It’s life Jim, but not as we know it

When I arrived in Oslo recently I had forgotten that the doors to hotel guest rooms open outwards towards you. My oversight became abundantly clear when I encountered the door to my room; it did not open for me. My initial thoughts were that either the door was faulty, the lock was broken, the key card was not correctly encoded, or that I had arrived at the wrong room. A moment later, after a brief inspection of the door fittings, I realised that I had unwittingly become, once again, the nitwit in Gary Larson’s cartoon Midvale School for the Gifted (see below). However, putting this to one side, as well as the smug feeling of achievement at solving the most routine of problems, I began the inevitable luggage-wrestle while trying to pull open the door. This moment of observation-assumption-action-failure-annoyance-puzzlement-assumption-success-smugness acts as a reminder to us, as scientists, of the importance of being sensitive to differences of the cultural norms of the world we aspire to describe. We mustn’t assume, as I did, that while one object may seem familiar, perhaps due to our exposure to it in our own cultural context, that it may be have the same meaning or function in another cultural context.


Figure 1: Gary Larson, Midvale School for the Gifted. 2nd First Look 09/09/2012. Web 18/01/2016.

Much of the literature which examines the behaviour of the police occurs within a single jurisdictional or country specific context. While there are some notable exceptions, (see for example: Banton 1964; Waddington et al. 2009) many studies only make comparisons of different geographical areas within a single jurisdiction. While there is much to be learnt from these comparisons, such as differences in practice of metropolitan and rural policing, or maybe between affluent and socially deprived communities, there can be a danger in making generalisations. While most hotel doors in England open inwards, by pushing, this is not always the case in all countries.

I was recently reminded of the importance of jurisdictional-sensitivity when participating in an online discussion about a piece of writing about ‘stop and search’ and police legitimacy. An argument was being made using British and American data that ‘stop and search’ could negatively affect police legitimacy. I had no problem with the use of this data to support the argument as it seemed to follow a logical path. However, when I finished reading the article I sensed that the message to the reader was that ‘stop and search’ mechanisms in law were a fundamental risk to police legitimacy. I took pause at this point to consider this. Had I interpreted the message correctly: was this the message that the authors’ wished to portray? I accepted the merit in using data from two jurisdictions to support the argument however I felt that the analytical narrative overall was weak. I felt that it was missing a broader discussion of ‘stop and search’ practice in other countries, especially those countries which were more aligned with the ‘British’ style of policing.

At the time it was my view was that ‘stop and search’ can pose a risk to police legitimacy, however this is not necessarily always the case. I have experienced – as a practitioner – that ‘stop and search’ can also have a positive effect on police legitimacy. For instance, the most common ‘stop and search’ encounters in New Zealand relate to road traffic stops for alcohol breath testing. Police routinely stop vehicles for random breath tests or deploy static breath testing checkpoints. While drivers are stopped they provide a sample of their breath to be tested for the presence of alcohol. Somewhat different to a physical body search, or ‘pat down’ for weapons or drugs, yet still a ‘stop and search’. While there is little empirical evidence to support my proposition that this type of breath testing ‘stop and search’ does not contribute to a decline in police legitimacy, my experience tells me that this is the case. (Mazerolle et al. 2012 explore this relationship to some degree, but not from a cross-cultural context.)

Consider the recent experience of American Huffington Post Reporter Janis Powers. She wrote an article of her experience of being stopped for a speed infringement while holidaying in New Zealand, and about her objection to having participate in an alcohol breath test:

As a visitor in any foreign country, I never expect my rights as an American to supersede those of the nation where I am traveling. But things just didn’t seem right when I was given a mandatory road-side breathalyzer test, just because I was speeding. […] When I look back on the situation, I understand that in New Zealand, innocent drivers like me will be inconvenienced by mandatory breathalyzer tests in order to nab someone who is driving under the influence of alcohol. And that drunk driver, if not caught, could bring harm, even death, to others and/or to him/herself. Was I frustrated that I was delayed in getting to the hotel? Absolutely. Was I upset that I had to perform this test with my children looking on from inside the car, confused and bewildered? Of course. The fact that I was compelled to take a breathalyzer test is certainly on the low end of the spectrum of potential civil rights abuses.

