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Are you telling or listening to your community?

by Dr Andrew Fisher and Susan Ritchie

The last few weeks have seen some very troubling headlines for the police which raises questions about their legitimacy and the confidence that the public have in their ability to keep them safe.  Despite much work being done to address the ‘confidence’ issue over the years, we know that there is more crime taking place than police can realistically respond to, and that communities are becoming increasingly reluctant to report.

Our social norms and acceptance levels relating to ‘criminality’ are changing and communities often feel misunderstood.   The necessity to engage effectively with the communities they serve is more important now than ever before, yet 34 years ago John Alderson (former Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall Police) warned:

“If the police cannot relate [to communities], save as an occupying force, the potential for misunderstanding and lack of cooperation is considerable and this can turn to hostility.”
(Policing Freedom, 1979)

But we can go further back than that – to the founding father of the modern police service, Sir Robert Peel.   As the Peelian Principles state:

“Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent upon every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”

It has been well documented that the link between the police and the public has been lost in recent years as police have focused on performance targets and reputational issues, rather than closing the gap which was emerging between the police and the public.   Too often the police think about community engagement as an opportunity to pass on, or request, information, which is the very basic element of Sherry Arnstein’s well-known Ladder of Participation (1969, A Ladder of Citizen Participation).  Rather than ‘engaging’ and understanding and listening to the community their activity tends to be focused on ‘telling’.   Communication is of course, an important part of the police working with communities but engaging communities effectively has the potential to solve the ‘wicked’ and seemingly intractable problems that they grapple with on a daily basis.

Over the years organisations have become preoccupied with definitions – engagement, involvement, consultation, participation etc., but to solve the problems that they are facing they need to engage in a:

“dynamic process of dialogue between individuals or groups, based upon a genuineexchange of views, with the objective of influencing decisions, policies or programmes of action…”

(The Consultation Institute)

What’s interesting is that this quote defines consultation – a term which has become trivialised and almost passé in the language of public sector engagement.  The obsession with terminology and language has missed the point.  What the police and their partners should be doing is focusing on the key words in definition above – dynamic, dialogue, genuine, influence.  Telling the public they are safe and shouldn’t feel unsafe (the old debate about reality and perceptions of crime levels) is not engagement.  Telling the public that they should come forward with information is not engagement.  Telling the public about the range of services they might access is not engagement.  Telling them to protect their property is not engagement.  Telling them that crime is down is not engagement if we focus on those four key words.

The key issue is the engaging of views with the objective of LISTENING AND INFLUENCING.  How often do the police actually enable communities to have a voice and influence police activity?

As a former police Superintendent Andrew had strategic responsibility for neighbourhood policing, confidence, satisfaction and diversity.  He was convinced that all of the events, meetings and ceremonies that developed were ‘community engagement.’  On reflection, and as a result of the work that MutualGain has been conducting in Manchester, he can see that they were more akin to community communication.

The trigger that shifted his thinking was the ‘what next?’ question.   The police arrange a meeting and ‘tell’ people what they are doing, but rarely ‘genuinely’ ask about their experiences and perceptions, and neither do they work with them to understand their behaviours outside of a police perspective.    The ‘what happens next?’ question is the challenge for police forces everywhere.  By telling people to behave differently or by telling them that the police are doing a great job we somehow think they will believe us and change their behaviours and perceptions accordingly.   This is where the confusion for the police arises.  The reality is that people cope with life in various ways and the influence that police have on their lives is often miniscule (unless a crisis emerges).

The police need to converse differently using alternative methods of engagement and start to build a new and different relationship with those who we serve.  In short, they need a paradigm shift. How are they to understand the changing social norms of the public they serve if they don’t start to listen better?