Whatever you think about the recent riots, one theme has emerged strongly. There is little connection between the police and local communities. This seems to apply just as strongly to ordinary people who were frustrated by the police’s initial lack of response as to the rioters themselves. Most members of the public only have contact with the police when they are reporting a crime, asking directions or being pulled over for speeding.
In theory, local people should have considerable, and increasing, influence on local policing priorities. Safer Neighbourhood Teams were established in 2004/5 with small dedicated units (typically one sergeant, two PCs and three PCSOs) to be permanently responsible for policing a small geographical area normally equivalent to a local authority ward. There is a broad consensus that SNTs have been successful both in tackling local issues of crime and antisocial behaviour and in being a more visible police presence locally.
However, in many areas the police have struggled to involve local people in setting policing priorities. SNTs hold regular open meetings to consult with members of the local community. Turnout often consists of 6-8 local people, often the same individuals every month. My experience of these meetings is that at least two of these individuals will be ‘single issue advocates’ and go on, at length, about the evils of dog mess or cycling on the pavement. The reality is that most local people don’t get involved with the police unless they are a victim of crime.
I recently completed the evaluation of a very interesting pilot scheme which addressed this issue with some success. The virtual ward panel pilot was hosted by Westminster City Council and ended up being piloted in six London boroughs and four other police services. An innovative approach was developed which involved sending residents a link by email to a survey asking them to prioritise their concerns about local crime issues. Results were automatically collated by the survey software and were presented to real-world panels where they influenced local policing decisions.
1086 members of the public responded to a total of 49 surveys. On average, SNTs were getting the views of 3 to 4 times more local people than attended their regular meetings. There were three critical elements that accounted for this success. Firstly, the surveys were designed to be incredibly quick to do (59% completed them in less than 2 minutes) and because they were electronic they could be done in downtime when at a computer or on a smartphone while waiting for a bus or train. Secondly, the surveys asked clear, direct questions about live local concerns. Typically crime surveys had asked whether people were more concerned about drugs, burglaries, car theft etc. The virtual surveys asked local residents to indicate the level of concern about: “street prostitution on Orchard Lane” or “garage and shed burglaries in Green Street”. Finally, where SNTs bought into the approach (which happened in about 70% pilot areas) they found that the whole process of administering a virtual survey could be done in about an hour by one person. Compare that to the amount of work required to try to generate a poorly-attended street meeting which often involves three PCSOs knocking on doors for half a day. Given the cuts in the national policing budget, it was perhaps no surprise that virtual ward panels received such a warm reception.
There was a wide range of positive feedback from SNTs and members of the public. One of the things local sergeants liked most about the virtual surveys was that when they attended their regular ward panel meetings they were able to bring the views of those consulted online and move the debate on, away from dog mess and cycling on the pavements to issues of more general concern. Members of the public were also very positive about the scheme and were happy to continue participating – provided that there were no more than three or four surveys per year. As well as ranking local policing issues, survey respondents were given a “Twitter box” – a space for them to raise their own concerns in 140 characters or less. Encouragingly, just under half of people did just that, providing police with information on a wide range of local issues.
Where police and members of the public agreed was that although virtual consultation was a great addition to the police-community dialogue, it could only ever be one component of that interaction and should not replace face-to-face conversations.
The pilot has now ended but a number of police areas (including the Met and Hertfordshire) are in the process of rolling out virtual surveys or integrating them within their existing digital engagement work.
Whilst virtual surveys are unlikely to prevent future riots, it is clear that closer engagement between the police and local people is critical and that digital engagement is inevitably going to be part of this process. A number of different police areas are experimenting with digital approaches with perhaps the best-known being Greater Manchester’s “Twitter day”. Given all the debate about the role of social media in organising the riots, it is heartening to realise that the same technology can also play a key role in improving the future of police-community relations.
If you’re interested in the virtual Ward panel pilot, you can read a summary here or get in touch with me direct to get the full report.
The project coordinator, James Caplin, and myself remain involved in helping a number of police services take this forward.