Powers also then attempted to draw a link her own experience to that of American Sandra Bland who died after a routine traffic stop in Texas. After posting her article, Powers received a very public rebuke from New Zealand media outlets and the online community. Not only had she misinterpreted the law, she invoked a flurry of comments from members of the public who expressed displeasure at Powers’ perspective. Some of the online comments are of particular interest as they show support for the actions of police officer who conducted the breath test. One example from Dianne van Dulken a reader from Adelaide posted the following:

“Awww you poor baby. You were breaking the law, and they treated you like someone who might be breaking the law! FANCY THAT! Both in NZ and Australia, you can be pulled over at any time and breathalised. And no one objects because it stops people dying. Remember that, when police where [sic] there to stop people dying?”

Van Dulken’s comment offers an interesting insight in to the public’s perspective of the necessity of this particular type of ‘stop and search’. In addition, it shows how, when used correctly, ‘stop and search’ can be seen to have the potential to have a positive impact on police legitimacy. Furthermore, it illustrates how there can be a variation in public perception of police practice from country to country. It appears that Powers’ response to the traffic stop was deeply routed in her cultural perspective (an American who believes strongly in her constitutional rights) that her civil rights were abused. This is opposite van Dulken’s message, that it is not an issue of individual civil rights, that the police action is designed to prevent harm to the community. Van Dulken suggests that the necessity of the police action outweighs the inconvenience and intrusion into the individual’s rights. As such, her comments add legitimacy the police officer’s actions.

My thoughts in this post are not intended to adequately debate the utility of ‘stop and search’, nor discuss how ‘stop and search’ affects police legitimacy. My message is to highlight the importance for us as scientists to consider how culture, jurisdiction, nationhood, can affect views of police behaviour and as such to consider the utility of cross-cultural and cross-jurisdictional methodological approaches to research projects. This is important for two reasons. First, as scientists, to understand that findings from a research project are a product of the culture from where the study originates. As a police officer practitioner researcher from New Zealand I am often sceptical of literature which leads the reader to believe that its findings are broadly generalisable from one location to another, or from one jurisdiction to another. Second, that any cross-cultural, cross-jurisdictional, or cross-national research may have a greater potential to discover phenomena which are truly generalisable in some way. My ‘stop and search’ example shows that problems may in fact lie with the interpretation or implementation of a legislative mechanism rather than the mechanism itself. While I am sure that most of us understand this, we need to make an effort to consider this in our own work and make this clear in our publications.

Ross Hendy is a PhD Student at the Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge. Email: Twitter: @Ross__Hendy


Finding legitimacy down the back of the sofa?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LEARNING BY TESTING: Understanding Successful Police Field Experiments


The movement to reform policing through the deployment of scientific approaches – “evidence-based policing” (EBP) – has grown in importance in the last few years (Weisburd and Neyroud, 2011). For some scholars, a central feature of EBP is the importance attached to randomised controlled trials. RCTs are controversial with others who argue that policing is not comparable to medicine and that RCTs are unable to reflect the complexity of the police role and context (Cockbain and Knutsson, 2014). Even those who advocate the use of RCTs recognise that there are significant challenges in achieving the high dosage and high fidelity that a successful experiment requires (Dennis (1988), Berk (2005) and Goldkamp (2008)).

However, even with the growth of systematic reviews and the growing interest in RCTs we have never had a comprehensive list of those involving the police or an analysis of how successful they have been as experiments.

Having led the National Policing Improvement Agency and having been a major sponsor of systematic reviews of the evidence on policing, my own research, post my police career, has been directed at filling these gaps. After a search for completed Police RCTs, the research has analysed the levels of treatment integrity with a view to building a better understanding of the challenges of conducting and managing successful police field trials.

