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Civil disorder is a confusing thing. Rumour and conflicting accounts abound. As the New Statesman’s legal correspondent writes, it is very hard to predict but that doesn’t stop people talking about it as though it were inevitable.

Civil disorder is a confusing thing. Rumour and conflicting accounts abound. As the New Statesman’s legal correspondent writes, it is very hard to predict but that doesn’t stop people talking about it as though it were inevitable.

There will be a lot written about various aspects of what was and is happening in London. One point to note concerns community engagement between the police and citizens.

Let us contrast two approaches that the police take to community engagement.

On the one hand we have the Safer Neighbourhood Teams; a dedicated team of police officers who are charged with policing a given neighbourhood. Their policing priorities are set by a panel which is made up of local residents (and maybe businesses, councillors and others) that meets on a regular basis.

On the other hand we have the police’s response to around 300 people marching on Tottenham police station on 6th August to demand “justice” for Mr Duggan. Although reports are hazy it appears that the 300 people (including community leaders and members of Mr Duggan’s family) waited peacefully outside the police station for several hours, but no one came to talk to them to answer their questions. Some claim that this sparked the civil disorder.

On the face of it, these two approaches could not be more different. The Safer Neighbourhood Teams are meant to listen to local residents and respond to their priorities above all else. The staff at Tottenham police station on 6th August clearly did not think it right to listen to these particular local residents or respond to their priorities.

However, the approaches actually reinforce each other. For many in the police the Safer Neighbourhood Teams are the police’s community engagement. The rest of the police do not have to do community engagement because that can be done by the Safer Neighbourhood Teams. There is a time and a place for community engagement and that is the regular meetings of the Safer Neighourhood panels. In effect, the Safer Neighbourhood Teams have created a legitimate space for community engagement and thereby de-legitimised other spaces as possible sights for community engagement.

For many in the police the Safer Neighbourhood Teams are the police’s community engagement. The rest of the police do not have to do community engagement because that can be done by the Safer Neighbourhood Teams

A police sergeant once explained to me that a group of residents had asked him to come to a public meeting about crime in the area. He refused to come and told them that they should come to his regular meetings instead.

Before we decide if this approach is right or wrong perhaps we need to pause and consider why the police, or any public service, would engage with the community at all in the first place. The Local Government Improvement and Development organisation nicely summarises the arguments on their website. They say that public services should engage with community in order to; empower those communities, to build trust between the services and the community and to promote better community relations (http://www.idea.gov.uk/idk/core/page.do?pageId=7816307#contents-1).

Perhaps readers will disagree but I would argue that an approach to community engagement that is based on the idea of citizens coming to public services, at a time and in a manner of that service’s choosing, risks achieving none of these objectives, and potentially worsening all three.

I am not for a second saying that the quality of the police’s community engagement activity was the principle or main cause of the civil disorder that took place in London over the weekend.

However, the model of community engagement that the police and other public services use, one that creates a few legitimate spaces for community engagement and de-legitimises others, does risk disempowering communities, eroding trust between services and the community and worsening community relations.

 

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