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:

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

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:

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

Police discretion and the coronavirus pandemic

Dr. Liz Turner and Dr. Mike Rowe

The rapid and deadly spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has led governments around the world to seek to curtail social interactions between citizens in order to slow the spread of the virus that causes it. The involvement of police in upholding stringent restrictions on citizens’ everyday freedoms has provoked fierce debate. Police in the UK lay claim to a long tradition of “policing by consent”[1], so police involvement in efforts to bring about widespread compliance with social-distancing regulations [2] is inherently controversial. Officers here will be acutely aware that the current crisis takes them into new territory. This blog piece provides some reflections on how the concept of “police discretion” can be helpful in understanding how the police respond.

“Common sense and discretion”

When they talk of the “discretion” of street-level workers, governments simultaneously disown the difficult work of choosing how to put law into action (Hill and Varone, 2016) and conjure the positive associations the word discretion has with notions of wisdom and good judgement (its original meaning). In relation to the current crisis, the word discretion is doing political work. Reference to “discretion” seems intended to reassure the public, in the face of a significant and potentially extremely intrusive expansion of police power, representing officers as skilful professionals, independently and rationally choosing the most appropriate action for every situation they encounter. The government has stressed that it expects the police to “apply their common sense and discretion” in utilising their strengthened powers of enforcement. Yet the fraught work of choosing how to put the new rules into practice has been left to the police themselves and, clearly, one police officer’s idea of common sense, may well be someone else’s idea of a “police state”.  As such, now seems an opportune moment to take a critical look at the concept of discretion.

What are we talking about when we talk about police discretion?

The dominant origin story of the concept of police discretion sees US-based researchers of the 1950s and 1960s cited as making the “discovery” that police officers, just like other criminal justice actors (prosecutors, judges), affect the law in practice. Discretion thus denotes the gap between the law in principle and the law on the streets (Nickels, 2007). However, on this side of the Atlantic, rather than being “discovered”, reference to police discretion has long been taken-for-granted, a part of our unwritten constitution (Grimshaw and Jefferson 1987).

The legitimising role it plays ought to make the concept of discretion the object of critical analysis. Yet, whilst the concept features prominently in research about policing and is frequently invoked as underpinning discriminatory practices, it is rare to see the concept defined in any depth. Discretion does not have a clear and uncontroversial definition, but is often used in a taken-for-granted and ambiguous way with authors providing a few introductory paragraphs (or sentences) referring to the “classics”, before moving on to describe their own findings on how police officers behave. The object of study then is more often behaviour than discretion per se. The concept of discretion suffers from chronic imprecision, ambiguity and diversity of usage (Nickels, 2007).

The biggest issue we find with the concept of discretion is that it is commonly applied (sometimes simultaneously) to four different things, namely:

  • The space within which police officers act, i.e. their freedom
  • The authority that police officers have been granted, i.e. their lawful powers
  • Police officers’ ability to use their authority wisely, i.e. their competence and integrity
  • The actions that police officers take

No wonder Fletcher writes that the different senses in which the concept of discretion is applied renders the “discussion of discretionary processes virtually incomprehensible” (Fletcher, 1984: 276)!

“Questions about what to do”

The essence of “police discretion” is that when using the law police officers are authorised based on the presumption that they make choices (act as rational, independent, autonomous individuals). This is a political assumption that rests on dubious assumptions about the nature of human action and contradicts empirically grounded accounts of police work (Campbell, 1999). Critical research on police discretion, then, ought to be concerned with exploring the extent to which the normative implications of the political concept of police discretion are reflected in the empirical realities of police work: Do police officers make choices (which is to say act as “autonomous” individuals), under what circumstances and with what effects?

To undertake this work, it may be useful to take a close interest in when and how questions about what to do arise for police officers and how they resolve them. Discretion can therefore be disaggregated as follows:

  • Discretionary spaces are circumstances where “questions about what to do” arise and officers reach resolutions to those questions
  • Discretionary actions are the actions (or non-actions) arising from the choices officers make when in those discretionary spaces

By disaggregating discretion in this way, it seems to us, more distinct objects for empirical analysis appear. These include:

  • the range, type and prevalence of different questions about what to do;
  • the situations in which such questions arise;
  • the actions taken in response to different questions by different actors;
  • the reasons given by actors for the actions they take;
  • and the variety of boundaries within which actors appear (or claim) to be operating.

Police discretion and the current crisis

The current moment in history only makes the task we have outlined above more urgent. The new coronavirus regulations have created a new discretionary space for UK police officers, one in which they face a completely new set of questions about what to do. How they resolve those questions may have significant consequences for both public health and the relationship between the police and communities. Even before new legislation came into force, reports had begun to appear in the media about “heavy-handed” or “over-zealous” police responses to the coronavirus crisis. Since the social-distancing regulations entered into law there have been reports of police claiming powers that they do not have, using the wrong powers and, of most interest for the purposes of this blog post, simply using the powers in a manner some people clearly see as inappropriate.

As Dr. Sara Grace pointed out on this blog on 2nd April “there is no blueprint for policing the lockdown”. This situation is unlike any other our currently serving officers will have encountered (although as Sara notes there are some parallels with the use of penalty notices for disorder). The new legislation has made potential offences out of formerly mundane activities of everyday life like playing with your children in the sun, visiting family, going to the shops or just leaving the house.

The National Police Chiefs Council and College of Policing have produced guidance for officers on their new powers. These are based on a “four-phase approach” of:

  1. Engage
  2. Explain
  3. Encourage
  4. Enforce

They identify enforcement (including using reasonable force to remove a person to their home and issuing fixed penalty notices) as “a last resort”. However, the available guidance, as is usual in relation to police powers, offers no concrete examples of situations that unequivocally breach the regulations and where enforcement might be the most appropriate response.

One of the reasons why researchers have argued that police discretion is necessary (and indeed inevitable) is that the police simply cannot uphold all of the laws, all of the time: “full enforcement … is not a realistic expectation” (Goldstein, 1960: 560-1). What actually happens is “selective enforcement … Some law is always or almost always enforced, some is never or almost never enforced, and some is sometimes enforced and sometimes not” (Davis, 1975: 1). Unless politicians are highly prescriptive in their approach to governing police organisations (which they rarely are), it is the police themselves who ultimately determine which offences (and which offenders) are most likely to be on the receiving end of formal interventions. This is why we think it is important to engage with police officers who are working through this unprecedented period to try and understand how they are making sense of and responding to the situation.

We are only at the start of what may be a very long journey in relation to mitigating the impact of the current pandemic. It has already provided some significant challenges for police forces. Whilst support for the police approach currently seems quite strong, if the “lockdown” conditions are extended over a much longer period this support may fray. Things that the public are currently willing to accept may no longer be accepted. Voluntary compliance may weaken and there may be more conflict between the public and the police. This in turn may impact on officers’ willingness to take formal action, or even to intervene. Under these circumstances, a clearheaded understanding of what is at stake when politicians, and the police, invoke “police discretion” will be essential. Our work in this area is ongoing. We hope it will prove useful for shedding light on unfolding events.


