Notes on Police Research in France

Professor Jacques de Maillard and Professor Wesley G. Skogan

Until the early 1980s, social science research on policing issues was extremely rare in France. Most of what was written were essays by politicians, investigations by journalists or, more often, memoirs by former police officers. The rare academic works were dominated by narrowly legal approaches describing police powers and their legal framework, or philosophical texts discussing in the abstract what police powers should be. While these publications were of interest, they took little account of police practices in the field and the dynamic features of police organizational life. For many academics, policing in action was a “dirty subject”, one associated with the mundane and sometimes unpleasant daily functions of the State (see Berlière and Lévy 2011). At the same time, the police saw external researchers as excessively critical, engaged in a needless airing of the organizational and political realities they knew well and struggled to deal with.

While police research in the United States began to develop in the early 1960s, in France the start came later, in the 1980s. It was the work of a few pioneers who, in sociology, political science or history, invested in this field of research. Without the list being exhaustive, the research of René Lévy (1987) on the work of the judicial police, Jean-Marc Berlière (1992) on the professionalization of policing under the Third Republic, or Pierre Favre (1990) on the policing of political protests, were the among first social science inquiries in the field. But above all, the emergence of this field of research was led by the sociologist Dominique Monjardet. Coming from the sociology of occupations, where he had already carried out promising work, he stood at the origins of empirical research on public security and public order policing (see for a synthesis see Monjardet, 1996; or Monjardet, 2008).  It should be noted that the development of this field benefited from the creation of units such as the Institut des hautes études de la sécurité intérieure (IHESI)within the Ministry of the Interior in 1989. Research institutes brought together researchers and provided funding, and kindled forums for exchanges between academics and practitioners. The journal Les Cahiers de la sécurité intérieure, published by IHESI, provided an outlet for these activities[i].   

Almost forty years later, the situation is quite different. Research on policing seems solidly established (although see Ocqueteau and Monjardet (2004) on the complex relationship between research and the Ministry of the Interior). It is not possible in this brief review to give a comprehensive overview of research conducted on French policing (see our new book!), but a wide variety of research fields are being explored. These include the emergence of modern police forces, the history of colonial police forces, the professionalization of policing in the contemporary era, changing models of policing, policing during repressive periods in French history (for example, the creation of the Police Nationale during the German occupation of the 1940’s), the feminization of the police, stop and search practices, police relations with young people from minority backgrounds, efforts toward police reform, the introduction of neo-managerialism, the work of oversight bodies, the role of police in maintaining public order, the professional socialization of police officers, political surveillance, and police involvement in partnerships with other organizations and the community. Research on many of these topics have been published in major French social science journals, either generalist (Revue française de sociologie, Revue française de science politique, Sociologie du travail, and Vingtième siècle), or thematic (Champ pénal/Penal Field, Déviance et Société, and Cultures et conflits).

However, there is a paradox. On the one hand, this research has been very open to theories, concepts and methods developed in other countries. This is illustrated by the work co-directed by Jean-Paul Brodeur and Dominique Monjardet (2003) which was devoted to the major texts of Anglo-Saxon research. Research in France has also internationalized and become involved in cross-national comparisons (Berlière et al. 2008; de Maillard and Roché 2009; Fillieule and Della Porta 2006; Houte and Luc 2016; de Maillard 2017). On the other hand, much of this work has not been translated into English, giving much of the world a restricted view of police research in France. Some exceptions to this include the publication in English of Didier Fassin’s (2013) important work. Other authors whose research has appeared in English include Emmanuel Blanchard, Laurent Bonelli, Thierry Delpeuch, Jérôme Ferret, Olivier Fillieule, Jérémie Gauthier, Fabien Jobard, René Lévy, Jean-Paul Brodeur, Benoit Dupont, Christian Mouhanna, Frédéric Ocqueteau, Geneviève Pruvost, Sebastian. Roché, Jacques de Maillard, Vincent Spenlehauer, and Mathieu Zagrodzki.

The need for greater cross-national communication in the policing arena set the agenda for our new book, Policing in France. Our goal was to promote a broader understanding of the police system, police practices, and relations between police and the public in France. The book’s 20 chapters are originally written essays on key topics that draw heavily on recent social science research. The volume is organized in four sections: historical background, organizational features and reforms, changing institutional and political contexts, and police problems and strategies. The book is available now in paperback and electronic form, and the French-language version should appear in 2021.

Jacques de Maillard Professor of Political Science at the University of Versailles-Saint-Quentin, and Director of CESDIP. Email :

Wesley G. Skogan is Professor Emeritus at Northwestern University. Email:

See further: de Maillard and Skogan (2021). Policing in France. London: Routledge (released 03 August 2020)

[i] IHESI became the Institut national des hautes études de la sécurité et de la justice in 2009, and then was disbanded in 2020, a sign of fragility of evaluative policy research.

What the Coronavirus has taught us about community policing

Dr Megan O’Neill

It is of course now well-trodden ground to observe that this is an unprecedented time for policing across the world. While there have been pandemics in the past, none have affected the global population in quite this way before and thus brought similar global policing challenges to bear all at once. In many countries police forces find themselves with a responsibility to enforce extreme restrictions on freedom of movement, often at short notice and with no direct prior learning on which to draw.

