In the face of budget cuts police forces are focussed on trying to be smarter in the use of fewer resources. A number of academic and practitioner commentators have expressed concerns that forces could react to this situation by retrenching to core reactive functions that are unlikely to meet the challenges of current demand for service let alone reduce demand. However, combined with growing scepticism amongst senior and frontline officers about the unintended consequences of performance regimes as a means of improving effectiveness, there seems to be a real appetite amongst some forces to draw on ‘evidence-based’ approaches to effective crime reduction. Nevertheless ensuring research is used in practice presents considerable challenges both for researchers wishing to work with police and community safety practitioners and for officers, however well-disposed to using it.
For officers the prospect of exploring more evidence-based practice by wading through a huge, and sometimes seemingly contradictory, body of research can be off-putting and too time-consuming. It also takes some specialist knowledge of methods and statistics to understand and interpret it, which many officers do not have, and may not be wholeheartedly interested in acquiring. Even then, turning such knowledge into operational practice, ensuring that it is adapted to and appropriate for local conditions, and convincing fellow officers and community safety partners that it could improve on what they already do are all potential barriers that have to be overcome. These are perennial barriers to the effective use of research in practice, but the potential benefits of successful partnerships between researchers and practitioners are clear.
The Police Foundation is currently undertaking a project on ‘Police Effectiveness in a Changing World’ which is attempting to use an action-research approach to directly shape practice: to use research evidence to help develop locally-tailored, innovative approaches to crime reduction. It is working closely with Thames Valley and Bedfordshire Police and their community safety partners in two rapidly changing towns, Luton and Slough.
As part of the background for this project, the Foundation has recently published a review of the evidence on policing and crime reduction that aims to provide a useful summary of the state of current knowledge. The project has a theoretically-informed interest in the challenges presented for a police service developed in nineteenth century industrial conditions, in adapting to post-industrial twentieth century conditions. The report, Policing and Crime Reduction: The Evidence and its Implications for Practice, therefore broadly outlines what we know from research on police effectiveness and crime reduction before highlighting some of the challenges presented by a rapidly changing, globally connected social and technological context for policing. It begins to explore how current knowledge might be used in meeting these challenges, which go well beyond the budget cuts and have long term implications.
These post-industrial or post-modern conditions will be familiar to academic researchers and are recognisable in practical terms for most officers working in the globally connected, ethnically diverse, rapidly growing and youthful towns of Slough and Luton. For officers it is apparent that with more mobility and migration, people, including offenders, move around more and can organise their lives and their activities over long distances with people they hardly know. Places increasingly house people who may relate to their workplace or social network more than their area, or may have transient populations moving frequently. Both can make engaging with and maintaining good relations and channels of information with place-based ‘communities’ difficult. Local crime, and the policing of it, may be as driven by the global market for scrap metal or gold, as local markets for consumer goods. This places considerable pressures on policing to work across borders and stay ahead of, or at least keep abreast of, the operations of crime networks and the advances in new technology, while trying to meet local demands for tackling crime and providing reassurance.
Whether the existing twentieth century model of policing – based on street-level knowledge of local offenders and communities – is capable of meeting the challenges posed by these twenty-first century conditions is, as Peter Manning, Jean-Paul Brodeur and Rob Reiner and others have speculated, open to question. This report therefore attempts to sum up broadly what we know about effective policing for crime reduction and offers some suggestions for how that knowledge could be integrated into current practice or could inspire further research in order to better adjust policing and crime reduction practice to this changing context.
Broadly the report highlights the strength of evidence from research on policing and crime reduction around the measurable effects of targeting resources on small vulnerable locations (hotspots), or on victims and/or offenders, which is demonstrably more effective than random police patrol or reactive approaches. This is not news to most officers and has a clear operational logic in terms of the effective use of resources. But the report also demonstrates the evidence that some initiatives have larger and/or more enduring effects than others, depending on what kind of resources and tactics are deployed. Although there is evidence to show that targeted police patrol, for example, has a small effect on crime rates, the effects are unlikely to last long. Unsurprisingly, the most effective and lasting approaches come broadly under the heading of ‘problem-solving’, particularly when they take full account of community concerns and the history and sensitivities around policing in an area, use multiple resources through partnership and where decisions are based on a careful analysis of local problems.
Most of this research will be familiar to police researchers but what does this mean for officers attempting to use evidence-based approaches in a way that helps them adapt to changing social, economic and technological conditions? The report makes a number of suggestions which cannot be explored here in depth but include: the need to ensure that community engagement is not considered a separate activity from the police day job but instead recognises the impact of everyday police encounters on people’s (including victims / offenders – often the same people) willingness to comply with the law; that partnership working might be focused to bring together multiple resources to build community resilience and engage with residents in targeted ways, in the most vulnerable micro-hotspot areas; that problem-solving and intelligence gathering skills amongst frontline officers are improved; and that improvements to data analysis and intelligence systems enable a more preventative multi-agency approach to crime reduction.
While the report does not offer a practical guide as such, it attempts to highlight the key areas of policing and crime reduction on which officers, and researchers, could usefully focus activity to build knowledge around effective policing and crime reduction that could potentially explore how police and community safety partners could successfully adapt to the changing and challenging times they face.
Dr Jacqui Karn is Senior Research and Development Officer at The Police Foundation. Email firstname.lastname@example.org