Searching for Police RCTs

The search started from previous reviews of RCTs in policing and then covered Campbell Systematic Reviews, NCJRS abstracts, Grey literature databases and manual searching of key journals. However, even though I am the co-chair of the Campbell Collaboration on Crime and Justice, I recognize that searching sometimes needs to be intuitive and go “off piste”. One RCT – an early test of two different training methods – was found whilst idly combing discarded library books on sale from a mid-West US university.

The Progress of Police RCTs 1970-2015

The searching revealed that there have been more than 107 RCTs involving the police since 1970. As Figure 1 shows, there has been a small but steady use of RCTs since 1970, but with a significant growth since 2010. From conference papers, Internet postings and personal contact, the research has also identified more than 25 RCTs “in flight”, suggesting that the growth is continuing and may be accelerating. What is changing is the rapid growth of RCTs where one or more of the principle investigators is a serving police officer and the experiment is part of a partnership between a university and a police force. The most obvious illustration of this is the eight RCTs due to report shortly on the effectiveness of Body Worn Video. Given the operational and political sensitivity around this equipment across the world, proper field-testing replicated across different jurisdictions is a high priority.


Analysing Treatment Integrity

However, it is one thing to experiment, quite another to implement the experiment effectively. Analysis of police innovations has tended to find significant problems with implementation. Paying attention to the levels of treatment integrity – the extent to which the treatment intended was assigned and delivered – is a critical measure of the success of an experiment.

In order to arrive at an estimated measure of the overall treatment integrity, all 107 RCTs were analysed by looking for data and commentary in the published reports relating to:

    • % of cases (both treatment and control) that were reported as “treated as assigned”.
    • The level of compliance with the treatment upon which the RCT was designed.
    • There was a wide range of results. Data from 16 RCTs suggests a level of treatment integrity below 60%. This is significant because Durlak and Dupre (2008) in a systematic review of the effect of implementation on program outcomes suggested that positive results could be obtained from implementation levels above 60% and that stronger results were associated with higher levels of implementation. Emerging results from this research suggests that:


    • There were 26 RCT reports where the data to complete this was either absent from the report or insufficient for analysis. This was more common in the earlier RCTs. More recent RCTs have tended to show a CONSORT flow diagram and report levels of treatment compliance.
    • Around 20% of reported Police RCTs fell below the 60% threshold
    • Nearly half of the 107 (53) exceeded 80% treatment integrity
    • The low treatment integrity was not strongly associated with one design or treatment intervention type
    • Attention to tracking, control of randomisation and the strength of the research-practitioner partnership appeared to be important factors

Implications and next steps

The increasing use of RCT designs to test police practices provides a strong argument for learning from the experience of implementation. The lessons almost certainly extend to other field designs such as Quasi-Experiments. The work to develop a Global Police Database of police research since the 1950’s has identified more than 7000 studies with a control in the design.The second stage of this study has used a more detailed analysis of an individual Police RCT. Operation Turning Point, which ran from 2011 to 2014, tested police prosecution against a treatment centred on a deferred prosecution with conditions. Participants in the RCT have been interviewed using a protocol developed from analysis of the completed RCTs. The aim is to develop and set out a working theory on the conduct of successful experiments (Turning Point achieved a level of treatment integrity over 90%).


The research has been designed to draw out lessons from nearly 50 years of experimentation in policing. RCTs – and other research designs – are often reported with a strong emphasis on the levels of statistical significance in the outcomes, without enough attention to the challenges encountered in implementing the treatment. More than 40 years ago, Ron Clarke and Derek Cornish (1972) wrote a short research note about the experience of conducting experiments in criminal justice institutions. They highlighted operational, ethical and methodological challenges that have been much quoted by subsequent scholars. The data from this research is suggesting that many of the risks identified by Clarke and Cornish can be avoided in police experiments by deploying the lessons that can be learnt from half a century of testing.