[1] Although this “tradition” is, arguably, at least part of police mythology. It is certainly of more recent and aspirational origin in relation to Northern Ireland and the PSNI (See Principles for Policing in Northern Ireland, 1998).

[2] Coronavirus Act 2020 and the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations 2020.

Dr Liz Turner is a Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Liverpool. Email: 

Dr Mike Rowe is a Lecturer in Public Sector Management at the University of Liverpool. Email:


Policing the coronavirus lockdown: The limits of on-the-spot fines

Dr Sara Grace

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 have given the police the power to issue £60 on-the-spot fines (up to £960 for subsequent offences) to enforce new rules on social distancing. Officers may also use powers of arrest and remove people to their home. Offences under the Regulations are punishable on summary conviction by a fine. The NPCC and College of Policing have called on forces to be consistent and adopt an “inquisitive, questioning mindset”, only using enforcement powers as a last resort. This is underpinned by a four-step approach of: Engage with people and ask them why they are out, explain the risks they are posing to others, encourage them to return home – and, if they don’t leave, enforce the law using on-the-spot fines, arrest and/or prosecution. Drawing on my PhD research, which examined the use and impact of penalty notices for disorder, this blog highlights the limits of on-the-spot fines as a response to policing the lockdown and argues that whilst consistency (and distributive fairness) will be important, procedural fairness, particularly ‘voice’, will be crucial to ensuring that people view the police as legitimate, voluntarily accept their decisions and obey the law.

Comparing new and existing powers

Policing the lockdown is a very particular, and indeed, peculiar, circumstance. There are however some parallels with policing anti-social behaviour through the use of penalty notices for disorder (PNDs) and existing dispersal powers. The new rules bar public gatherings of more than two people except in certain limited circumstances (see section 7(a)-(d)) and impose restrictions on movement “without reasonable excuse” (emphasis added, see section 6(2)). The Regulations do give a list of such exceptions, but it will be necessary for officers to determine whether any given case is a breach of the law. A law which, it must be noted, lacks some of the specificities of the Government advice. Guidance limits people to just one form of exercise a day, the law does not. Just as there may be disagreement over, for example, whether any given behaviour is “likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress” (in breach of s5 of the Public Order Act 1986 and punishable by PND), so too conflict may occur over whether a person has left the house to buy “basic necessities”. Indeed officers in Warrington have already faced criticism for issuing summonses to “multiple people from the same household going to the shops for non-essential items”.

What affects compliance with the police?

There is a wealth of research that demonstrates that perceptions of procedural justice – which regards the process of decision making rather than the decision itself –  affects perceptions of police legitimacy which, in turn, encourages voluntary compliance, both with the police in the short-term and long-term compliance with the law (see for example: Tyler 2019; Hough, Jackson and Bradford 2013; Mazerolle, Antrobus, Bennett and Tyler, 2013; Sunshine and Tyler 2003). The procedural justice literature outlines four antecedents to procedural fairness:

  • Participation (or ‘voice’): allowing people to give their account of events and have their views considered.
  • Neutrality: demonstrating that decisions are unbiased, based on the facts of the case.
  • Trustworthiness: demonstrating even-handedness.
  • Respect: treating people with dignity and respect.

Emerging research also suggests perceptions of distributive fairness – i.e. assessments of equitability, have they been treated similarly to others and received an outcome they feel they deserve – are related to perceptions of procedural justice and, in turn, legitimacy and compliance.

My research demonstrates the importance of both procedurally and distributively fair treatment on short-term compliance. Observations of policing in the night-time economy and interviews with PND recipients found that people resist the police when they feel ‘wronged’. Non-compliant/resistant behaviour manifested as calls to have their version of events heard, disagreement that their behaviour is sufficiently serious to warrant (that/any) action, rejection of the (implied) label ‘offender’ and, more rarely, complaints that they had been provoked by officers. A document analysis of evidence given on a sample of PND tickets found that non-compliance was highly correlated with suspect demeanour; 47 of the 51 people who were non-compliant were described as being abusive toward officers. Indeed, officers were one of the victims of the offence in 60% of s5 and drunk and disorderly offences and the sole victim in 22% (N=78). Evidence from observations as well as surveys and interviews with PND recipients shines some light on how officers can avoid such ‘conflict spirals’, whereby individuals respond aggressively to police intervention and officers respond with arrest (Tedeschi & Felson, 1994, p.258). People were convinced or cajoled into accepting officers’ decisions (voluntarily desisting, dispersing and/or accepting a PND) or else they were coerced into doing this with the threat or reality of a PND or arrest. The former approach is associated with processes that reflect values of procedural fairness whereas the latter is a constraint-based form of compliance. When people are compelled into accepting decisions they give in to officers’ coercive power, but they continue to question officers’ decisions, their motives and legitimacy which threatens their future compliance with the law and the police.

What does this mean for policing coronavirus?

The purpose of these new powers is the promotion of public health. That fact should be at the forefront of any/all attempts to formally enforce new rules on social distancing. My research broadly supports the four-step – engage, explain, encourage, enforce – approach set out by the NPCC, however it raises questions about officers’ ability to issue fines on-the-spot to (non-compliant) pedestrians who fail to follow informal warnings, suggesting such people are more likely to be arrested. Officers will have the discretion to decide who to fine and/or arrest. Whilst there is a notable gap between the law and the, more comprehensive (and far more widely publicised), Government guidance, “even the most precisely worded rule of law needs interpreting in concrete situations” (Reiner 2010, p.207). Officers will, understandably, rely on their existing ‘working rules’ and cultural values to navigate this vacuum; despite calls for consistency, enforcement action may therefore fall more heavily on some groups/locations than others.

What would a procedurally fair approach to policing the lockdown look like in practice?

Cajoling – from a safe distance – rather than coercing compliance is a prudent, less-resource intensive and, fundamentally, safer approach than resort to coercive powers. Procedurally and distributively fair treatment would encourage voluntary compliance, in both the short- and long-term. ‘Voice’ will be key – indeed, my research suggests, this is the means by which other aspects of both procedural and distributive fairness are operationalised. This means, yes, asking people why they are out but, crucially, listening to their reasons, empathising, and directing to relevant guidance and services as appropriate. Whilst explaining the risks will be important, officers should recognise that people may well believe they have a legitimate reason to gather/travel. My research found that resistance was expressed by those who felt they had been wrongly ascribed as an ‘offender’. Compliance will be more likely if officers appeal to people as ‘good citizens’. Explaining the reason for police intervention will help operationalise neutrality and trustworthiness as well as the distributive fairness (perceived deservedness) of receiving police attention. Wherever possible, officers should abide by the regulations themselves – i.e. keeping a safe distance (2 metres), not gathering in groups etc. This is not only necessary for officers’ safety but also operationalises respect – by minimising the risk to citizens– and emphasises the importance of the rules they are seeking to enforce, further demonstrating neutrality and trustworthiness. Where people are responsive to police intervention, a ‘sales pitch’, whereby officers explain their ability to use on-the-spot fines but their choice not to, will likely increase perceptions of fairness and legitimacy and, in turn compliance with the police and the law in the longer term. Certainly, issuing tickets to those who are willing to voluntarily comply is likely to erode trust.

