Crime Prevention – plasters or LT thinking?

A slightly shorter version of this piece appeared in the Police Oracle earlier this week…

As a criminologist / researcher who spent eleven years in the Metropolitan Police Service trying to embed evidence into operational practice, I do not need convincing about the importance of a collaboration between the police and the academy to facilitate organisational learning and change. There is a plethora of debates to be had about this area but here, in my first piece, I would like to focus on an aspect of the ‘what works’ agenda and the role of the police in reducing crime.

A historical overview of whose responsibility it is for crime prevention is not possible in this short piece. However the 1829 Metropolitan Police Act stressed the role of crime prevention heavily to new recruits. Indeed prevention, it quoted, has greater impact on the security of the public than the detention and punishment of offenders.

Whether this was simply rhetoric and a justification for the establishment of the police by the state has been questioned by a number of police academics over history, however the complexity of measuring crime prevention quickly became clear. In 1856 forces became funded on levels of detections and clear up rates – these measures acted as evidence for efficient practice and given the economic aspect also for ‘value for money’.

From the 1960s to the current day there has been a re-emergence of the police role in prevention. This has at many times paralleled with a political drive to appeal to popular punitivism which portrays the main job of officers as crime fighters and catching criminals. The messages to officers over the years have been conflicting. The message from the government, particularly in the 1980s, was that the police need to work in partnership with other agencies and the community to prevent crime. However this was contradicted by the growing emphasis of new public management regimes, performance targets and a drive for an increase in detections as quantifiable evidence of effectiveness.

My point here is that the presence of measurable targets can significantly narrow the police role into that which is measurable and therefore they fail to effectively represent the breadth of what the police do on a daily basis. It is a rarity in my experience that officers who are particularly talented in partnership working, dealing with victims of crime, analysing data to define problems and subsequently proactively work on problem solving, longer term solutions are recognised or even praised for their efforts. If the central message is that ‘good’, ‘value for money’ police work is about hitting a set of narrowly defined targets then surely that is what officers and the public consider as effective and efficient work.

I was encouraged this week to see a list of research questions arising from the College of Policing’s Local Policing Programme which includes questions about improving victim satisfaction, community engagement, improving community efficacy, more effectively dealing with calls relating to mental health and a number of other areas that capture the breadth of what the police do. To develop a body of knowledge that helps with an understanding of ‘what works’ in these more complex areas of police work is imperative. However without a message and subsequent plan to ensure that these areas are considered important and valued aspects of the police role what chance is there that both time and effective resources will be given to these elements of policing.

Everywhere we look, in the national media, on social media and by following the excellent work of local police forces and their drive to show the public the reality of what is happening to the police (such as the cuts have consequences campaigns) it is clear that as the demand grows and arguably becomes more complex, resources are reducing. Local neighbourhood policing teams are getting smaller, there is constant reference to fire brigade policing, officer burn out, high levels of sickness and a lack of morale that impacts on organisational advocacy and potentially productivity.

So how does this relate to the ‘what works’ agenda? ‘What works’ has been described by some as the provision of sticking plasters to the longer term social welfare issues that impact on crime in the longer term. Dealing with the symptoms of wider issues of criminality in the current climate of austerity and cuts to all agencies involved in social care and potential future criminality, maybe all that is realistically possible. There is surely enough evidence, both anecdotal and research based that shows that cuts to mental health services, youth services and other areas of social care are increasing the demand on the police in a number of areas. Therefore some situational based methods utilised to reduce / prevent crime arguably provide short term sticking plaster solutions to these complex and worsening problems.

What we do know is that the longer term issues that really need consideration for a more proactive, joined up, partnership approach are certainly a: not what current performance management methods consider as effective police work and b: unlikely to be addressed in a climate of reactive short termism where many officers are simply concerned about the risk of letting balls drop as they race from one call to another.

Without a real understanding of what is needed internally to help facilitate a move from a crime prevention / reduction rhetoric to a real paradigm shift in what is considered important my concern is that the sticking plaster approach will leak to an even greater extent than it is now. Furthermore the blame placed on the police for not controlling certain aspects of criminal and anti-social behaviour will increase and the ability of the police to effectively engage with the community will fail.

I wonder what the government support for embedding findings from the ‘what works’ research being commissioned would be if they provided robust evidence that its current ideological cuts are the key issue in need of change. If they evidenced that cuts impact on the most vulnerable, influence the ill health of police officers and other public sector workers, impact on retention and cause social problems that will surely only increase the pressure on these services in the longer term for example. If research essentially proved that ‘what works’ in the increase of crime is the severity of the current government cuts I suspect these findings would not be so publically available.

Emma Williams

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