Peter Neyroud (CBE QPM) is an Affiliated Lecturer and Resident Scholar at the Jerry Lee Centre for Experimental Criminology, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge and Co-Chair Campbell Collaboration (Crime and Justice). Email:  Twitter: @pwneyroud

When the Cynic Becomes a Convert (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying about Fads and Love Evidence Based Policing)

“I’m pretty sure people are going to start writing letters again once the email fad passes” – Willie Geist (2011), US television personality.

“Fad: an intense and widely shared enthusiasm for something, especially one that is short-lived and without basis in the object’s qualities; a craze” – OED (2015).

Shifting trends in any social sphere often generate a significant dose of skepticism, and usually rightly so. After all, how many people over the age of thirty can’t remember one of the following: chia pets, Rubik’s cube, grunge, wide shoulder pads, Tickle Me Elmo, the ‘Rachel’ or, worse yet, the Mullet? Policing has hardly been immune to this phenomenon. In the fifteen or so years I have been conducting research in the field, I have seen a number of changes to the profession that have been variously termed new and exciting ‘trends’. To name a few, I have seen police organizations variously adopt forms of community policing, intelligence led-policing, Broken Windows, Problem Oriented Policing, COMPSTAT, civilianization, hub models, modes of ‘partnership working’ and/or third party policing, all in a never-ending quest for increasing police effectiveness and efficiency.

While each of the models above has undoubtedly had some staying power in one or more policing jurisdictions, they have also each been decried by academic researchers and police alike as ‘fads’ and, in many instances, exploited, discarded and/or ignored as such. My own cynicism about policing innovations becoming meaningless fads developed in 2000 as a result of an encounter in a police station in California. Once I was buzzed into a local precinct station, I asked the armed officer behind the bulletproof glass for some brochures on his organization’s community policing programs. After explaining to him that I got the idea his agency practiced community policing from their website, he scoffed, “nah, we don’t do that shit here.” When I subsequently asked a precinct Captain in that same city whether his organization practiced community policing, you may be certain the answer did not involve excrement. And yet subsequent interviews with rank and file members confirmed a major disconnect between the ‘party line’ and what was happening on the streets.

To be clear: my experience in that police station does not mean that I walked away viewing community policing as a fad. It does mean that I came to be somewhat more skeptical when a new policing innovation appeared on the horizon. Was ‘model X’ or ‘technology Y’, I wondered, really representative of the possibility of meaningful change that would help to improve the delivery of policing services? Or, was it simply another fad that would come and go like pet rocks and mustard yellow gaucho pants? Cynically, I more often lumped new ideas into the pet rock category.

Fast forward fifteen years and I find myself in the unlikely position of championing what I see as an innovative approach with the potential to effect a significant paradigm shift in policing: evidence based policing (EBP). How did this transformation from innovation cynic to EBP champion come to pass? And why?

I would love to say that my transformation began with a combination of lightning rods, the road to Damascus and dancing narwhals, but I’m afraid the truth is rather more prosaic: it began with my begrudging participation in the creation of a Canadian government commissioned report meant to answer the question: ‘what is the future of policing models in Canada?’ (CCA 2014). What I discovered is that it’s rather difficult to answer such questions when there is little to no reliable empirical data upon which to draw. And the reason why there is so little data available is that for a variety of reasons – including underfunding of criminal justice research and the chronic ‘dialogue of the deaf’ (Bradley and Nixon 2009) – policing research in Canada had gone largely stagnant. As a result, there are many fairly basic questions regarding current and future policing services that we simply cannot answer with any degree of confidence. Something clearly needed to change.

To be fair, it wasn’t only academic researchers who were noticing that Canadian policing research was in a slump. Police leaders and provincial and federal policy-makers were also aware of this fact, as they grappled with questions of efficiency and effectiveness at a time of rising criminal justice costs and shrinking public budgets. As awareness increased within and across each of the usually isolated silos of policy, research and practice, a remarkable shift began to take place: some of us began speaking to each other rather than at each other. In doing so, we started to recognize that if we were to reinvigorate the Canadian policing research agenda to meet the goal of producing actionable research to inform sound policy and practice, we not only needed each other, but we needed to find new, more meaningful ways of working together. What was needed was a solution and it had to have potential for more staying power than lava lamps and leisure suits.