What about those who refuse to comply?

Whilst procedurally and distributively fair policing may encourage voluntary compliance, for those who refuse to heed officers’ informal directions, my research suggests they are unlikely to become compliant if/when officers decide to issue an on-the-spot fine. In those cases, arrest remains an option but a decision needs to be taken about the relative risks/rewards of enforcing the rules via arrest given this risk this poses to officers’ health and the health of any citizens they subsequently come into contact with. Where enforcement action is deemed necessary, it would be better, if possible, to take that action remotely, perhaps using mobile CCTV as well as the existing extensive network of CCTV in the UK to assist in enforcement. Such an approach was adopted successfully when prosecuting those who participated in the 2011 riots. This protects officers, allowing them to maintain social distance and protects the public, reducing the risk that the police inadvertently become super-spreaders.

Forces should however heed the suggestion of the NPCC, that enforcement action be a last resort. As Platts-Fowler (2013, p.24-25) notes with regards to riots “arrests in the imminent or early stages of unrest, of people deemed to be doing little wrong by their peers, become symbolic”. We have already seen headlines referring to officers’ use of fines as dystopian. The police have been given an incredibly difficult job. There is no blueprint for policing the lockdown. The dynamics will be different to policing the night-time economy or civil unrest or indeed other circumstances with which they are familiar, but we can learn lessons from when police forces have successfully maintained legitimacy and gained compliance. Heavy-handed enforcement risks triggering resistance in individual police-citizen encounters, but also more broadly within communities. It is vital that the police get this right; the research suggests procedural and distributive justice will be key to policing the lockdown with legitimacy and by consent.

Dr Sara Grace is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Salford. Email:

* The ideas in this blog have subsequently been developed in an article published in Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice: Policing Social Distancing: Gaining and Maintaining Compliance in the Age of Coronavirus


Exploring the Implications of Drones for Policing

Mike Coliandris

A number of police forces have adopted and deployed drones for several years, and the opportunities afforded by this innovation for policing are potentially vast. Most uses take advantage of the technology’s capacity as an aerial, remotely piloted platform to which data-gathering equipment can be attached. Its applications in evidence gathering, surveillance, operational planning, and search-and-rescue are well established. Beyond policing, drones promise a great deal – the technology is predicted to add £42 billion to GDP by 2030 and create upwards of 600,000 jobs. Alongside these benefits come risks, though, as this technology becomes increasingly accessible and as it evolves following innovations in allied technologies, such as cameras and on-board batteries. Media attention paid to the Gatwick Airport shutdown in December 2018, for example, demonstrates the disruptive effects of drones on civil airspace, which has led to tighter regulation and counter drone strategies. As part of ESRC-funded PhD research I have been observing a drone-using police unit in order to contextualise drones within this complex landscape. On one level it investigates how (within this case study) drones are used, for what purposes and under what circumstances, training and qualifications. On another level, and looking beyond the immediate case study context, it explores the practical and strategic implications of drones, as policing engages with this emerging technology. This post reflects upon ongoing data analysis regarding what is termed the shaping effects between drones and policing. This shaping effect refers to the influences of social context, such as police culture and organisational practices, upon the uses of drones and how drone use may also come to influence policing.

The case study exists within a fragmented national picture of police drone use, however. Some forces maintain dedicated 24/7 units whereas others do not use them at all or share a capability with a neighbouring force. Even the equipment used varies by force – different manufacturers, technical specifications (e.g. on-board cameras or flight time), capabilities (e.g. operating conditions such as weather), etc. This has led to a degree of localism amongst drone-using forces – an issue highlighted in a HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services report which suggested that forces were making ‘procurement decisions without expert guidance, although some forces had obtained information and advice from the NPCC lead for drones and from the Home Office Centre for Applied Science and Technology’. In terms of practice, this localism has the potential to both enable and constrain. Differences between forces, from resources available to invest in technologies to local crime problems and even geographic and weather conditions, make the establishment of a ‘one-size-fits all’ approach challenging. Local drone programmes therefore reflect local needs. On the other hand, this fragmentary picture could disrupt continuity and collaborations between forces, as each develops its own particular knowledge about ‘what works’ within their locality.

The case study unit which I have been researching uses drones primarily as a ‘tactical option’ alongside other technologies such as vehicles and Taser. In turn, drones are perceived as another tool in the toolbox, effective in some operational circumstances and not in others. As previously indicated, these circumstances usually benefit from an aerial/visual perspective enabled by a flying drone. The analysis of these deployments revolves around isolating, in-thought, some of the core features of what constitutes a drone as distinct from other technologies and its subsequent implications for police practices. In some respects, a drone bears similarity to other data-gathering tools such as body-worn cameras and static CCTV cameras. Yet in other respects this technology departs in unique ways. Analysis highlights in particular the extending capability of a flying drone for an operator on the ground to gather real-time visual information over vast areas. This can be less resource intensive than conventional tactics of searches on foot and more expedient (especially in time-critical cases). Compared against other data-gathering tools (particularly static CCTV cameras), drones enable a very different type of police response which is flexible, mobile, and vertical. Applying this conceptualisation to a variety of operational deployments, such as a search for a missing person or operational planning, demonstrates the incidents which drone technology is most appropriate to, and how drones offer significant augmentations to the capabilities of officers.

On the shaping effects of the social context of police drone use it is important to clarify that drones are a relatively recent addition to forces across England and Wales. When viewed as ‘another tool in the toolbox’, it is interesting to consider how pre-existing practices and occupational cultures influence both the development of drone programmes within forces and their subsequent uses. The policing studies literature illustrates the experiential craft of policing as informing decision-making, performance of organisational tasks, and internal organisational relationships. It also highlights certain cultural aspects which broadly describe the occupational reality of ‘the job’ as generating meaning for practitioners. When these sociological dimensions of policing come into contact with a technological innovation, it is necessary to consider the nature of their influence. Questions addressed throughout my research have included, ‘How does the sense of mission influence the types of incidents that drones are deployed to?’ and ‘To what extent do drones reflect the orientation toward action?’. In turn, methods capable of navigating the social context of innovation enable insights into how technologies come to be inscribed with the meanings held by their users.

Referring back to this post’s introductory claims to the proliferation of drone technology, a related component to the research is the place of the case study within this drone enabled environment. To take the argument that drones shape police practices further than their immediate uses in operational circumstances, drones can also be understood as changing what is to be policed. Therefore, another transformative potential of drones upon policing is through drone enabled crime – recently publicised episodes demonstrate that the criminal or hostile potentials of drones are evidently vast. Changes to regulations in UK civil airspace, such as registration of users and extensions to restricted airspace, and investment in counter drone technologies illustrate the pervasive harms in a drone environment. Managing these risks will therefore be of strategic concern and shape the practices of policing, as officers enforce new regulations and confront episodes of drone-enabled crime. The form these episodes take may not be so straightforwardly anticipated or planned for. Proposals to extend police powers in this area are indicative of the influence drones will continue to have on policing, and the steps being taken to prepare police for an uncertain drone-enabled crime landscape.

