Finding legitimacy down the back of the sofa?

Policing in the UK dodged a bullet last week. It’s a moot point now whether the government ever really intended the 40% further cuts that had been bruited. Some commentators have suggested that Osborne knew he’d found £23 billion behind the sofa weeks ago, though negotiations with Theresa May went down to the wire – meaning all the speculation, and the anguish, was just the usual political game of managing expectations, even within the government.

For the government, this has several advantages. Firstly and most immediately, the government’s reputation for being sound on security remains robust – at least in the context of an abject, chaotic opposition. While Andy Burnham had intelligent and well-informed things to say about the police settlement last week, they were lost in the predictable uproar around the Shadow Chancellor’s decision to throw Mao’s Little Red Book across the despatch box. There was little serious critique of the budget that broke through to ordinary voters.

Secondly, the months of speculation mean that no police force feels safe, and PCCs and Chief Constables have long since begun to think the unthinkable. Ideas that would have been rejected out of hand five years ago are now part of the mainstream of contingency planning ahead of budget announcements, which has kneaded the dough of policing; it is now malleable and prepared for fundamental reforms that it might have resisted strenuously just a few years earlier. The overwhelming feeling among police this week appears to be relief, but a wary relief. In the context, this is probably wise.

The ‘unthinkable’ is being expressed in two broad streams of thinking. The first is the question of managing demand. This is being approached from several directions: by publicising internal debates on whether police will in future attend certain types of incident or complaint; by looking at police work through a risk/harm prism to narrow the range of incidents that in effect count as ‘police work’; and through experimentation with technological innovations aimed at replicating and storing the sort of street knowledge that traditionally lived in a local police officer’s head. This is not an exhaustive list.

The second broad stream is perhaps best encapsulated by the problem-oriented policing and restorative justice focus of Durham Constabulary, where Chief Constable Mike Barton has been a relentless enthusiast for this approach.

These two streams are not mutually exclusive; there is at times overlap, sometimes considerable. Within both of these strands is a sense of responsibilisation – giving the weight of some elements of policing ‘back’ to the public. But the two approaches are distinctly different in philosophy, and this is important, as the move towards responsibilisation has ramifications for long-term police legitimacy and confidence.

Police legitimacy is an area that has experienced a blossoming of academic attention over the past decade or so, and the approaches to it can, again, be broadly divided into two. The first is the procedural justice approach, which focuses on individual contacts between the police and citizens, and usually relies on empirical analysis of survey data (see for example Bradford et al, Hough et al and Sunshine and Tyler). The second is the more contextual approach, which looks at the ‘expressive’ nature of confidence (Jackson and Bradford) and the way legitimacy can be bound up in historical understandings of police legitimacy (Harkin, Jackson and Bradford, Reiner).

The strength of the procedural justice approach, which is founded on the work of Tom Tyler, is that it implies that police just need to behave well in order to increase public confidence. If they can offer up explanations for their behaviour, stick to the rules, and treat people with courtesy and respect, this will increase police legitimacy in the eyes of citizens. The procedural justice research is powerful and offers significant insights into how police legitimacy works.

However, procedural justice cannot cover every aspect of confidence and legitimacy. For example, many members of the public rarely if ever come into direct contact with the police – something that may become more common if big cuts to police numbers were to return to the table. On what are they to base their assessments of the police? Hearsay is one aspect; they may rely on the opinions of their friends and neighbours. Media reports are another. And they may make judgements based on their own expectations of what police ought to be, and should do – with little reference to the reality of what the police are, and what they do. These public expectations of the police may be bound up with more general and almost mythical ideas of what the police are for and what role they should perform; not just ‘Florence Nightingale in pursuit of Willie Sutton’, in the glorious words of Egon Bittner, but Batman in a nurse’s uniform chasing after Myra Hindley (with time to stop for a cup of tea and to pat a small child on the head, of course).

The police response to these mixed and broad expectations is itself mixed. Police officers have traditionally rejected many aspects of community policing as not being ‘real’ policing, though recent research such as Lister et al has detected something of a shift in this. However, there’s also an element of ‘aw shucks’: police may be aware that the public’s broad range of expectations creates unmanageable demand, but there appears to be surprisingly little appetite to slam the phone down on calls that at the very most could generously be described as order maintenance rather than law enforcement. There is even an occasional sense of masochistic pride to be detected in the range of activities that an ordinary copper can be expected to deal with in an average shift.

The importance of this rather banal observation is that managing expectations for the police is much harder than it is for politicians; and politicians are better at it (though it’s clear that PCCs and Chief Constables are learning fast). Managing demand might be possible; but not without quite fundamental changes in expectations on the part of both the police and the public.

In that process, there may be significant damage done to public confidence and the perceived legitimacy of the police, as expectations are slow to change, and are shaped by more than just encounters with the police, or indeed press releases. There is a history and a mythology to the UK police that is shared to a greater or lesser extent by officers and by the public, which shapes expectations. This can’t be changed rapidly, nor in predictable directions, and there may well be a lag between changing police behaviour, and the public coming to terms with those changes to the extent that their confidence in the police recovers.

At this point sensible commentators will note that police forces may not have a choice. Here I must disagree. There are always choices. They are often rubbish ones, but there are choices. There is a window of opportunity here, opened partly by the horrific events in Paris that may have stayed Osborne’s hand.

Technology will not replace street knowledge, but it can smooth out some of the chasms in local knowledge and continuity that open up when officers move on, and can help citizens feel connected to the police. And it can be used in the simplest ways to make those connections easier.

Of the 43 regional police forces in the UK, fewer than half at the time of writing have a website optimised for mobile or tablet access, though 60 per cent of citizens aged 16 to 24 now use a smartphone as their main device to access the internet (Ofcom). Once accessed, fewer than half of these sites have a link on the front page to allow users to report a crime (including, for example, the loss of their mobile phone). In the immortal words of Boris Johnson, it can’t be beyond the wit of man to design a police web page in a manner that makes it easy for people to report minor property crime.

In the meantime, it may be, as Harkin suggests, that legitimacy and confidence are more complex than academics or the police have yet fully understood. Legitimacy may be much more resilient than we have presumed; expectations may be more flexible. But we know that high public confidence and legitimacy means more co-operation with the police, whereas low confidence and legitimacy can make it very difficult for the police to do their jobs. Maintaining public confidence is therefore a potentially effective way of managing demand.

This may limit the range of options available for police to prepare for any return of the Chancellor’s knife; but Durham and others are demonstrating that problem-oriented approaches can reap huge rewards in public confidence while also encouraging community solutions. With no immediate prospect of a credible and dangerous opposition, Osborne may find that, after all, he needs to spend his windfall elsewhere. Senior officers need to treat this breathing space for the temporary window that it is.

Carina O’Reilly is a doctoral candidate at Anglia Ruskin University researching police legitimacy and community engagement. She is also a Labour councillor. Email:

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