Why EBP? Evidence based policing is an approach that focuses equal attention on the methods used to conduct research as on its subsequent translation and use. It arises as a total concept in work by Lawrence Sherman (1998: 2) in which he argued for the need for police practices to “be based on scientific evidence about what works best.” As a practice, EBP embodies the following core tenets:

  1. scientific research has a role to play in developing effective and efficient policing programs;
  2. research produced must meet standards of methodological rigor and be useful to policing;
  3. results should be easily translatable into everyday police practice and policy, and;
  4. research should be the outcome of a blending of police experience with academic research skills (Sherman 2015).

What makes EBP exciting as a tool for generating policing research, and potentially transformative in the realms of practice and policy, is the emphasis on police involvement (Sherman 2015). Academics, police and policy-makers work together to co-generate and co-mobilize research across information silos, thus ending the inability to speak to each other that has long characterized relations between police and academics (Bradley and Nixon 2009), but also between academics and policy-makers (Haggerty 2004). Indeed, not only are police practitioners active partners with academic researchers, many of them are, themselves, directly engaged in conducting research within their own organizations. Incorporating police as ‘co-owners’ of research and the research process is not only viewed as a necessary step to generating productive research (Willis and Mastrofski 2015), it also increases individual and organizational receptivity to using empirically-based findings (Telep and Lum 2014). Further, it provides police officers with opportunities to develop new skills and knowledge (CCA 2014), while potentially affording universities and colleges the ability to develop programs marrying methodologically rigorous research with forms of experiential learning.

Undoubtedly, there are skeptics out there, and, as I have said, I can hardly fault anyone for casting a slightly jaundiced eye. After all, it is very like that without deep, sustained commitment to preach and practice EBP on the part of police, academic researchers and policy-makers, EBP could easily go the way of the hula hoop. Given its potential to effect the types of real, positive change that policing researchers frequently clamor for, the possibility that we might fail and thus find EBP at the bottom of the dustbin in twenty years’ time should not, however, deter us from trying.

Dr Laura Huey is Associate Professor of Sociology at Western University, Canada. Email:

Freddie Gray: Some possible lessons for the UK police

The death of Freddie Gray following his arrest by Baltimore police is the latest in a line of recent high-profile deaths involving police in the United States. There is a lot we still don’t know about what happened, but what we do know suggests two lessons this case might hold for those trying to improve trust in the British police.

The first potential lesson concerns the stunning speed with which the Baltimore authorities conducted their investigation into the death: investigators passed their report to prosecutors just 17 days after Mr Gray died and a detailed summary was released to the public the next day. Compare this to the 15 months that it took the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) in Britain to investigate the death of Andrew Pimlott after he was Tasered by police, or the 12 months taken to investigate the fatal police shooting of Mark Saunders. In 2014, the IPCC aimed to complete half of investigations within the (slightly curious) target of 157 working days (seven-and-a-half months), but only achieved this in “just over a fifth of cases“. As well as being horrible for the friends and family of a person killed by police, and for the officers involved, these delays leave local communities in the dark and may erode public trust in both the police and those who investigate them. Justice delayed is, of course, justice denied.

The IPCC has repeatedly asked for more resources for its investigations, but the gap is so big that the additional funding they’ve recently been given might not be enough: even if they had investigated the Pimlott case (for example) ten-times faster than they did, it would still have taken twice as long as the Gray investigation. At this point we do not know how well the Baltimore investigation will stand up in court. We also cannot know whether the speed of that investigation helped prevent further rioting in Baltimore. But everyone involved in investigating UK deaths in police custody should consider whether there really are good reasons why an investigation here takes 20 times longer than one in the US.