In summary, drone technology offers both risk and reward. The police role in this emerging landscape is one which simultaneously shapes it and is shaped by it. Local police drone programmes and the (fortunately, relatively infrequent) episodes of drone-enabled crime and misuse are important sites for researching the diverse implications of drones as they proliferate throughout many aspects of social and economic life.

Mike Coliandris is a PhD student in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University. Email:

This work was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council [grant number ES/P00069X/1].






‘Still’ Police officers? Insights into the culture of police officers working within the setting of integrated offender management

Dr Frederick Cram

This post draws on data from an ethnographic study of Integrated Offender Management (IOM) in an effort to shine a light on the cultural practices of a specialist group of plain-clothed police officers operating within this setting. The empirical enquiry began in September 2012 and ended over 12 months later, in October 2013. I carried out four hundred hours of observations in five research sites across one urban English police area. IOM police officers work alongside staff from other criminal justice agencies in a bid to reduce offending by prolific offenders. The job involves traditional policing methods of enforcement and intelligence gathering, but the novelty for some police officers lies in a requirement that they adopt the role of ‘offender manager’ (OM). This means attempting to draw prolific offenders away from crime and improving their life chances through ‘pathway support’, such as helping them into employment and supporting them into stable housing arrangements. In theory, this changes the nature of the policing task considerably. Given the emphasis in the existing literature on how ‘cop culture’ (an assortment of recurring informal norms, values, beliefs and craft rules which inform police conduct (Reiner, 2010: 119-32)) derives from the nature of the job police officers perform (e.g. Skolnick (1966)), we might expect OMs to exhibit different cultural traits from their mainstream colleagues.

Research suggests that some OMs, working within IOM units around the UK, are moving away from traditional police cultural practices, and are instead adopting values and methods more akin to probation (e.g. Senior et al. (2011); Williams and Ariel (2013); Annison et al.,(2015); and Sleath and Brown, (2017)). My own empirical enquiry into one English IOM unit uncovered evidence of a blurring of culture and practice between agencies, with a minority of OMs moving beyond a pure ‘catch and convict’ policing mentality towards a more welfare-orientated approach to offender management. In the main, however, I found that many of the core constituents of cop-culture (e.g. an exaggerated sense of mission; a desire for action and excitement; the glorification of violence; an Us/Them divide of the social world; solidarity; social isolation; prejudice; authoritarian conservatism; suspicion and cynicism; and, hyper-hetero-masculinity (Loftus, 2010; Cockcroft, 2013) continued to structure the discretion OMs exercised during interactions with IOM offenders. Below, I provide some powerful examples of the endurance of cop-culture, as expressed through talk and action of OMs, working within the setting of IOM.

Suspicion, cynicism and pessimism

Observations and interviews highlighted a pervading sense of suspicion, cynicism and pessimism throughout the ranks of OMs. Offenders, for example, were often viewed with distaste and described by OMs in derogatory terms (e.g. as ‘vile’, ‘smackheads’, ‘walking abortion cases’, ‘dirty scrotes’ and ‘wastes of space’). At the same time, the majority of OMs I encountered seemed sceptical about the likelihood of IOM offender change. ‘Most have been offending like it’s going out of fashion. I don’t see any reason why they’re suddenly going to change now’, one OM complained. Another suggested that “putting them all down” would “do society a favour” and “save us all a lot of money”. OMs were also found to retain a deeply cynical view, both of the justice system and the broader social world. Her Majesty’s courts were accused of “continuously letting offenders off’ (apparently, because magistrates/judges lacked “proper training”), whilst society itself was deemed to have “lost its moral compass”.

Waddington (1998) would likely describe this kind of talk as a reflection of the ‘oral tradition’ of frontline policing – nothing more than ‘canteen culture’, which does not directly translate into action. However, this exaggerated cynicism, pessimism and scepticism seemed to cement further the crime control-orientated approach of most OMs to offender management. Consequently, most OMs spent most of their time engaged in enforcement activities (mostly surveillance, but also the occasional arrest).This practice is at odds with formal IOM policy (equal attention should be given to intelligence gathering and support (Police Operations Guide 2010; Home Office, 2010), and more closely connected to the cultural desire for action and excitement.

Action and an exaggerated sense of mission

Action orientated crime fighting was not a core constituent of everyday IOM policing. Rather than unpredictable and dangerous physical interactions with offenders, OMs spent considerable time in front of police computers and/or knocking on the (often unanswered) doors of IOM offenders. This is not to say that OMs did not desire the thrill of the ‘search, chase and arrest’ (Waddington, 1998: 99). In fact, most were resistant to the idea that the job was not action orientated and redefined ‘action’ to fit the OM role. Action was now meeting with offenders, generating information from them by building up trust and rapport so that “they tell you stuff without even realizing and then you put in an intelligence report”. As one OM explained:

It’s a bit dry, but a different way of looking at things. As much as I’d like to roll around on the floor with some of them, we’re not doing that. I get a buzz from going to someone’s house talking to them and looking around without having just kicked the door in.

The ‘buzz’ therefore comes from using inter-personal skills to out-smart offenders, gaining their trust whilst acting against their interests. Although this sort of work is not as action-orientated as “rolling around with offenders”, the police cultural desire for action is sated by the exciting combination of out-smarting and spying on IOM offenders. Furthermore, visiting (mostly unannounced) the homes of IOM offenders and ‘dropping in on’ routine probation appointments is also a subtle way of imposing social discipline on an offender given that regular contact between police and IOM offenders will serve to communicate control and remind them that the police are watching.

For some OMs, however, this reconfiguration of ‘action’ was insufficient. Instead they pursued thrills, whilst attempting to steer clear of work typically  characterised as  ‘bullshit’ and ‘rubbish’ (Reiner, 2000; Loftus, 2009). For example, on one occasion two OMs encountered a man, known to be disqualified from driving, sitting in the driving seat of a car – a rare opportunity of gaining direct evidence of what they suspected was offending behaviour. They parked up, observing the man in order to gather useful intelligence. Whilst this endeavour falls within the OM mandate and in this sense is unproblematic, these particular OMs confronted the suspect – activity conventionally carried out by the enforcement arm of IOM. Evidently, the chance of catching a misbehaving IOM offender ‘red- handed’ was impossible to resist and in any case viewed as ‘real police work’. “We’re police officers, it’s what we’re supposed to be doing really”, one OM later explained. The words and actions of these OMs resonate deeply with the police preoccupation with crime fighting and moral (and cultural) commitment to the separation of social order from chaos (Reiner 2000: 89, Loftus 2009: 90). Attempting to get this particular offender locked up provided the OMs with an opportunity to engage in a challenging and exciting game of wits and skill. Business as usual, from a police cultural perspective.


