Between 2005 and 2008, following a successful pilot, the New Labour government rolled out a patchwork quilt of more than 3,500 local ‘neighbourhood’ policing teams across England and Wales.
The 30,000 police officers and PCSOs who worked in them weren’t there to answer 999 calls or investigate crime; their job was to provide a familiar presence on the streets, to engage with local people, find out their concerns and to resolve local issues in tailored and creative ways – a process sometimes called ‘problem solving’.
Their focus tended to be on the highly visible issues, like anti-social behaviour, that, while not as serious as some other types of crimes, had a big impact on people’s quality of life and sense of security.
A lot has changed in the last decade. Police forces have seen significant reductions to their budgets, and while crime has generally fallen, the demands on the police, including investigating more serious complex crimes like rape, and responding to emergency ‘welfare’ calls, have intensified.
Priorities have also shifted; the police and other agencies have become increasingly aware of the less-visible abuse and harm that occurs ‘behind closed doors’ or online, and are doing more work to protect vulnerable people.
Arguably, ‘low level’ public-space issues such as anti-social behaviour have received less attention as a result. Finally, the way policing is run has changed; whereas the Home Office used to play a major role in deciding how policing was done, far more control is now given to police forces and their elected Police and Crime Commissioners to adapt to local circumstances.
This combination of factors has had a massive impact on neighbourhood policing. Faced with fewer resources and multiple competing demands, police forces have remodelled and experimented with new ways of organising services – but in doing so they have tended to prioritise emergency response, investigating serious crime and protecting vulnerable people.
The reality is that many neighbourhood police officers (and PCSOs) are routinely pulled away from community-based work, aimed at stopping crime before it happens, to deal with it when it does.
So what needs to change? It is clear (and easy to say) that neighbourhood policing needs more funding, but police forces also need clear principles, rooted in evidence, that define what neighbourhood policing is, how it can best be delivered and what role it should play.
The first principle should be universal access. Communities need to be able to engage in open dialogue with the police and the other agencies that have a role in improving safety and quality of life – but this cannot be achieved through the patchwork of local teams we saw at the start of the century. We need new communication channels and forms of public engagement.
Next, the police service has committed to being more preventative and less reactive; but it needs to organise itself in a way designed to deliver this, not just respond to calls.
One fundamental ingredient of prevention is embedded local knowledge.
The police need to be in communities to understand how they work, what the risks to safety are (whether in public or ‘hidden’), and who in the community can help change things. Developing this connection might involve some visible patrolling, but more likely it will mean engaging with local people and winning their trust, liaising with professionals in other agencies and using data and intelligence to produce a deep and detailed understanding.
To do this properly, neighbourhood police officers and PCSOs need this to be their main focus. If they spend most of their time responding to incidents, investigating routine crimes or doing ‘casework’, this knowledge base and the relationships on which it is based, will not flourish.
But someone needs to do this other important police work, and there are just not enough people to go round, which means prioritising embedded neighbourhood policing to those areas where the problems are most acute. Do it properly where it is most needed rather than stretching it so thin it becomes ineffective everywhere.
Finally we need to get a grip on the language. ‘Neighbourhood policing’ needs to mean something, and forces need to give their teams and staff job titles that tell the public what they spend their time doing.
If traffic officers were busy investigating murders, or police dog handlers were tracking down terrorists, we would know something was wrong.
Neighbourhood police needs to be local, engaged, problem-oriented and preventative – if it’s not that, then we should call it something else.
Andy Higgins is research director of the Police Foundation.