The second potential lesson concerns police efforts to better reflect the communities they serve. At least since the Macpherson Inquiry in 1999, politicians and community leaders have been calling for police recruitment to reflect the ethnic diversity of the population in order to help build trust between the public and the police. The police have responded with a variety of initiatives to increase diversity in their ranks. The riots after Freddie Gray’s death, however, suggest that reflecting the ethnic makeup of communities might be insufficient: non-hispanic white officers are a minority in the Baltimore Police Department, while both the police chief and the mayor are black. The persistence of distrust between the police and minority residents suggests that an ethnically diverse police force can be just as alienated from the police as an all-white one. Clearly the police must look for other ways to ensure the public trust them.

The police in Britain have often had to learn from their own failures, but they can also learn from experiences elsewhere. Senior officers here would do well do keep an eye on happenings across the Atlantic.­­

Matt Ashby is a PhD Student at UCL in the Department of Security and Crime Science. Email: Twitter: @lesscrime


How far can history inform our understanding of police culture and police reform?

Practitioners and scholars of policing continually confront the limited success of democratic police reform initiatives. A recent journal article has stressed, for example, increasing disillusion on the part of international reform ‘donors’ over attempts to instil democratic human rights in police forces in societies emerging from dictatorial rule and/or civil conflict (Bayley 2014, p. 1). Donors’ limited understanding of police culture or the history of policing in ‘recipient’ societies has also been stressed (Brogden 2002, p. 179; Hills 2012, pp. 741-742).

Given the above scenario, how far can historical precedent aid our understanding of police culture and police reform? Institutional documents, training manuals, magazines, memoirs, film footage, and oral testimonies enable a reconstruction of the evolution of police forces in the past, their values and worldviews, and the behaviour and working lives of their personnel. They record how police forces related to criminals and the wider public and how this was represented internally. They offer a detailed picture of how police forces acted during dictatorships and subsequently in the face of reform initiatives, and of how donors interpreted their behaviour and attitudes. When today’s donors may in some measure be prevented from thoroughly penetrating the cultural of ‘recipient’ forces, historical research arguably allows more detailed insight into police behaviour and attitudes, since it is often informed by confidential documents which only entered the public domain decades after the historical period in question.

While differing social, cultural and regime contexts make it difficult to draw direct parallels between current situations and those of the past, historical precedent can nevertheless inspire scholars and practitioners concerned with today’s policing. Analysis of the police forces of fascist states in mid-twentieth-century Europe and the processes they underwent following the demise of these regimes, for example, can enhance understanding of the nature of transition of authoritarian police forces to democratic societies. Beyond key issues of reform (purges, structural modifications, donor intervention, etc.), an examination of the aesthetics, narratives and rhetorical style of police forces under dictatorships and during/after periods of transition to new political orders, can be revealing. Significant here are celebratory and commemorative rituals involving police forces, and the representation of their institutional history and traditions, as evident in speeches, police publications and newsreel commentary.

In fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, highly choreographed police ceremonies formed part of a broader ‘aestheticization’ of politics which these regimes promoted. In both countries, ‘Police Day’ (Festa della Polizia/Tag der deutschen Polizei) was designed to show-case the forces of law and order to the public as fully integrated components of the fascist/Nazi states. Such festivities, alongside more solemn acts of commemoration of police martyrs, also aimed to tie personnel ideologically to these regimes by highlighting the common values of policemen and fascists/Nazis (Dunnage and Rossol 2015). In Italy, in spite of fascism’s imperfect ideological penetration of the police, such rituals arguably helped to solidify an authoritarian institutional culture which survived the fall of Mussolini in 1945. Moreover, from 1948 ‘Police Day’ was resumed in much the same form and employing a similar style of rhetoric, albeit without the earlier fascist symbols and references (Dunnage 2012, Chapter 7). This is an example of the more subtle aesthetical and linguistic factors at work during processes of transition from authoritarian to democratic policing, which, I would tentatively argue, could throw light on aspects of police reform today. In the Italian case, while the types of ritual employed under Mussolini and the narratives they embodied may not have converted personnel into fervent fascists, they arguably gave the commanding ranks of the police a sense of institutional pride and national importance, as well as accustoming them to manipulative strategies of communication to both the public and their own men. This outlasted the dictatorship and contributed to the shaky transition of Italy’s forces of law and order to democracy.

