Engaging Communities – Time To Get It Right

The last few weeks can, at best, be described as ‘difficult’ for the police. Issues such as the Metropolitan Police (and the IPCC) apologising to the family of Mark Duggan, the Metropolitan Police (again), Lord Stevens and Chief HMIC admitting to crime figures being ‘fiddled,’ Tom Winsor (again) alleging in The Times (18.01.14) that there are ‘no go areas’ for the police; areas where ‘law abiding’ citizens who were “born under other skies” administer their own form of justice, and more recently the re-surfacing of the issue of ‘spying’ during the investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

The themes running through these issues include honesty, trust, legitimacy and the ‘C’ word; confidence. The fact that the Metropolitan Police have stated that they intend to appoint a ‘senior officer’ to ‘head up’ community engagement in the capital has been met with concern by some and derision by others. Professor Simon Holdaway hit the nail on the head when he responded to the news of the pending appointment with the following comment on Twitter “For how many years has it been recognised that community engagement is central to policing – 25+?”

Professor Holdaway is of course correct. Along with a colleague from MutualGain I am in the process of completing a paper which outlines that, despite the fact that community engagement has consistently been identified as central to policing, over time three issues have emerged. First, that community engagement becomes a focus during times of crisis; second, that what the police view as ‘community engagement’ is often different to what the public expect; and third, that the police are not, and have never been, trained in techniques or methods of community engagement.

Taking the first issue, at times of crisis senior officers will often call upon their ‘community relations’ (or similar) department to contact influential members of community and pass on key messages. Or they will plan engagement events at which senior staff ‘tell’ those attending how they are working at a local level to address the situation. Think about the activity to engage communities following the murder of Stephen Lawrence, or the murder of Rhys Jones, or the riots of 2011, or the headlines following the Coroners’ Court verdict in relation to Mark Duggan. While all this activity is commendable, the fact is, once the crisis is over, and matters return to ‘normal’ the emphasis on maintaining that relationship with communities diminishes. New crises emerge, or performance against targets has to be addressed, diverting the police attention from community engagement (or their interpretation of it). This has not been helped by the austerity measures undertaken by some police forces. In a number of forces the first cuts came in the area of community relations or citizen focus. And yet, ask yourself how often you have seen a senior officer on the TV asking for information relating to a serious crime? Then ask yourself ‘could there come a time when the police relationship with a community is so strong, that after a shooting incident involving criminal gangs, the community would come forward without having to be asked? ‘

The second issue is that the police do not engage with communities in the manner prescribed by their own policies. In 2012 the NPIA helpfully defined community engagement as being “The process of enabling the participation of citizens and communities in policing at their chosen level, ranging from providing information and reassurance, to empowering them to identify and implement solutions to local problems and influence strategic priorities and decisions. The police, citizens, and communities must have the willingness, capacity and opportunity to participate. The police service and partner organisations must have a responsibility to engage and, unless there is a justifiable reason, the presumption is that they must respond to community input.”The key issue here is that the police will do leaflet drops and will hold community ‘tell’ events, but how often do they ‘empower communities’ by building social capital and using the assets that exist within communities? I think the answer to that is ‘rarely.’

Along with a colleague I recently attended a gala event in a large force. A series of senior officers were lined up ready to ‘tell’ communities about rates of crime and the activity being undertaken to make them feel safe in that area. The room was set up for 200 people; in the end nine people attended. Of course this is not an isolated incident. Attendance at PACT (or similar) meetings is inconsistent, with the usual suspects attending to complain about the usual issues. I recall speaking to a neighbourhood inspector in one force as he left a PACT meeting in a local church. I asked how it had gone and his reply was ‘Lonely. Been there for an hour and no one turned up.’ And yet there is a consistent belief that the community are interested and will come out to speak to the police and air their grievances.

This brings me to the third point. Engaging communities is a fundamental part of the role of neighbourhood teams, and yet the training in how to do this is in need of review. According to Savage (2007) community engagement is not about a passive partnership between the regular police and the community; it is about the police taking the lead role in mobilising community resources to achieve goals of public safety and senses of security. Alderson (1979) saw the community constable as being a ‘social diagnostician’; an agent for identifying and solving social problems. Community engagement is a social science and should be taught as such during initial training and throughout the career of those engaged in policing neighbourhoods. The training needs to instil the virtues of ‘listening’ to communities, being able to analyse what they are saying and enable them to participate in not only solving the issues, but preventing them from occurring in the first place.

So, when the Metropolitan Police appoint their senior officer to ‘lead the way’, I encourage that person to learn from the lessons of past efforts to engaging communities. There are ample numbers of academics and practitioners who have researched and written about the subject and can provide evidence of ‘what works’. I would also encourage the person chosen to look outward as well as inward. There are people who have an expertise in engaging communities and yes, that may cost money, but the rewards for getting it right and building firm foundations with communities rely on the right methods being used to engage them in the first place thereby providing a significant return on investment.

It is important that the police take this opportunity to get it right, enabling them to build relationships with minority ethnic communities in particular. There is a great opportunity to build social capital, and break down barriers so that citizens do trust the police and will report crime instead of administering their own form of justice.

Dr Andrew Fisher is a sessional lecturer at Liverpool John Moore’s University and a Consultant who researches issues related to policing for the Blue Locust Network. Email andrew@bluelocustnetwork.co.uk

One thought on “Engaging Communities – Time To Get It Right

  1. Interesting comments. As a cop soon to responsible for community engagement across 2 towns in a large urban sprawl I’d love to see what we know already about how to do this effectively. Can you give me and colleagues any pointers?


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