.

Commenting on the research the Director of the Police Foundation Rick Muir said:

‘While wanting a good ‘all round’ service from the police, when the public are asked to choose between different priorities they consistently prioritise tackling sexual and violent crime. They are concerned that as other public services have pulled back the police are increasingly be asked to do too many things that are not core police business, such as dealing with mental health crises or other welfare concerns. They are also concerned that the police have pulled back in recent years and want to see police officers visible on the street, particularly in town centres.’

Note for editors:

Published today, Policing And The Public: Understanding Public Priorities, Attitudes and Expectations is the first in a series of Insight Papers informing the Police Foundation’s Strategic Review of Policing in England and Wales. It focuses on the public’s perceptions of, and priorities for, today’s police service. The paper draws on two sources: first, representative surveys of public opinion, and second, the Police Foundation’s own recent, qualitative research, that sought to understand what lies behind the attitudes captured by opinion polls in greater depth. The paper aims to contribute to the Review’s thinking about the challenge the police face in maintaining public support.

Launched by the Police Foundation in September 2019, the Strategic Review of Policing in England and Wales sets out to examine how crime, fear of crime and other threats to public safety are changing and assess the ability of the police to meet these challenges, as part of a wider strategic response. This far-reaching independent review, the first of its kind in many years, is being chaired by Sir Michael Barber and guided by an Advisory Board of former senior police officers, politicians and leading academics.

The overall aim of the Review is to set the long-term strategic vision for English and Welsh policing. It will conclude in summer 2021 with a final report presenting substantial recommendations for a modern service capable of meeting the challenges of the 21st century.

More specifically, the Review will consider:

• What the police mission should be, looking in particular at the public’s expectations of the police.
• The capabilities and resources the police service needs to achieve this mission.
• The future police workforce, including the roles, responsibilities, skills and knowledge of police officers and staff.
• How the police service should be structured and held to account, locally, regionally and nationally.
• How the police service should work with other sectors to deal with complex social problems.
• How much funding the police service requires and how this should be allocated.

More information about the Review can be found at:

The Strategic Review of Policing in England and Wales is being generously funded by the Dawes Trust, Deloitte and CGI.