Having recently completed a major project on policemen serving under Mussolini’s dictatorship and Italian police culture during the fascist period (Dunnage 2012), my present research focuses on the legacy of the fascist experience in the post-war Italian police. Alongside a study of aesthetics and rituals in the police, I am analysing the narratives underpinning institutional literature (manuals, journals), as well as post-war attitudes towards the previous dictatorship as revealed in personnel documents.

Dr Jonathan Dunnage is an Associate Professor of Modern European History at Swansea University, email:

“We have met the enemy and he is us” – Kelly, W. (1971) Pogo – Earth Day. Simon and Schuster


There can be no doubt the police service is facing a time of unprecedented pressure. With Chief Officers commenting almost weekly on the new demands the service is facing and the difficulties these present you might question whether demand on the police service of the future will be manageable?

Recently Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, described how the police are guilty of saying, ‘yes we can,’ too much and how, when it comes to other agencies, “we have to make collaboration work or we’ll be picking up the pieces from society’s failings” (Hogan-Howe 2015, p.26). Others, such as Sir Peter Fahy, the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, have warned of a time when the police will only be able to provide a reactive, as opposed to preventative, service.

In January of this year the College of Policing published its analysis of demand on the police service. Based on data gathered from across the country their research demonstrated how demand is not just increasing but is also changing, with increased pressures in respect of mental health, missing persons and other protective statutory requirements.

What was interesting about this research was how little is known about preventing demand; “there is a limited amount of information on the amount of time the police spend undertaking problem solving … [on activities that allow] police to drive down crime” (College of Policing 2015, p.12). According to the research we are becoming clearer on the increasing demands the police face and the time it consumes, but we’re still unclear on the time invested in preventing the demand occurring in the first place. This leads me to pose the question, ‘what priority is placed on officers to spend the time, which may take months or even years, to reduce the unprecedented demands faced by the police?’

To reduce demand on the police by children’s homes, hospitals, care homes, and those tasked with the welfare of the more vulnerable in society, might just require a change in how the police service is viewed. Perhaps the problem isn’t demand on the police, but on how society, its communities and individuals view the role of the police and other agencies. Through a generation of ‘service provision’ and catchy lines such as, ‘You Said, We Did,’ have we achieved nothing more than a situation where many in our communities consider the first stage in resolving their problems to be a phone call to the police? And to perpetuate that situation, have the police been guilty of saying, ‘yes we can,’ in response?

I was at a PACT meeting recently where a neighbourhood sergeant gave an account of what his team had been doing over a three-month period. He described the demand they faced by just a few families with their disputes and the nuisance they caused to other members of the community.

What struck me was the phrase he used to end his account, how, ‘none of it was police related.’ So if it wasn’t police related then why were the police dealing with it? And what exactly was the ‘it?’ When I described this scenario to a senior officer recently he explained how in dealing with this demand in the here and now they had prevented more demand in future. I’m not convinced.

The problem here isn’t demand; it’s a culture of reliance built up through years of the police and other agencies consistently responding to incidents (or are they just events?) where individuals and communities have lost the ability to manage situations themselves. They call the police, the police say yes, and then find themselves entwined in a game of, ‘touched you last.’ Once embroiled in the ‘event’ police find themselves trapped as players in a game that shouldn’t be theirs to play. Is this the ‘invisible demand’ that is the real cause of the police struggling to cope with austerity?

While the demand described above starts with a non-police related event, there’s another type of ‘invisible demand,’ where the police and/or other agencies put solutions to problems in place that are the cause of further demand.