The IOM scheme, I examined, was well-established having operated for five years, time enough for traditional police attitudes and values to evolve. Although some OMs did engage in meaningful rehabilitative activity (e.g. developing working relationships, providing logistical support, and encouraging offenders to engage with services), a majority reworked the role of OM to fit the reality of policing as they saw it: penetrate, survey and control a ‘dangerous’ community of known prolific offenders. This is a departure from the stated aims of IOM, which seeks to break the cycle of offending via welfare-orientated policing (albeit carried out against the backdrop of law enforcement), but it does conform to police culture. It seems, old habits die hard.

Dr Frederick Cram is Lecturer in Law at the Cardiff University. Email:

The Police on Social Media: The Challenge of Being Engaging Gatekeepers

Dr Heather Horsburgh

Ralph (2016), in an earlier blog post for the Policing Network, highlighted a need for more research into police use of social media. My research – 11 interviews with senior communications staff, 9 interviews with police officers, an analysis of the national and regional Police Scotland Facebook and Twitter accounts, and analysis of local and national (broadsheet and tabloid) Scottish newspapers – examined police media use in Scotland. Specifically, I was interested in the impact that social media is having on how the police view/approach the traditional media, and on how social media can impact police accountability. Consistent with previous research, I found that although the police were positive about the utility of social media in enhancing community engagement, they found engaging on social media a challenge. This blog will detail some of the challenges the police have when trying to engage on social media.

One of the recommendations to come out of my research was that the police should invest less (but not no) time and resources into maintaining a relationship with the traditional news media and more resources into utilising social media. The reasons for these recommendations are discussed elsewhere (Horsburgh, 2015). The suggestion that the police should dial back their level of interaction with the traditional media may set off warning bells for some. Certainly, the traditional news media like to proclaim that they hold the powerful to account (Aitken, 2016)). However, the extent to which the public get to know about the police and crime issues that affect them most, though the news media, is questionable. The media rarely provide enough information to enable a fair judgement of police effectiveness (Lawrence, 2000; Surette, 2011; Horsburgh, 2015). Of course, I am not arguing that the news media don’t play an important role in bringing fundamental issues to our attention, which is why the recommendations included to invest less time and resources in the news media, but not to close the door completely.

One of the potential benefits of social media is that social media platforms are an avenue for the police and the communities they serve to have meaningful, two-way conversations, where the police can communicate information that is in the public interest, and the public can communicate with the police – and each other – about the policing issues that are important to them. This arguably leads to greater accountability and legitimacy for the police; the public can (and do) use social media to discuss specific incidents of police performance (good and bad), which is something the traditional media can then follow up on. However, as mentioned, despite the capacity for social media to have a positive impact on the police-public relationship, there is a steadily growing and consistent body of research that suggests the police are not using social media channels to their full potential (Crump, 2011; Kudla & Parnaby, 2018). Specifically, they are using it as if it is just another means to push information out to the public, without trying to engage in a two-way conversation. Indeed, my research suggests that although the police are good at communicating information that is relevant and local to the communities they serve (as opposed to the statistically rare and sensational crime that gets news media attention), their level of engagement with the public online is lacking.

I argue that one reason for the lack of interaction on the part of the police is due to the competing demands of being engaging gatekeepers, where the police find it difficult to be both engaging and social media monitors. Indeed, when conducting interviews with police officers and communications staff, it was immediately apparent that they viewed social media as just one more thing that had to be policed. Reasons for monitoring social media included to protect police investigations from the spread of sensitive information, to prevent the use of offensive or inappropriate language, and to ensure the police message was getting out without being changed or diluted by the public response that followed. Further, interviewee responses indicated that it can be difficult knowing what to say and how to say it. Police officers and communications staff without a communications background found this particularly challenging. Interviewees were very aware that just because they could share information, doesn’t mean that they should; among other things (e.g. reputation), they need to communicate information that 1) will be interesting to the public, and 2) not contribute to fear of crime in particular areas or groups of people. Once they decide which information to communicate, they also need to decide how to say it, which can be tricky, as the following excerpt shows:

it’s like you’re now starting to write in 2 or 3 different languages cause…our Facebook site is dumbed right down…as there’s no point in talking in traditional police speak on Facebook because… people just switch right off, so you’ve got to adjust your style of communicating. And then it’s different again for the media and it’s different for our website so we’re all over the place. You’ve got to remember what hat you’re wearing when you’re putting something out because you’re always trying to maximise your feedback and maximise that engagement from the public (Communications Officer D 2012).

As much as interviewees liked to talk about how important social media is for engagement and so on, most interviewees displayed sentiments that made it apparent that they viewed most public input as something of a nuisance that needed to be handled or ignored. For example, one interviewee states:

…a lot of people use Facebook, particularly as a sort of… virtual rubber necking thing. So, you know, they’d ask questions about why, why are the police at 22 High Street. Well, you wouldn’t phone up the police and ask that. You possibly wouldn’t stop a police officer in the street and [ask that]? You wouldn’t walk into a police station and ask that, so why are you asking it on Facebook? We’re not going to tell you if you’re just a member of the public (Communications Officer F, 2012).

The ‘just a member of the public’ comment is particularly telling. If the police are to utilise social media to its full engagement potential, they need to take public input seriously. Of course, they cannot reply to all comments for practical as well as procedural reasons, but they need to start viewing public input/questions as opportunities to engage or as providing intelligence on issues the public need to be informed about. If they perceive comments from the public as a nuisance, this will likely show in their interactions (or lack thereof).

The challenges outlined above, make it difficult for the police to fully engage with the public on social media; which might go some way to explaining the lack of engagement that is evident in the extant research. In order to enhance community engagement and to improve accountability, these issues need to be addressed. The police are already doing a good job of sharing relevant information with the public (though this, too, could be enhanced), they act as effective gatekeepers to sensitive information, but they now need find ways to improve their level of engagement with the public. They need to find a way of being ‘engaging gatekeepers’. If they can do this, social media can be an invaluable tool for police engagement and accountability.

Dr Heather Horsburgh is a Lecturer in Criminal Justice and Criminology at the University of the West of Scotland. Email: Twitter: @HeatherHorsbur1



Police vs. Desire? Police Brutalities in Italy

Dr Vincenzo Scalia

Since 2001, when the brutalities committed by the Italian police during the G8 in Genoa became internationally known, awareness of police brutalities has also spread among the Italian public. Italian NGOs active in the defense of civil liberties, in particular Antigone and A Buon Diritto, developed a monitoring network which relies on voluntary activists and lawyers, so as to encourage both the victims and their family to make the cases known. Moreover, associations of police brutality victims, such as Associazione Contro gli Abusi in Divisa (ACAD, Association against police brutalities) became active in the creation of a monitoring network about police brutalities. .

Cases were provided by Italian lawyers belonging to the network to the researchers which concern episodes of police brutalities which occurred across the country. By accessing to some of the most serious 37 cases provided by lawyers, related to brutalities occurring between 2010 and 2015, it was possible to analyse in depth the more recent police brutalities occurring in Italy. We add to these 37 cases also the tragic case of Federico Aldrovandi, the 17 year old youth from Ferrara who died from police brutalities, in September 2005. This latter case is added because it marks a watershed in the perception of police brutalities by the public. The death of an Italian, middle class youth from police brutalities, was indeed a shock for a public opinion which has been relatively tolerant to police  brutalities against immigrants and political activists.

