Neighbourhood policing in times of austerity

A natural experiment

Earlier this month (9 February 2017), the Police Foundation published the fourth in a series of five papers on police effectiveness in a changing world. Entitled A natural experiment in neighbourhood policing, the paper (authored by Andy Higgins and Gavin Hales) starts by stating that neighbourhood policing is widely considered to be the bedrock of policing in England and Wales, yet as forces have responded to changing demand and shrinking budgets, the form in which it is delivered has diversified and in some cases become diluted and diminished.

The paper describes the impact of two starkly contrasting neighbourhood policing models on police effectiveness and argues for the on-going importance of a well informed and locally engaged, proactive, neighbourhood-level capability to tackle the new challenges and priorities confronting the police.

Defining neighbourhood policing

The Police Foundation says that neighbourhood policing is not easy to define. Differences in the contexts, emphases and techniques used in its various versions, along with the range of other strategies with which it has been combined, mean that its essential characteristics are difficult to distill. Nevertheless, there are five generally accepted dimensions:

  1. Decentralisation of responsibility (from central headquarters to local officers and the communities they serve).
  2. Partnership working (between local officers, other agencies and local people).
  3. Community engagement (in setting priorities and identifying and delivering solutions).
  4. Proactive problem-solving (instead of responding to crime once it has happened).
  5. A shift in organisational philosophy (to give the community level priority within police structures and decision making).

Despite definitional problems, there’s a general understanding of the main  activities that a Police Community Support Officer (PCSO) would be involved in when working in a neighbourhood role:

Such an officer is likely to be assigned to a small geographic area, ideally for a meaningful period of time, and would make it their business to be seen out and about, on foot and at public events, to get to know local people and become an approachable and trusted presence within the community.

Rather than being assigned to provide speedy assistance when someone calls 999, or investigate crimes that have already happened (although some neighbourhood officers may do some aspects of this work), neighbourhood officers are more likely to spend time building a picture of what is going on ‘on their patch’, understanding the issues and problems that really affect people’s lives and working on practical ways to make things better.

An important part of their job is to listen to local concerns, both informally and at public meetings, and come to an agreement with the community about the local issues that are most important. They would then engage with other parts of the police, as well as local contacts in other agencies and members of the public, to tackle these problems in ways the community supports and can even participate in.

By working in this way, over time, local people may come to see the police (as a whole) in a more positive light, which might have a range of benefits including greater public willingness to report crime, pass on useful information, obey the law and maintain acceptable standards of behaviour. In addition, because local people trust them and because they can easily spot what’s out of place, neighbourhood officers are in a good position to identify potentially important information which they can pass on to other specialist parts of the police, who can then intervene to prevent harm or detect serious crimes.

Two models

The paper examined two models of neighbourhood policing. It found that the Slough Violence Multi-Agency Panel (VMAP) which took a person-centred approach to individuals who repeated came to notice as victims of (often ‘low-level’) violence, violent offenders, or both, enabled effective neighbourhood policing.

By contrast, their examination of the Luton Burglary Reduction Initiative found that the informed proactive approach on which the project relied became impracticable when the investment in neighbourhood policy was cut due to reductions in funding.

Conclusions

The Police Foundation paper comes to four main conclusions:

  1. Local policing needs to be structured in such a way as to allow meaningful resources to be directed at non-immediate goals, which if achieved should result in a reduction in demand on immediate, reactive resources. At its most basic, this involves ring-fencing officers and staff (or some part of their time) for proactive work, but it also involves embedding a more preventative mind-set and developing tasking and monitoring processes that mean non-time critical tasks do not get forgotten. It also means equipping staff with problem solving and project management skills and carving out the space in which they might use them.
  2. Proactive policing efforts need to be informed by local knowledge derived from effective use of the information held in police systems, from individuals in and data held by partner organisations, and from working closely with local people. Obtaining and interpreting this information requires strong relationships as well as analytical skills and capacity.
  3. To be effective, including in practical efforts to reduce crime, local police must have an underlying bedrock of engagement and consistent personal connection with people living in the places where they work. Whether it is by paying attention to crime prevention advice, being willing to invite officers into homes to assess security, working with officers to address personal risks or behaviour, providing intelligence or listening and starting a dialogue when things get tense, local populations hold a crucial key for unlocking police effectiveness. They will only allow it to turn if there are trusted officers, embedded in communities, who stand as guarantors that this will lead to impactful, appropriate and legitimate action.
  4. Building useful local knowledge and engaging and involving local people in making places safer, is particularly challenging in changing and churning communities such as those encountered in this project. As neighbourhoods and their populations become increasingly varied and diverse, it becomes more important to consider both the relative level of resourcing and the style of policing most appropriate to each setting.

It is clear that the cuts imposed in the years of austerity have substantially diminished the effectiveness of neighbourhood policing in many areas.

You can hear a description of the project via the Soundcloud audio below:

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