Consider the sign pictured in this blog. Yes, it really does say, ‘Games Prohibited,’ and yes, there are several of them still displayed in residential communities. We use this sign as a demand related case study in our courses (on the Skills for Justice Awards programme), where our delegates usually pose questions such as: ‘What’s the problem this sign is trying to solve?’ ‘Who put it up?’ ‘Why did they put it up?’ and, ‘how are you going to manage a caller who reports individuals breaching the sign’s conditions?’

Over 600 police and council officers across the country have gone through this exercise with the same questions being posed every time we run it. The answers they come up with follow a common theme:

The council, following consultation with police and other agencies, put up the signs. They are there to regulate the ‘anti social behaviour’ committed while people (mostly young) play ball games and if a call comes in (mostly to the police) we’ll have to record and deal with it.

What follows next is an exercise where we play out a report complaining of a ‘breach of the sign’ from a member of the public all the way to a police officer, PCSO or council officer visiting the caller. The smallest number of people the report has ‘touched’ in a new game of ‘touched you last’ as it goes from call taker to officer attending is seven and the most, thirteen. Invariably the exercise ends with the attending officer telling the caller, ‘there’s nothing we can do to enforce the sign.’

Sometimes we add a layer of complexity to the report with the caller stating how the behaviour behind the breach of the sign is causing them to feel vulnerable and at risk (or are callers just getting better at playing word games to press the right police buttons?). This scenario invariably leads to promises of additional patrols, providing words of advice to those involved and invariably a neighbour dispute as, ‘they got the police onto our kids!’ More demand, the type that grows and evolves as more players (neighbours, highways, housing, council, councillors) get involved in the game.

But just whose problem is this (I know, we don’t even know what the problem is)? Police? Housing? Council? Highways? Who should be managing the demand caused by this sign? The obvious conclusion is the agency who put it up should be responsible for ‘policing’ it? The end result is always the same; the message on the sign can’t be enforced, which leads to frustration from the community who expect services to provide workable solutions.

Recently I heard about a Community Trigger activation (where dissatisfied victims of ‘ASB’ can hold services to account if they’re not happy with the service provided) over a ‘No Ball Games’ sign not being enforced. The council / police solution was to take the sign down. However, residents have been left scratching their heads – who is going to deal with the behaviour now the sign has been taken down?

Through the adoption of ‘yes we can’ have we created a society that will continue to create more and more ‘invisible demand’ for the police and other services? Where demand is perpetuated by services that keep answering calls for service because they can’t say no and where the solutions to problems within communities from the police and other services do nothing more than create further demand?

While the police may not be able to reduce the demand from issues concerning mental health and such like, could they better tackle the ‘invisible demand?’ There is an argument that individuals and communities are better equipped to manage disputes and problems within neighbourhoods. After all, don’t they have more of an incentive to resolve issues that concern them directly? However, instead of a ‘yes we can’ approach, the other extreme of, ‘no, that’s not our role,’ might be counter productive in respect of confidence in the police. The initially more difficult to manage answer will be, ‘we can’t deal with that for you, but we can support you in providing the skills to find your own solutions.’

Tackling loan sharks, organised crime gangs, drug dealers, sexual exploitation and other forms of specialist demand is the easy bit when it comes to demand, the police already have a recipe that works and can be improved on.

The tough problems that create ‘invisible demand’ are the: discarded sofas, broken phone boxes, damaged bus stops, neighbour disputes and the sign that tells everyone ‘Games Prohibited.’

The austerity challenge is to find new ways to deal with these issues and the demand they create – where community engagement needs to be less ‘You Said, We Did’ and more, ‘How Can We Support You.’


Brendan O’Brien (MEd) is a retired police officer. His interests after seven years as a neighbourhood inspector are: problem solving; community engagement; Anti Social Behaviour; tackling Organised Crime Groups and managing demand.

Brendan is currently the lead trainer for the Skills for Justice Awards ‘Problem Solving in Community Safety’ qualification delivered by Bluelight Consultancy Limited. Email: