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Police effectiveness in a changing world

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Action research by the Police Foundation found that reductions in funding and consequent re-structuring have resulted in a less effective, reactive approach.

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New challenges for local policing

Police effectiveness has never been more important. Austerity now means that value for money is key and proving ‘what works’ through evidence based policing is being taken much more seriously. Additionally, reducing long-term harm and demand for services is increasingly recognised as a practical solution to lowering costs. Alongside this is an ongoing debate about the role of the modern police force.

The police service is being affected by significant changes on multiple fronts. In addition to funding cuts, forces are adjusting to new forms of scrutiny and governance and a shift in focus from volume crime reduction towards managing threat, harm, risk and vulnerability.

Crime is also changing. Many forms of recorded crime are falling but with the internet, international mobility and globalised markets creating new opportunities for criminals, the police workload is becoming more complex.

While traditional forms of crime such as burglary have fallen consistently over the last two decades, lower volume but higher-harm forms of crime, including those previously ‘hidden’, have taken on increasing prominence. The child sexual exploitation scandals in Rotherham, Rochdale and other areas, exposed the way that property crime had been prioritised at the cost of less visible, but more significant harms against vulnerable groups.

Another challenge is that in some neighbourhoods increasingly transient citizens are more difficult to engage and less capable of dealing with problems as a community.

The first of five papers from the Police Foundation’s Police Effectiveness in a Changing World project Cutting crime in the 21st Century: Informed proactivity in the midst of social and organisational change explores the multi-dimensional aspects of change impacting on the police service. Published last month (18 July 2016), it asks key questions:

  • What are the implications of this multi-dimensional change for the delivery of effective local policing?
  • How might a better understanding of the local effects of social, economic and technological change improve the response to local crime problems?
  • On what does effective local policing depend and how can this be enabled? What are the barriers to achieving this?

The Police Foundation’s Director, Rick Muir introduces the research project in the video clip below:

The report

This is a particularly interesting report, because it is based on an Action Research approach of ‘learning by doing’. Between 2011 and 2015, the Police Foundation research team worked closely with the police and their community safety partners in two English towns – Luton and Slough – that had experienced the local impacts of global change particularly acutely. Using a problem-oriented Scanning, Analysis, Response and Assessment (or SARA) approach, they set out to identify persistent local crime problems, improve the way these were understood, develop and implement appropriate interventions, and assess both the outcomes of these and the challenges of doing so.

The focus throughout was on finding sustainable solutions and on learning lessons which could be applied to policing in other areas.


The fieldwork for this project took place at the same time as the onset of public sector austerity. Following a decade of police force budget increases, between 2010/11 and 2015/16, police services in England and Wales experienced a 25 per cent real terms cut in central government funding, while community safety and other public service police partners also suffered significant cuts.

The extent to which funding cuts impacted on the police capability to engage in informed proactivity differed markedly between the two towns. In Luton, acute demand and service pressure was an ever-present feature of local service delivery and substantially impacted on attempts to implement activies such as the Burglary Reduction Initiative.

Teams operating at minimum strength were increasingly vulnerable to sickness, abstraction or peak-leave periods, meaning that pre-planned activity was difficult to schedule, coordination efforts often suffered from non-attendance at meetings by managers carrying multiple portfolios, and morale and stress impacted on personal effectiveness.

In Slough, while the daily presence of high-risk crime and public safety issues left little spare capacity, it felt like a place where the police and their partners broadly took change in their stride, showed resilience, and sustained effective partnership relations.


The capacity of local policing to operate in the proactive, locally-informed, problem-focused, joinedup and publicly-engaged way, best suited to
delivering effective crime reduction, is being impacted by simultaneous change on multiple fronts.

In a world in which the imperative to deliver outcomes is intensifying, and the focus is shifting to issues of harm that are less well understood, less overt and less likely to be police-only business, informed proactivity is more important than ever and is a working style to which local police functions should aspire.

There are significant barriers to achieving this however. The Police Foundation project has shown that even ‘traditional’ crimes like burglary and violence are changing in nature. Social changes such as those to housing tenure are creating new vulnerabilities; the needs, motives and patterns of disadvantage that accompany crime problems – and particularly the array of services aligned to deal with these needs – are in flux, and the ‘natural’ capacity of communities to resist predation can be compromised by transience, heterogeneity and fear of crime.

Reductions in funding and the consequent re-structuring have resulted in a move away from the problem-oriented, proactive approach. The Foundation sounds a clear warning that:

Where reactive capability becomes the exclusive preoccupation, the systems, skill sets and mind sets needed to deliver effective, goal-oriented policing will wither; where neighbourhood engagement is neglected, requests for public cooperation including in efforts to reduce crime, will fall on stony ground; and where force-level priorities distract attention from local problems, the specific and focused responses shown to work best will be overlooked.

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