The rise of technologically-mediated police contact: the potential consequences of ‘socially-distanced policing’

By Dr Helen Wells, Dr Liz Aston, Dr Megan O’Neill and Professor Ben Bradford

Social distancing and other measures put in place to deal with COVID-19 mean that police have had to rapidly change the ways they think about ‘contact’ with the public. Technology has been at the forefront of these developments, providing multiple channels for police-public interaction without the need for physical co-presence. Some forces have launched new, or promoted existing, portals for the online reporting of ‘traditional’ crimes (e.g. West Midlands Police, where the public can interact with the force via a ‘chatbot’ called Bob-E) or launched bespoke forms for reporting non-compliance with lockdown restrictions. Forces have increasingly been resolving enquiries over the telephone instead of in person, and there has been extensive use of social media to enable the police to stay in touch with the public, and vice versa. At least one force (Derbyshire) has used drone technology to capture examples of noncompliant behaviour, shame those involved, and send a message to the wider population. Not all of these developments have been well-received. References to ‘snooper forms’ and a ‘snoopers charter’ for example, have implied something unfair or untoward about reporting on your neighbours, whilst drone use has been deemed ‘sinister’ and ‘badly misjudged’ .

Increasing technological mediation of police-public contact was a significant trend in UK policing and criminal justice before COVID-19, but it has been hastened by the need for society to function when people cannot be in physical proximity to each other. This is also a trend we can safely assume will persist once we emerge from the current restrictions – but it remains under-explored in some important ways.

The legitimacy of the police has been a theme of several academic contributions since the start of lockdown. The term is explored in different ways by Stephen Reicher and Cliff Stott, Ian Loader and Emma Williams, and by Sara Grace elsewhere in this series. At a time when public health outcomes are reliant on people complying with the restrictions, the legitimacy of those enforcing them is of central importance. We know that a sense of procedural justice, and of police legitimacy, is shaped in the encounters that people have with the police, but what happens when the police move a significant number of those encounters online, or when the police try to be ‘present’ in communities via social media? Drawing on our recent work together, we reflect here on the implications of the use of technology in public-police contact both in the present circumstances and for the future.

Compatible trends?

Over recent years, but particularly in recent weeks, the ways in which members of the public can contact the police have undergone significant changes. Whilst much contact pre-COVID-19 was still face-to-face, or at least person-to-person, many police organisations have introduced different types of communication technology, such as online crime reporting and answering queries, and the use of social media. Technology may also be present in face-to-face interactions, for example with body worn video cameras and mobile data terminals. As a result, the public is increasingly likely to encounter policing in ways that are ‘technologically-mediated’. Whilst some of these developments have expanded due to the particular challenges of the COVID-19 crisis, it seems likely that all will remain with us in some form once mobility and socialising restrictions are lifted.

Pre-crisis, the National Police Chiefs’ Council already supported this shift to technologically-mediated forms of contact, asserting that the public expect a significant online presence from police (NPCC, n.d.). In some forces, efforts to move to more ‘digital ways of working’ have been explicitly linked to increasing ‘public confidence, participation and satisfaction’ (Accenture, n.d.). However, much of this appears to be unevidenced, and relatively little is known about what the public actually wants and needs – a characteristic of ‘technology-push’ rather than ‘user-pull’ approaches to digital solutions (SOCITM, 2018).

So, whilst attention is paid to what technology can do for the police, the public side of this encounter has barely been considered. Online reporting (for example) may be particularly useful for some people or some crime types, but we do not know enough about how people experience these types of interactions to be confident that they will be of benefit to everyone, in all circumstances. We also do not know if and how these developments might affect the way people feel about, and interact with, the police.

Procedural justice and its assumptions

Popular legitimacy is central to the functioning of the police. Yet, recent technological developments have been initiated in response to technological advances at a societal level, the demands of austerity, and most recently the consequences of the global pandemic, with little regard to how they will be received by the public or what differences in reception there may be between particular ‘publics’. Can we be confident that our theories of police legitimacy are future-proof when that future is heavily reliant on technologically-mediated encounters? The extent to which procedural justice is the central antecedent of legitimacy in many contexts makes this a particularly pressing question.

