Twenty-first century blues: the way ahead for policing
Shrinking public trust, lower performance outcomes, increasingly complex operating environments, growing demand and technological challenges… There has never seem to be a time in recent history when policing was at such clear crossroads. In this piece, Police Foundation director Rick Muir uses his unique lens as a policing specialist, public policy researcher and former councillor to consider how we can seize this moment to develop fairer, more responsive and trusted policing institutions.
Policing is going through an acute crisis of public confidence. Barely a week passes without a slew of negative headlines about police officer misconduct, poor organisational performance or police tactics that are deemed either too soft or too hard depending on the perspective of the media outlet in question.
Looking beyond the direct triggers of scandal and controversy, we can identify deeper causes that explain the current malaise. At the core of the problem is the fact that the world has changed radically but policing has not kept up with the scale of that transformation. The technological revolution is transforming the nature of crime, with fraud and computer misuse now making up 60 per cent of all crime affecting adults in England and Wales. And yet the police have seemingly no convincing answer to borderless internet crime.
Society is changing in other ways too, with police response teams increasingly confronted with complex ‘non-crime’ problems, whether that be the rise in mental health crisis or the large numbers of children going missing from care homes. A decade of austerity has intensified these challenges, while also making it harder for the police and other public services to respond.
All of this has led to a deterioration in police performance outcomes. Response times are getting longer, detection rates have more than halved since 2014, court backlogs are making it harder to achieve results for victims, and public confidence in the police is in decline.
So, what is to be done? First, we need to recognise that the police on their own cannot deal with the range and complexity of the public safety challenges of the twenty first century.
Reducing crime sustainably requires a much broader set of activities than just using the criminal justice system to deal with problems after they’ve already happened. We need to do much more to prevent crime from happening in the first place.
Locally that means rethinking the way local public services are designed so that they are more joined up and can take early action to prevent harm. Nationally that means filling the strategic vacuum around how to prevent high volume internet crimes such as fraud and cybercrime. In our recent Strategic Review of Policing, we called for a new Crime Prevention Agency to focus on those cross border, often cyber enabled crimes, where national (and indeed international) action is required. This should be backed up by a general duty on business to prevent crime.
We also need to be much clearer about the role of the police within that wider system.
As the demands on them have changed the police have become increasingly uncertain about what the public and politicians expect of them. Are they about law enforcement or social work? Should they just react to crime or seek to prevent it? What role should they play in policing the internet, a borderless space into which they have limited reach?
We should start by recognising that the police have always been about much more than tackling crime. As the criminologist Egon Bittner argued what unites the different tasks we expect the police to perform, is the fact that in some situations only a professional with the exceptional powers the police possess can effectively manage threat, de-escalate risk and reduce harm. That does not mean the police are only about enforcement – in fact they should only ever use their powers as a last resort – but this focus on where the powers that make policing unique might be useful, and on what is required to maintain their effectiveness within a democratic society, at least helps put some boundaries around the police role.
A role framed in terms of their reactive powers does not mean the police cannot play an important role in the wider shift to prevention. They should adopt a preventative mindset as they go about their work. That does not mean the police doing the work of social workers, mental health professionals or youth workers. But it does mean police officers thinking systematically, when they attend incidents, about what they can do to stop the same things happening again and again. Would an arrest or charge make it more or less likely that a low-level crime will reoccur? Or would a diversion to the youth service, employment support or drug and alcohol services be more effective in the long run?
The recent decline in public confidence in the police must be addressed. A consent-based model of policing only works if the public can trust and have confidence in those who are given lawful coercive powers. Neighbourhood policing ought to be the bedrock of the system, rather than (as it too often is at present) a marginal and lower status component. The evidence is clear that public confidence in the police tends to go up when there is an investment in neighbourhood policing, and it tends to go down when this is cut back.
Restoring trust also means addressing the issues of conduct and culture that have bedevilled the service in recent years, particularly the Metropolitan Police. This means making it easier to get rid of bad police officers by reforming the misconduct process. It means cultivating strong and inspirational leaders at all levels who set the highest professional standards. The Police Foundation’s proposal for a Licence to Practice for police officers would also be a powerful tool for raising professional standards. Improving trust, particularly among Black communities, requires reform to stop and search, which should be used less and in accordance with long standing evidence around procedural justice.
Finally, the police service has an outdated organisational platform. Local policing is vital, but in a context where the majority of crime is now borderless and requires a specialist response, it looks odd to have 90 per cent of the resources held by local constabularies. Policing requires a much stronger regional tier to support local policing by delivering specialist capabilities and back-office functions more effectively and efficiently.
The police service needs a ‘Hamiltonian moment’, by which I mean a stronger strategic centre to set professional standards, deliver research and development, do workforce planning and host major national programmes in areas like IT and digital forensics. Local police forces should focus on delivering local policing well, while specialisms should be organised through stronger regional and national structures. Given the increased complexity of demand and the rise of cross border crime this shift is inevitable over time, but the current system has so far conspired to block reform.
When Peel founded the Metropolitan Police in 1829, he said the country was going through a period of profound change and had ‘outgrown her police institutions’. The old system of hue and cry and village constables that went back to the thirteenth century was no longer suitable in a rapidly urbanising industrial society. Peel’s answer was to create the world’s first professional police force. The extent of the changes we are living through today, in terms of technology, science, medicine and culture, and their impact on our society and environment, are as radical as the changes wrought by the industrial revolution. We need to be as imaginative, as creative, as radical as Peel was then in re-thinking our policing institutions, if they are to help keep us safe (and free) in the transformed conditions of the twenty first century.
 I refer here to the actions Alexander Hamilton took as George Washington’s Treasury Secretary to provide the early United States with a cohesive federal government.