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Modern Neighbourhood Policing – form or function?

Over the past few months I have shared a number of platforms with the College of Policing and the Police Foundation on the subject of Neighbourhood Policing. We agree on so much about the principles that underpin good neighbourhood policing, yet I would argue that ‘good’ cannot be achieved through function and structure alone. Effective, preventative, problem solving policing requires more than just the evidence of what works, it requires a philosophical understanding of what policing is about and how policing should be used to support communities in their quest for a better standard of life. In the words of Simon Sinek “It Starts With Why”.

In 2018, it can be strongly argued that the ‘mission of policing’ itself has changed; it is now clear that reducing crime and offending will only be successful when the underlying factors that both encourage and allow crime, including inequalities in health, education, and standards of living, are addressed.  The role of policing has shifted; added to enforcement, security and safety, is ensuring that its functions contribute to a collective effort to improve the lives of those adversely affected by crime and its conditions.  Policing is best delivered in partnership, integrated with those addressing the inequalities and working alongside those whose lives are the ones most affected by crime, inequality and vulnerability. Policing is adopting an even greater preventative focus and it’s no longer just about policing in partnership with communities, but developing genuine co-production of solutions.

HMICFRS, the College of Policing and Police Foundation are clear on the need for ‘proactive preventative local policing’ to be at the heart of this changing policing mission. Both the College of Policing recent guidelines and the Police Foundation principles are clear and in agreement on what is required.  This sought after proactive preventative policing must be based upon structures and models designed to deliver those activities most associated with preventing crime, harm and demand. The Police Foundation principles state that the key to a ‘deep understanding of the problems that underlie local risk..and (the key) to develop, implement and review creative, tailored interventions to impact upon them’ are embedded place based practitioners in ‘functionally distinct teams’. Whilst I concur with this basic principle, let us face some genuine truths about the viability of this suggestion.  A prescriptive reinforcement of dedicated Neighbourhood Policing teams as the only means to deliver on this mission of proactive preventative policing assumes a philosophical shift in policing culture and leadership that simply isn’t present across all forces.

The only way to successfully reduce crime, harm and demand and to sustain those reductions is to problem solve. Problem solving done with a good understanding of what causes and drives crime; problem solving using evidence-based solutions, and problem solving integrated with partners and with the public. It is the problem solving that is of paramount importance together with a strategic understanding of why we are problem solving not the structure or model that delivers that problem solving. Making problem solving the domain of dedicated ‘functionally distinct (Neighbourhood) teams’ will fail if the culture of policing is not addressed. Unless forces can reduce levels of crime, demand and vulnerability to a point where these distinct teams make up a high percentage of available resources, then a cultural paradigm shift in policing has to be tackled.

If this cultural shift is left unaddressed and say, for example 80% of available police resources are left ‘trapped’ or ‘selfselecting’ in a culture of reacting to demand, then the maths are very simple – the dedicated Neighbourhood Policing teams will never be able to get sufficient traction in problem solving or deliver sufficient reduction to make the difference required to address the concerns of communities, levels of crime and inequalities. But this problem is even greater than one of mathematics. As the College of Policing have stated, it is essential that a culture based upon procedural justice is promoted and delivered across all of policing.  Having policed Greater Manchester for over 30 years, I have seen how policing done without this cultural commitment to fairness and equality both undermines and destroys good neighbourhood policing.  No matter how dedicated, professional and committed these staff are within these functionally distinct teams, they will be incapable of delivering reductions through proactive preventative policing if the communities perceive their colleagues to be unfair and not to be trusted.

This brings this discussion to the key challenge of the relationship between policing and the public. The Police Foundation’s first principle is that ‘everyone should have access to, information about and an opportunity for dialogue with the police’. The College of Policing too places Engaging Communities at the top of their guidelines for neighbourhood policing. But engaging communities is not telling them what you are doing; it is not giving them information about what is happening.  Participatory engagement requires giving communities a stake, giving them interactive dialogue and a voice in determining both priorities and solutions. Participatory engagement brings policing and the public together, it increases the diversity of solutions, delivers more intelligence, but above all it helps build social capital which in itself will reduce crime and inequalities.  It is not just modern neighbourhood policing that has abandoned and  discredited functional public meetings, but very few forces have a strategic plan for how participatory engagement is to be introduced if at all. Introducing engagement requires leadership, an understanding of its importance as well as trained and equipped staff with the skills and knowledge to get the most from that engagement. Neighbourhood policing without community engagement is not neighbourhood policing no matter how modern the structure or model it is delivered in.

The Police Foundation raised this challenge recently when they said that without clarity about how priorities are set and a plan designed then the risk is that there is ‘too much top-down tasking and (a) slide back to reactivity’. Whilst I agree that there is much ground to be recovered and foundations to be laid with consistency, commitment and openness,  there is a need for the police service to find a way to ensure that that commitment is one delivered by all the force, that consistency is understood as the cornerstone of trust and fairness and that openness is finally allowing others to influence policing and stop ‘doing policing to people’. Without a clear commitment to change policing philosophy, and grow an organisation wide understanding of why policing has to change, then neighbourhood policing will remain distinct but lacking impact.  In too many places there will be a path of least resistance taken – modernising a small number of dedicated neighbourhood officers whilst allowing policing to carry on as before. This risks making no impact on crime, demand and vulnerability.

Encouraged by the College of Policing many forces are keen to develop their engagement practices and are committed to greater understanding and listening outcomes. The College of Policing has stated that the purpose of engagement should include building trust, being more responsive to people’s needs and encouraging communities to take greater responsibility. Without trust, without that responsiveness and without communities taking on more responsibility, then policing will remain overwhelmed by demand and primarily reactive in nature. Forces who focus on developing the interactional side of policing and sustain participative engagement will see the growth of high quality relationships and empowered local people identifying and then sharing responsibilities and opportunities to reduce the harm caused to them by crime. That is the paradigm shift required.

For those of you familiar with Simon Sinek and ‘Start With Why’ (if not please just search for Ted Talk and Start With Why) then you will understand that Simon would say that all forces know what they do and how they do it, but it is the truly outstanding forces that invest the time and attention to answer the question – why do we police? In 2018, policing links communities with public authorities in order to build better lives by reducing crime, harm and vulnerability and by tackling fairness and equality through problem solving, the rule of law and procedural justice.  Without understanding that policing is about building better lives and linking with communities then policing will remain something done to people and fail to be preventative.


Author: Garry Shewan QPM
Associate MutualGain