In our research we were able to detect that cases resulting in police brutality involved conflict between policing (and the activity aimed at maintaining public order) and desire. The latter term  refers to those leisure activities of the cities related to the lifestyle of young people, immigrants and working class youth, who attend disco clubs and use drugs, as well as to football supporters who express sub-cultural identities by their belonging to ultras group or football supporters firms. We identified two different categories of dynamics underpinning police brutalities. The first one could be defined as on call. We are referring to the cases when the police intervene after the call of some resident. Such calls usually follow the hearing of noise by the residents of those districts without leisure venues, who associate the noise in the street with fights, drug-related matters and illegal behaviours in general. The second category is defined patrol, it refers to the brutalities Italian police forces commit while patrolling working class areas and enacting stop and search activities. These cases demonstrate more class and race bias, as the victims of brutalities are more common among the ranks of working class and, underclass’ (such as precarious workers and immigrants) than among middle-class Italians. This typology of brutalities on call/patrol follow the securitarian mood which has molded the action of Italian governments of different political majorities since 1990s.  On call cases answer the request of help by intervention by citizens, and often end up with the police dealing with mainstream Italians, who behave “eccentrically”. On patrol brutalities cases concern interventions in marginal areas, where police officers expect to find some unusual behaviour.

The outcome of police brutalities is death in the majority of cases reviewed (20 out of 38). In recent years, the mobilization of civil society has encouraged the families of the victims in their claims for justice, both by raising public awareness, and by providing them with legal and financial support, as well as with helping in gathering evidence. It was in this way possible to achieve a conviction of the police forces who killed Federico Aldrovandi, and to carry forward the case of Stefano Cucchi who died from injuries sustained following  his arrest and a period in custody. Despite these positive changes, there still is a long way to go to in order to prevent such brutalities from occuring and to reverse the mood of that part of the Italian public who deems such behaviour necessary for the police to enact a law and order oriented behaviour.

Firstly, the anti-torture law that the Italian parliament passed in 2017 is quite weak, as it punishes torture only in cases where it was done by more than one person or, if there is only one aggressor, in cases where there are repeated instances of torture, and does not see torture as a crime committed by institutional actors, but, rather, by individuals. The reason for such a belated approval is due both to the fact that the foundations of the Italian penal law date back to Fascism (Rocco Act, 1930) and to the resistance to pass an act which could result into a limitation of the action of police. This latter aspect draws its consent from the idea, quite popular among the Italian public, that an unrestrained police force will be fighting corruption and organized crime more efficiently. Secondly, in Italy, there does not exist such a thing as an Independent Office for Police Conduct, making it difficult to investigate and ascertain the responsibilities of police forces. All the enquiry commissions are internal, and are quite reluctant to pass documents to the magistrates, or to the lawyers, in order to protect police forces. As a consequence of this, it is hard to prosecute police officers who committed brutalities (Della Porta, 1998). Thirdly, there is a dominating securitarian mood in Italian public opinion, whose main standpoint is that police forces always protect the public from major dangers, such that questioning their modus operandi means to undermine public order. This attitude is strongly supported by many political forces but has its strongest advocates among the right wing forces, in particular among the Northern League who were ruling the country until August 2019 in a securitarian coalition with the populist Five Star Movement. Finally, there is a class and race division with regards to the ascertaining of police brutalities. The case which were brought to the knowledge of public opinion concern Italian, middle class victims, whereas there is a “dark number” of migrants, roma and ‘underclass’ victims who die from police brutalities, whose identity is uncertain and who hardly have any justice, even a post-mortem. The awareness of police brutalities among the Italian public is still at its first stage. On the one hand, it has massively increased in these late years. On the other hand, it has to deal with both legislative limits and with a widespread populist mood.

Dr Vincenzo Scalia is a Reader in Criminology at the University of Winchester. Email: Twitter: @scaliavincenzo

Revisiting the ‘Blue Code of Silence’ in Policing

Dr Sarah Charman

In May 2014, the then Home Secretary Theresa May demanded a “fundamental change in police culture” in response to a critical HMIC report on the police response to domestic violence and abuse. We can perhaps therefore add ‘changing police culture’ to a ‘Top 10’ list of things that Theresa May has not managed to personally influence in recent years.  However, whilst it is true that politicians can arguably do very little to influence cultural change within organisational and occupational cultures, that is not to say that cultural change isn’t happening.  Cultural memories might shift slowly but they do shift. I interviewed a sample of new police recruits to ‘Evermord Constabulary’ [fictional name] on four occasions during the first four years of their careers and considered how, and in which ways, they adapted to their new identity as police officers (Charman, 2017).  One feature of that identity which will be the focus of this blog, is the extent to which changes to both the formal and informal workings of policing have potentially altered officers’ relationship with colleagues and the extent of the bonds of solidarity between them.

Much of the early research on policing referred to the culture as all-encompassing. Skolnick (2008, p.35) has argued that “being a police officer is a defining identity”. Police culture was characterised in terms of high levels of solidarity and suspiciousness, isolation and a distinctive ‘us versus them’ mindset. The military-style rank structure, the promotion of discipline and obedience, the uniform and the 24-hour nature of the job, all fed into an institutionalised ideology of a unique organisation set apart from the public. By being ‘set apart’, the inevitable impact of that isolation was a promotion of the imagery of solidarity and communality amongst its members and an expectation of remaining a member of that organisation for life. That solidarity was considered to be a powerful bond which united police officers in their work, both in terms of the public and from external oversight via the ‘blue code of silence’ (see: Westmarland 2005; Westmarland and Rowe 2016; Chan 2003; Goldsmith 1990)

So are those bonds of solidarity between officers still as strong and is their isolation from the public still as pronounced?  The new police recruits in my research did not refer to the narrative of policing being ‘a job for life’, and indeed, some spoke of it rather more in terms of a ‘job for now’, framed in the language of policing being a ‘job’ rather than a ‘lifestyle’. Although the research found that comradeship is strong, it is importantly not unqualified, and there are limits to this solidarity (Charman, 2017). These limits appear to be especially related to the perceptions of a ‘blue code of silence’.

One of the questions asked of the new recruits was how far they agreed with the following statement:

Police Officers must Observe a Code of Secrecy amongst Themselves to Protect Fellow Officers (%)

  Time A Time B Time C Time D
Strongly Agree



Strongly Disagree












The majority of respondents disagreed with this statement at each time point. However, it is the strength of this disagreement which changes over time. At TIME A (4 weeks in), 30.4% of respondents strongly disagreed but by TIME D (4 years in), this number had almost doubled to 58.8%, becoming the most common answer.

