When I was asked some time ago to speak to senior police officers and other policing experts about public involvement, I didn’t see any reason to say ‘no’. The fact that the talk was in Windsor early on a Sunday morning was something of a deterrent, but it’s my job to raise the Society’s profile even if it means unsocial hours.
It’s only when, a couple of days ago, I looked properly at the programme that I wondered what I had let myself in for. For a start the Sunday morning session is the last one in a weekend conference which features a ‘pay bar’ and slap up dinner on the Saturday night. So everyone is likely to be a bit bleary and looking forward to getting home. More worryingly for me, the conference features a really impressive line–up of speakers, all of whom know a great deal about public engagement in policing (unlike yours truly).
Then there is the title of my session; ‘how will the public respond to changes in policing?’. I don’t really understand the question, let alone know the answer. At the moment I am planning to make the following points:
Public engagement with the police is complex. There is a hierarchy of involvement going from general awareness and support through fuller engagement to participation (for example in victim’s charities or restorative justice scheme). There are multiple publics and most of us look at policing from different angles at different times (our views of the police are quite different depending on whether we are a friend of the victim or a friend of the accused).
Public attitudes are idiosyncratic. In recent times, for example, opinion polls have simultaneously found higher than ever satisfaction ratings among those who use the NHS and a majority of the public saying the health service is in crisis. The kind of superficial opinions expressed in polls are heavily influenced by whatever is in the national press.
Third, as revealed in a survey undertaken last year by IPPR, the public's inclination to engage is moderate. About half those questioned were willing in principle to join neighbourhood watch or go to a local community meeting with the police and about one in five or ten when it comes to more concrete things like volunteering at the police station or being trained to intervene in anti-social behaviour. But in relation to engagement and volunteering, we know people's actions rarely match their intentions.
In general, we don’t think hard enough about why people choose to engage positively (as distinct from simply protesting against something like a police station closure). Depending on the ask, we can offer material rewards, status, training and skills, or a feel-good feeling of having done the right thing and made a difference. If we want people to get involved we have to think hard about the relationship between the ask and the incentives.
Having said which, the police has no alternative but to try to increase public engagement. Without it the police – like most other public services – will probably have to reduce the service level they have been able to offer in the past.
Unless my wonderful readers have better ideas, I’ll have to hope this is enough.
I have at least got a bit of an anecdote. One of the ways the police have tried to increase engagement is through the police.uk website where people can see a map of crimes in their area. Having looked at it, I’m not quite sure how the information encourages anything but mild anxiety. One of the biggest categories on the site is ‘other crime’ which rather underlines that what we mean by a crime hotspot depends on what kind of crime is being committed.
I went for a run this afternoon in the hope I would get some big thoughts for Sunday's speech and as I ran over Westminster Bridge I noticed the following: two ice cream vans parked and operating illegally on a red route and over the bus and cycle lanes, two people (with their gangs in attendance) trying to persuade gullible punters to bet in ‘find the lady’ scams and I’m pretty sure I smelled some ‘whacky baccy’ in the air.
That’s five crimes taking place simultaneously within a hundred metres of Parliament. The figures may be showing lower crime rates than for decades but the country is clearly going to the dogs. Where are the police when you need them? Oh yes, in Windsor.