Finding the balance: falling police numbers

Originally published in August 2013

This blog follows a Twitter exchange with Kent and Dyfed Powys Police Federations in relation the comments yesterday about the reduction in police numbers. The two key comments were: Kent Police federation –

 ‘We are fast becoming a “response” service with an ever-shrinking capability for proactive policing.’

 And from Dyfed Powis Police federation –

 ‘Therefore with less 2 deploy less chance of being effective and increased chance of merely responding to incidents.’

My response was that that is an old cliché and the police have to think about other ways of policing. Let me explain my thoughts.

 It is well documented that when Peel and his first two Commissioners established a full time police service in 1829 he determined that the main role of the police would be to prevent crime. In fact he stated

 “It should be understood at the outset that the principle object to be attained is the prevention of crime. To this great end every effort of the police is to be directed…He [the Constable] will be civil and obliging to all people of every rank and class…” (Critchley, 1967: 52).

 Throughout the period since 1829 the style of policing has changed with an emphasis on reactive and proactive styles coming and going. In the 1970s new technology in the shape of radios and cars had a hugely detrimental affect on policing (Reiner, 2010) as the police services became more accessible and they became the service of ‘last resort’. People called the police as they knew they would almost always come.

 The 1980s saw the police go through a very rich period. Funding was constantly increased as were resources, yet crime rose and detections dropped (Garland, 2001: Hopkins Burke, 2004). It was inevitable that at some point there was going to be a very clear focus on police funding and performance. Cue New Public Management, targets, performance indicators, Sheehy, Posen, all seen by the police as an ‘attack’ on the service.

 Then in 2010 Home Secretary Theresa May addressed an ACPO audience in Manchester and stated:

“So let me begin by saying this: I’m not interested in running the police……So I’m not going to presume to tell you how to do your job any more than I would tell a surgeon how to operate – or an engineer how to build a bridge. Professional policing means policing run by you, the professionals, not us, the politicians.” (May, 2010: http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/media-centre/speeches/theresa-may-police-fed?version=1. Accessed 02.06.12)

There was an immediate outcry from policing that ‘we do more than that.’  But the vagaries of the UK police structure meant that this statement could have been interpreted 43 times by 43 Chief Constables. There were those who were aware that May’s statement gave them the opportunity to engage with communities as part of their crime reduction strategy. This is the comment from one Assistant Chief Constable (ACC) that I interviewed in 2010:

 “When she [Home Secretary] said that the main purpose was to reduce crime it doesn’t mean that we were there as crime fighters but what it means is that we have to look imaginatively about how we use our resources to be able to reduce the impact that crime has on our communities. And therefore while I may not sit here as a natural political ally of Theresa May, actually I find Theresa May’s comments to be helpful on the journey that [name of force] finds itself on.”

What this ACC (and others that I have spoken to) was referring to was the potential to engage with communities, increase levels of social capital and use the assets that exist within communities as part of the fight against crime. There is a significant amount of research that shows that increasing social capital reduces crime (see forthcoming ‘A functional shift: Building a new model of engagement’ Ritchie and Fisher (2014)  and ‘ Quo Vardis: A new direction for police leadership through community engagement?’ Fisher and Phillips(2014)), however, and here is the nub, the police do not get trained in how to engage with communities. By engage, I mean the use of the National Policing Improvement Agency’s (2012) definition. In fact I doubt that the majority of the police are aware of the NPIA paper.

 So, by ‘really’ engaging with communities (not football matches and fun days, or walking down the street and having a cup of tea – although all good things to do in their own right) and building social capital to empower communities by working with them, communities will start to take some level of responsibility for policing themselves. ‘Policing’ is referred to here as policing with a small ‘p’: where communities look out for each other in a positive way, and support each other to create new social norms. This may be low-level environmental issues such as addressing litter or graffiti, or more significantly ASB, Domestic Abuse etc., but these are the things that matter to communities and they are some of the ‘other things’ that the police often get charged with addressing. As networks grow and they see the positive outcomes of their activity, confidence and trust in policing grows and the demands on their services reduce. The community takes responsibility for some of those ‘we do other things’ and through their networks and with support they will start to build their social efficacy. Academics refer to the role of the police in this as ‘community leaders’ and ‘social diagnosticians’ they have a role, but their role diminishes as communities become empowered and confident.

 So, yes we do need police officers on the streets, but we need them to work and think differently. We need them to think about how they can access and use the assets that exist all around them to make their job easier and give them the space to reduce crime. The police need to invest in order to enable and give space for their own pro activity.

To make this happen two things need to be in place: visionary police leadership that is willing to try new ways of policing and a commitment to enable innovation to occur with communities. This is being tried and evaluated in at least two UK police forces at the moment. The results will prove interesting and may yet have an impact on how the police use their reducing resources in the future.

 The debate on Twitter started with the Kent Police federation stating: 

Policing is far more than just about reducing crime.’

I agree that it is, but that is what the Home Secretary has instructed the police to do, and as public servants that is what democracy requires them to do. But they have a choice as to how to do it. Using different ways of listening to the public will help the police to create new social norms whereby the citizens become the police and the police become the citizens. Now where have I heard that before?

Published by thebluelocust

Former police superintendent. Current university lecturer, police trainer and Director of Blue Locust Network Ltd

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