I was very privileged from early on my career to have had the experience of working in the Metropolitan Police Service for nearly 9 years as a principal researcher. Whilst I was there I was involved in many fascinating research projects but the one that I will be focusing on here predominantly is a piece of survey analysis that was conducted in conjunction with researchers from the LSE on the drivers of public confidence in the police.
Public confidence for an organisation which functions through having the consent of the public is critical. There is a large body of evidence that shows that an outcome of the public having confidence and trust in the police is that they are more likely to obey the law, believe that the police are legitimate, to offer information to the police and be satisfied with any encounters that they have with officers.
A lot has been written over the last few weeks about threats to public confidence. Perhaps the most recent voice came from the Police Federation chair in Devon and Cornwall who raised his concerns about the public not believing the figures on crime levels and trust taking a ‘downturn’ as a result of low visibility on the streets.
I noticed that this article was circulated on twitter by many individuals interested in the police and the findings of the MPS research came to my mind immediately. The research in London based on analysis of the Public Attitude Survey found that public confidence in the police was not directly related to crime. It related to good engagement (listening and responding to concerns of the public), knowledge that the police were dealing with local issues that matter to them (mainly disorder), fair treatment (feeling officers are respectful and helpful), and effectiveness (to policing public events, responding to calls and being visible).
Reading back over these research findings and about the areas where service may be declining it is not surprising that at all levels of the organisation there are concerns about the potential decline to public confidence as a result.
Alongside this analysis the MPS also reviewed the role of local information provision as a way of engaging with the public about local concerns. Clearly this information had to start with awareness of what those local concerns were so that officers could feed back to the community any information about what was being done to address them. In wards where locally designed newsletters were disseminated there was a significant positive effect on overall confidence and perceived police community engagement.
What is key as part of the model of public confidence in policing is the role of information and transparency and it is with this in mind that I commend the two campaigns by firstly by the Essex Police Federation and then the Met Police Federation last week. Whilst these important ‘cutshaveconsequences’ campaigns are not delivering very localised messages to communities about their local concerns about disorder what they are doing is setting realistic expectations for the public about the impact of government cuts on police work. They are honest, transparent and hard hitting.
Perhaps attempts to stop or defer reductions to public confidence in the police specifically was not a primary aim of these campaigns. But when you review the evidence about information provision and engagement in its wider sense there is strong evidential base for it’s worth. The research above shows that what the public really want is specific, localised information. The real threats of cutbacks to areas of community policing and the engagement and information provision this role of policing offers is very real and of significant concern to a decline in public confidence. The role of engagement with different communities especially at a time when the risk of terror attacks are high is very important to consider.
Therefore what these campaigns can do is honestly inform the public that visible reductions in their areas may well occur and that the type of engagement and service they may receive from the police may change.
The other perhaps unintended consequence of such campaigns relate to officers themselves and a sense that there is someone out their fighting their corner. I am not suggesting that the nature of officers’ perceptions about the support provided by the Federation and the deep seated issues with morale in the current climate will completely change as a result. However what this campaign has done is provide a voice for the many officers out there trying hard every day to deliver an effective service to the public. It presents an honest picture of what officers are going through on a daily basis.
Officers want to feel supported by their own organisation at a time when they generally feel let down by the extremity of the reforms. I hear from officers most days about their frustrations of not being able to spend time with victims of crime as they rush to the next call and as they read in the media (until the recent publication by the College of Policing) that demands on them are down.
These campaigns help create a realistic picture for the public about the impact. I have written before that there has been no strategic consideration about the damage of the cuts to services but these campaigns may at least offer some thoughtful and realistic depictions about services to raise awareness and help the public understand the effect they are having on officers and their work. I hope that we soon seen national coverage about these campaigns and more Federations following suit.