There are two opposing explanations for why this might be the case. On the one hand, it could be argued that police officers become more sophisticated in their self-reported behaviours and their ‘storytelling’ to ‘outsiders’; that they become more politically aware of the dangers of betraying the more negative aspects of policing cultures. This could be coupled with a growing alignment with other attitudes such as the importance of suspiciousness, the tendency of police officers to ‘lay low’ and ‘not to make waves’, and the advice given to the new recruits in terms of ‘covering themselves’. This is in addition to the high levels of cynicism that police officers believe are part of the nature of being a police officer.

However, there is an alternative explanation which also needs consideration. The discussions that took place between the new recruits and the interviewer revealed a very nuanced account of the intricacies of the notion of a ‘blue code of silence’. It is my argument that the changing ‘field’ and the changing ‘habitus’ of policing have both impacted in different ways upon this issue. The changing field of policing in relation to accountability means that there is now a heavy focus upon professional standards, the routine escalation of complaints, a fear of ‘doing the wrong thing’ and a fear of little to no management support when things do go wrong. This is exemplified by the following comments from respondents:

“if you succeed as a team, you fail on your own” (W10)

“you don’t really have any support from anyone if it goes wrong, it’s all like you’re totally accountable yourself if something goes wrong” (Z7)

“If I got into a fight right now and I hit my emergency button, I know that … everybody would come running to help me out … they’d have my back, which is great.  Conversely … if I went into the office over there and said something that was questionable, maybe quite seriously politically incorrect, a racist term or anything like that, then I would be very surprised if pretty much most of the people didn’t write a report” (D5)

“I think that’s the public’s perception that we all, kind of, group together and we’re all, you know, we’ve got each other’s back. But actually, this last two years I’ve realised that a lot of what you go through you go through on your own” (D8)

There is also the changing habitus of police officers to be considered – the attitudes, values and beliefs that shape officers’ behaviours. From my research, this was characterised by a lack of tolerance for unacceptable policing behaviours and a belief in integrity, which was mentioned frequently by the new recruits as a feature of a ‘good’ police officer, after communication, empathy and compassion. These views were expressed by the majority of research participants and this small selection of quotes are used by way of examples:

“There were quite a few officers I knew, both in [name of other force] and here, who have, sort of, retired or been pushed.  The view these days is very much more, we can’t afford to have anyone like that working for the police.  And again, the more accountable, the more transparent we are, the more those people stand out” (D6)

“they have this thing at [name of training school], you’re told, if you hear something that’s not PC, you’re supposed to stand there and challenge and you think that will never happen but it does. You go into the workplace and people do because they know they have a responsibility themselves to pick up on things like that … so it does happen … we are a different breed totally, definitely” (C8)

“we can’t like slap people’s heads off a desk and you can’t put stuff in their boot and then say they had it on them already and you can’t shine a light in people’s eyes and get answers out of them, but at the same time, you do a better job and people get…and if you do convict people then you’ve done it the right way and it’s not fudged and it’s not unlawful” (X10).

What this might suggest that the traditional ‘blue code of silence’ could be in the process of being superseded by what I have called ‘the blue code of self-protection’. According to Waddington (1999), the prime motivating factor for police officers when undertaking their duties on the street is not the enactment of the more expressive ‘backstage’ talk but the concern of ‘staying out of trouble’, or as I have termed it, the ‘blue code of self-protection’. Perhaps as Chan (2007, p. 343) has argued, the “old ‘stand by your mates’ framework is no longer sustainable”. Myhill and Bradford (2013) have argued for a more fluid understanding of the ‘code of silence’. That more fluid understanding can be seen through this suggestion of movement from silence towards self-protection. These are important and interesting changes to the perceptions of the occupational habitus of police officers. What we might need to consider therefore is that we are witnessing a subtle shift away from the ‘blue code of silence’ as a dominant paradigm and a movement towards a ‘blue code of self-protection’ which has been influenced by a more individualist, risk-averse but publicly accountable policing organisation.

Dr Sarah Charman is a Reader in Criminology at the University of Portsmouth. Email: Twitter: @sarahc2612


Perpetual Suspects

Dr Lisa Long

I continue to live my body in Black within a culture where Blackness is still over determined by myths and presuppositions that fix my body as a site of danger (Yancy, 2008:59).

In December 2018, twenty years on from the publication of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report (Macpherson, 1999), the Home Affairs Committee launched an inquiry to examine the progress made against Macpherson’s 70 recommendations over the last two decades. However, it is evident from a cursory glance at the statistics that race continues to shape policing outcomes. Black people are over nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white peers (nationally with some regional variation) (Home Office, 2018a), are almost four times more likely to be subject to use of force and are more likely to be subjects of taser use (Home Office, 2018b). It follows, that Black people, especially men, disproportionately die in police custody or during or after police contact (Athwal and Bourne, 2015). In this context, my research sought to understand the experiences that Black and Black mixed-race men and women have when they come into contact with the police. I interviewed twenty participants about their experiences of police contact over the life course. Utilising a Critical Race Theory (CRT) framework, the research prioritised racialised voices and, through an intersectional analysis, presented a counter-narrative to the dominant police narratives which engage in denial of racism as an explanation for the police focus on Black bodies. I submitted to the recent inquiry, in brief, the findings of my PhD research which has been recently published as a monograph (Long, 2018) Perpetual Suspects: A Critical Race Theory of Black and Mixed-Race Experiences of Policing with Palgrave Macmillan. Some of the key findings are outlined here.


The research finds that both Black men and women have their first encounter with the police at a young age. This may be through an awareness of surveillance in the place where they grew up, through observing treatment of family members or direct contact by being asked to account for their presence or behaviour. This is particularly apparent in ‘racially Othered spaces’; those spaces which are occupied by the Black (and ethnic minority) Other and resultantly are imagined as dangerous, criminogenic spaces. Further, several participants experienced ‘unjustified’ arrest in their early teenage years, often resulting in no further action. Black bodies are perpetually suspect, even in childhood. These negative experiences in the formative years cement their understanding of the relationship with the police as ‘Us vs Them’. So normalised is its occurrence in the lives of Black men, stop and search was broadly unremarked upon in the interviews without prompting. Whilst these forms of contact lessen with advancing age and lifestyle changes such as having children, no longer working shifts and not socialising outside at night, other forms of contact, including car stops, serve as reminder to them that they are the perpetual suspect. Several participants recalled being the subject of use of force, in the context of restraint, in ways which were perceived as being to excessive in order to contain the threat of the ‘big, Black, man’.  The experiences recalled by Black mixed-race men (and some women) are undifferentiated from those of Black men. Through the ‘white [police] gaze’ they are seen as ‘monstrous blacks’ and are policed as such (Long and Joseph -Salisbury, 2019).  For (some) women, race can be negotiated, to varying extents, through acceptable versions of femininity; however, for men their Blackness poses the ultimate threat.