At the core of procedural justice theory lies the idea that people attend closely to the quality of interactions with authority figures such as police, particularly across dimensions of respect, neutrality, transparency, and ‘voice’. An unexplored assumption persists within procedural justice theory is that police-public contact is face-to-face and between two humans. Technology is, however, increasingly an additional ‘party’ (Rabinovich-Einy and Katsh, 2014) in such encounters, and it is essential that any disruptive effects on both those interactions and the theories used to understand them are explored. We do not know whether procedural justice ‘works’ in the same way when police-public interaction is mediated by technology, or indeed which qualities of face-to-face interaction, if any, are necessary to maintain public confidence in the face of technological change. This is of fundamental importance to understanding whether new forms of contact, and the police actions they herald, will be viewed as legitimate by various publics.

Lessons from other contexts

Whilst one of the strengths of the procedural justice approach is its applicability across a range of contexts and demographics (Wolfe et al. 2016), the use of technology is not experienced, viewed, or accessible in the same way by all. Older service users for example may ‘read off’ different signals from technologically-mediated encounters than younger people (Radzinovich-Einy and Katsh, 2014). Technology may facilitate access for groups with varying requirements, e.g. the deaf community, if it is appropriately designed, but access may also be a challenge such as in remote rural areas which lack high speed internet access, or mobile phone coverage. Individuals are unlikely to share information through an online tool if they do not have confidence in the security of the system and the police (Aston et al. under review): and trust is strongly related to face-to-face engagement and relationship building (Hail, Aston and O’Neill, 2018).

The non-discriminatory potential of new technologies has been stressed (Joh 2007). Yet, we know that consistency and impartiality are only two of the significant antecedents of a procedurally just experience: more human qualities, such as politeness, respect and voice are also important. As Terpstra et al. point out, new processes and systems often do not ‘take into account that many citizens have the emotional need to tell their story in person’ (2019: 9), while Bowling and Iyer (2019: 152) describe the ‘craft’ skills of ‘human judgement and adaptability … attentiveness, sympathy and kindness’ that are required of police. Some technologies, particularly those that allow tracking and monitoring, may shift the focus to ‘what you do’ and away from ‘how you do it’ – the precise opposite of the central claim of procedural justice theory, that process is as or more important than outcome.

The Coronavirus pandemic has hastened an existing trend in UK policing towards technological mediation of police-public interaction, and it seems inevitable that this will continue even after the present crisis has receded. However, democratic societies need their publics to see the police as legitimate. We have focused exclusively on the practical (and, in recent weeks, pragmatic) benefits of introducing technology into police-public contact, but the current crisis and the need for collective, normative compliance with regulations means that – now more than ever – we need to ensure that we do not overlook the emotional, psychological and relational effects of socially-distanced policing.

Dr Helen Wells (@roadspolicing) is Director of the Roads Policing Academic Network and a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Keele University. Email: h.m.wells@keele.ac.uk

Dr Liz Aston (@AstonLiz) is Director of the Scottish Institute for Policing Research and an Associate Professor of Criminology at Edinburgh Napier University. Email: L.Aston@napier.ac.uk

Dr Megan O’Neill (@drmeganoneill) is Associate Director (Police Community Relations Network) of the Scottish Institute for Policing Research and a Reader at the University of Dundee. Email: m.oneill@dundee.ac.uk

Professor Ben Bradford (@ben1971b) is Director of the JDI Institute for Global City Policing and Professor of Global City Policing at UCL. Email: ben.bradford@ucl.ac.uk

3 thoughts on “The rise of technologically-mediated police contact: the potential consequences of ‘socially-distanced policing’

  1. A significant challenge of public authorities to recognise the ‘purpose’ of the police contact- and then give consideration to the appropriate method that is deployed. Many exchanges can benefit from the efficiency of an electronic- time stamped – auditable echange. Where the goal is to build perceptions of legitimacy, to educate, engender confidence, and fuel participation then there is perhaps still a lot to learn. Unless authorities swiftly adapt to the challenge we have the potentail for an electronic equivalent of the police meeting played out to an empty village hall on a wet Thursday evening. In recent contact with some public authority colleagues I have been repeatedly told- we don’d do (Zoom/ WhatsApp/ Facebook/ Skype)- delete where appropriate. Is that approach sustaniable when vast sections of the community are now congretating in those places?.

  2. Pingback: Covid-19 Implications for Policing – Our Blog: The Justice Stories

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