Putting the public at the heart of policing strategy
The Police Foundation has just (17 February 2020) published its first paper from its new major work developing a Strategic Review of Policing in England and Wales which examines public priorities for, attitudes towards and expectations of today’s police services.
Andy Higgins, the Foundations research director, summarises the main findings from its research in a blog post.
"First, the British public support the police. This was true in 1962 when a survey for Royal Commission on the Police allayed anxieties about “a decay in respect for properly constituted authority” and it broadly remains the case today. Our modern surveys however provide a more nuanced picture. They tell us; first, that confidence and trust in is not consistently distributed across the population (specific ethnic minority populations, in particular, experience policing less positively) and second, that overall public confidence has recently started to decline. Concerns about crime have risen-up the public agenda and service ratings (although resilient through much of austerity) have begun to slip. This appears to reflect a widespread sense of police ‘withdrawal’, not just from public space, but from routine investigation work, responding to calls for service and other aspects of public-facing police work.
Second, while it is easy, in an age of online threat, hidden harm and scarce resources, to dismiss the public cry for more visible policing as stale, anachronistic clamour, it is worth noting that it has some markedly current characteristics. The public have noticed a recent ‘turn for the worse’ in their local town centres, shopping precincts and other familiar public spaces. Empty shops, run-down high streets, street homelessness and public-place substance misuse make people feel less safe – particularly when they also hear media reports of an advancing knife crime ‘epidemic’. More officers on the streets may help to ‘take the edge off’ public security anxieties but addressing the underlying causes and amplifiers will require a broader set of investments and an (often locally) co-ordinated collegiate response.
Third, while (as the above illustrates) the public respond to crime and policing issues viscerally and instinctively, they are also adept at thinking rationally and universally, and embrace the opportunity to engage with prioritisation questions, not just as consumers of security, but as ‘citizen-policymakers’ as well. We should be careful therefore about assuming that the public’s priority choices necessarily default to local, visible, ‘low-level’ crime, nuisance and disorder concerns. When asked to rank policing issues people consistently feel that the police should focus on what is most harmful and what fits best with their preconceptions about what the police (rather than other agencies, communities or citizens) do – this results in a clear public direction for the police to focus on preventing and responding to serious and sexual violence and abuse.
Finally, our qualitative and deliberative research gives a clear indication that the public’s, rather ‘traditional’, views on the police function are more habitual than ideological. When given new contextual information about the realities of modern police demand, some time to consider it and an opportunity to discuss and debate with their peers, people often come up with new (sometimes radical) suggestions for delivering public safety and welfare services, they also tend to move towards consensus, recognise complexity, think about the longer-term and see the value in community involvement and engagement (in addition to local police visibility). Significantly, they also tend to become more supportive and sympathetic towards the police and the difficult choices and challenges now being faced."
The report provides ten key insights (summarised briefly below), that can help shape the Review’s thinking about the challenge the police face in maintaining public support while also meeting new threats.
1. There is bedrock of public support for the police:
Most people retain a positive opinion of the police service. This tends to increase as they learn more about the current challenges.
2. Support is not consistently distributed:
Trust and confidence in the police is markedly lower among some population groups. Black Caribbean people in particular experience policing less positively.
3. We may be at a ‘tipping point’:
Public views are changing; crime and policing have risen up the national agenda and ratings of local police are declining. This appears to reflect a widespread perception of police ‘withdrawal’ across multiple aspects of service.
4. 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 ‘deterioration’, concerns about knife crime and a lack of clarity on the current policing ‘offer’.
5. When asked to rank policing priorities, the public do not tend to focus on ‘low-level’ local crime and disorder:
Although people continue to ask for local order maintenance, when asked to choose between competing priorities, ‘low-level’ local issues tend be seen as less important.
6. The public are sensitive to harm and, when ranking priorities, emphasise the importance of police tackling serious and sexual violence and abuse:
In making choices about policing priorities, people tend to assess ‘harm’ and prioritise areas where it is perceived to be severe, direct and concentrated on ‘the person’. Reducing and responding to serious violence and sexual crimes are seen by the public as clear top priorities for today’s police service.
7. 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). These preconceptions are flexible however; when people understand more about the demands on modern policing, suggestions for new ways of delivering public safety often follow.
8. People want visible local policing, but when asked to choose, see neighbourhood policing as less important than other areas of police work:
In line with national surveys, our focus group respondents called for a greater local police presence but, (initially at least), attached less importance to other features of neighbourhood policing such as reassurance, engagement and community building; when asked to make trade-offs, neighbourhood policing tended to be seen as less important than other police functions. These views began to change however as the challenges of modern policing became better understood.
9. Procedural justice can reduce crime; strategic alignment between police and public priorities may also have positive benefits:
There is strong evidence that public perceptions of fair and respectful treatment by the police can influence compliance with the law, by generating a sense of ‘moral alignment’. Our focus group research suggested that similar processes might be activated by police demonstrating that they have ‘got their priorities right’. Austerity, and the narrative of ‘difficult choices’, have sensitised the public to the need to prioritise, and communicating the ‘wrong’ choices may be particularly costly in terms of public confidence.
10. 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.