(Un) Victims

One of the significant findings of this research is that, for Black and Black mixed-race people, negative experiences of reporting victimisation to the police, particularly in the case of non-hate crime related incidents, can have significant consequences for their trust and confidence in the police. This is an area that has hitherto been overlooked in research. The process of becoming a victim is an ‘emergent process of signification’ (Rock, 2002:17), the police are significant actors in this process and racialised ideas about ‘suspect’ bodies are negotiated within the police encounter with the victim. This negates the ‘ideal victim’ status (Christie, 1986) constructing them as the (Un) Victim (Long, 2018).  This is evident in the themes emerging from this study; Black and Black mixed-race victims of crime are not taken seriously and they are treated as suspect when they report victimisation. This is more significant for men; the women who took part in the study reported more satisfactory experiences of reporting victimisation. This is with the exception of one participant, Alice. Alice had a history of police contact due to petty offending linked to drug addiction. She is an offender in the victim/offender dichotomy and is therefore unworthy of victim status. For the women who were not ‘known’ to the police, a display of appropriate and acceptable forms of femininity can negotiate race and enhance their experience in comparison to that of men. This can be displayed through compliance and/or professional status. However, despite more satisfactory experiences of reporting crime, the women were aware of the need to prove their worthiness within these encounters. These experiences, often in the context of minor/petty crime, have significant and long-lasting consequences for trust and confidence in the police and expressed willingness to report future victimisation.

The majority of the participants in this study said that they would contact the police if they needed help or to report a crime, dependent on severity; however, all participants expressed low expectations of the police response to them. Further, they rationalised reporting crime through their citizenship or payment of taxes, which they felt ‘entitled’ them to a service.  For a minority of the participants, the police were completely disregarded as a source of help, regardless of the nature or severity of the incident (also, see Yarrow, 2005).  The participants who professed to a complete avoidance of the police had in common that they had experienced extended and cumulative negative contact with police over several years and in various contexts or, alternatively, had one significant and defining experience which altered their perception of the police. When racialised relations force the (Un)Victim to view themselves through the ‘white gaze’ (Yancy, 2008), and consider that race may be the reason that they do not have access to justice, this has brutalising racist affects which trump the impact of victimisation resulting in ‘racial re-victimisation’ (Long, 2018).


In summary, the research finds that institutional racism continues to shape Black and Black mixed-race people’s experiences of policing, facilitated by a culture of denial. The analysis shows that there is not one Black experience or perception of policing, but several. These experiences are produced differently through identity and identification as Black on a continuum, which relies upon subordinate masculinities and femininities for the reproduction of White power (See, Mills, 1997) a system upheld (knowingly or unknowingly), by the state police.

The full implications of this research are explored in Long (2018). Perpetual Suspects: A Critical Race Theory of Black and Mixed-Race Experiences of Policing. London:Palgrave.

The experiences of victims will be analysed through a re-conceptualisation of Christie’s (1981) ‘Ideal Victim’ thesis in a paper to be presented at this year’s BSC Conference in July.

Dr Lisa Long is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Leeds Beckett University,

Email: Twitter: @therealljlong


Dignity, decency, legality: Making police custody ‘good’?

Dr Layla Skinns

Across England and Wales, upwards of 900,000 citizens are arrested and detained in police custody each year, making it an important site for everyday interactions between the public and the police. Police custody is where a suspect is taken on arrest after an allegation of law-breaking, whilst an investigation is mounted and a decision is reached about what to do next, for example, whether to charge them or bail them. It is also a place in which the police and civilian detention officers who work in police custody must keep a highly vulnerable suspect population safe, as a result of a range of needs including mental and physical health conditions, addiction and intoxication, learning disabilities and gender-specific needs, all of which may be exacerbated by their detention. Drawing on my experiences of a recent ESRC-funded study, I critically reflect here on why making police custody ‘good’ was and continues to be an important objective for the research.

My interest in this formally began in 2011, during what I called ‘Phase 0’ of the research, in which I had initial conversations with key stakeholders and colleagues about the possibilities of making police custody ‘good’. This was my first foray into thinking appreciatively about the possibilities and not just the pitfalls of police custody for those who are detained or work therein. These were not always easy conversations to have and some did not lead to the desired outcomes (Greene and Skinns, 2018). I nonetheless persevered. This appreciative framing of the ‘good’ police custody study – which was subsequently granted funding by the ESRC in 2012 and commenced in 2013 – was not based on a set of naïve and over-optimistic assumptions about the nature of police custody. I had by this point already spent a number of years researching in police custody settings in England and in other jurisdictions and was fully cognisant of how grim, brutalising, dehumanising, demoralising and stigmatising police detention can be, at its worst, with these effects often being felt by the most vulnerable members of society and also to some extent by staff (Skinns, 2019).

However, I was also conscious that it was time to change tack. Yes, there is a lot at stake. For suspects, their safety, well-being, fair treatment and access to justice are at stake and, for the police, their legitimacy and the integrity of the criminal justice process. There is also therefore much that can go seriously wrong, whether a death or a serious injury or a miscarriage of justice or a sense of exclusion from society. Nonetheless, my overarching research question in the ‘good’ police custody study, was concerned with the circumstances in which police custody might be ‘good’ and ‘good’ for whom, particularly in light of the growing role for civilian detention officers and for the private sector (Skinns et al., 2017). This question reflected a theoretical set of interests in conceptualising the meaning of good police custody and, by implication, good police work, but it was also about trying to make a difference, through the impact of the research on the lived realities of those who are detained and who work in police custody.

After five years, three research phases and the collection of a range of qualitative and quantitative data, the research is now reaching its concluding phases. My colleagues and I are also now starting to articulate the meaning of ‘good’ police custody. Based largely on the data collected in Phase 3 in which the research team surveyed nearly 800 staff and detainees in 27 custody suites in 13 forces, three main sets of findings stand out, linked to dignity, decency and legality, with the first two of these concepts also being deeply affected by material conditions, that is, whether police detention facilities are seen as bright, light, spacious and as if someone cares about these surroundings. This suggests that police custody can be made ‘good’ when dignity – linked to equality and decency – is prioritised by police custody practitioners, managers, national leads and policy makers in relation to the operation and strategic direction of police custody, alongside the existing focus on abiding by the legal rules such as of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the associated Codes of Practice.

These ideas are central to the well-received good practice benchmarks which police stakeholders from across England and Wales were consulted on in November 2018 (see here for the draft version). These are due to be finalised in May 2019 and then implemented and evaluated in four police force areas from the autumn onwards. The appreciative framing of the research has helped to provide traction for the ideas it has generated, at a time when large numbers of police forces are under pressure and constrained by limited resources. The research has also enabled the identification of a set of aspirations and practices that we should expect to see in order to make police custody ‘good’. I am hopeful therefore that the research is poised to make a difference, including to the treatment of and material conditions in which some of the most marginalised groups in society are held. This provides reason enough for wanting to make police custody ‘good’.

Layla Skinns is a Reader in Criminology at the Centre for Criminological Research, School of Law, University of Sheffield. Email:

This piece is based on data analysis completed with Dr Angela Sorsby, with additional research support from Dr Lindsey Rice, Amy Sprawson, Dr Andrew Wooff and Rivka Smith, as well as from Amal Ali, Dermot Barr and Claire Kershaw.

The ‘good’ police custody study was generously funded by the ESRC (research grant no. ES/J023434/)