The exact nature of the policing challenge being addressed in the early stages of the pandemic has varied from one country and one legal and policing system to another. Some jurisdictions have used much more restrictive and enforcement-based responses, such as Singapore and China. Others have augmented policing with strict systems of documentation, often through technologically-based forms and certificates which indicate a person’s permission to leave the home or to attend work, such as in France. The response in the UK, which operates a system of ‘policing by consent’, has been less authoritarian than these. This is not to assume that the policing response in this country has been uniform, far from it. Some areas of the country have shown much higher rates of issuing fines or conducting arrests than others. In the main, we have not witnessed the extreme examples of violent clashes between the police and the public as seen in some other areas.

What is important about the experience of policing the current and future social restrictions in the UK is that while there was no existing blueprint for how exactly to do this, there was a very well established and familiar guide – community policing. I will explore below how the approach taken by the UK government towards the pandemic heightened the need for policing engagement and negotiation with the general public, key elements of community policing. And it is precisely community policing which has been hardest hit by the police funding reductions of the past 10 years.

UK government sets the stage

Throughout its response to the Coronavirus pandemic, the UK government has issued advice and guidance which does not match up with, and sometimes precedes, legislation. From early advice to ‘stay away’ from pubs and restaurants, even when they were still open legally, to telling people they could only go out to exercise once a day after ‘lockdown’ commenced despite the legislation not indicating the frequency with which a person could leave the house. In more recent weeks we have seen a situation where the government guidance in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is taking a different path to that of England, opening up the potential for further confusion among the public and among practitioners as to what is and is not allowed and where.

These, and other elements of the measures to restrict the movement of the public and thus reduce the rate of virus transmission, placed the police forces of the UK in very awkward positions. Do they insist on adherence to the guidance or enforce the law? If they opt for the former, on what grounds can they maintain this position in the face of challenge from a member of the public? If the opt for the latter, how do they respond to the numerous reports from eagle-eyed neighbours about frequent outings from the house next door? The College of Policing produced guidance to attempt to address this conflict, highlighting that only the law was enforceable, but which avoided suggesting that breaches of health guidance could be ignored. In fact, many police forces established online systems where suspected breaches of coronavirus restrictions can be reported, including the un-enforceable ones.

Even without conflicting and confusing government policy, guidance and legislation, policing the pandemic was always going to be a difficult task. These factors have meant that police forces across the country needed to find a way to gain the support of the public to being policed in a manner never seen before, and which contravened all previous understandings as to what ‘normal’ life is like and the extent of legitimate police control of that life. How best to do this?

The College of Policing, the four ‘Es’ and community policing by the back door

In order to avoid multiple interpretations of the new restrictions and how best to police the behaviour of the public, the College of Policing and the National Police Chiefs Council rapidly developed the ‘Four Es’ for policing the pandemic. These are:

  • Engage
  • Explain
  • Encourage
  • Enforce

That ‘enforce’ is the last ‘E’ is significant. Compelling people to comply with the restrictions, either through harsh warnings, the use of force, fines or arrest was to be an absolute last resort (although it is difficult to know the extent to which this was followed based on the data alone). The first three ‘Es’ build on the ethos of policing by consent, a hallmark of British policing: that as much as possible, the police will work with the public to keep them safe in a manner that they can accept as appropriate. The picture from the centre of policing was clear – do not attempt to insist on the letter of the law in all cases, but focus on the general spirit of the endeavour at hand.

The first three ‘Es’ should be familiar to anyone who has ever undertaken any study, observation or execution of community policing. Engaging, explaining and encouraging are all core to working within a community policing framework. This method of policing sees the police as one of many partners in a community and who will undertake consultation and negotiation with residents and other service providers to find the best policing ‘fit’ within that community. While enforcement is of course necessary on occasion, community policing will work to prevent those situations and attempt to solve local problems before they escalate.

However, practitioners and scholars of policing in the UK will also be aware that the funding for policing has been subject to significant reductions over the past ten years, such that the size of the police officer workforce in England and Wales has dropped 14% since 2009. In this context, it is not surprising that many Police and Crime Commissioners as well as Chief Constables have chosen to focus their dwindling resources on the more reactive and emergency-oriented aspects of policing. This has led in some places to an almost complete abandonment of community policing, culminating in Norfolk Constabulary removing the role of Police Community Support Officer entirely.

We are thus in a position where the key policing skills, strategies and roles needed to ensure public compliance in a severe public health emergency are precisely those skills, strategies and roles deemed ‘expendable’ only a few short months ago. Community policing should now come into its own but, with 10 years of gradual neglect behind it, will this be possible? In the early stages of the lockdown in particular, stories abounded of over-zealous policing of the new restrictions. This could be due to a convergence of a number of factors, such as misunderstandings about the detail of the legislation, deficiencies in awareness of the public health guidance and lack of training due to the speed at which the measures came into effect. However, considering the fracturing and de-funding of community policing since 2010, an additional explanation could be a significant lack of skill and experience in using engagement-oriented policing methods in front-line operational roles. This kind of policing must be learned and refined over time through both training and first-hand experience, and is especially important when faced with a confused and anxious public. As we have seen from the examples of other countries, enforcement-based methods are counter-productive and could even risk further transmission of the virus due the close personal contact involved in the use of force.

Many anticipate that life in the UK will never return to ‘normal’, or the exact normal that we knew before. For me, while some aspects of the ‘new normal’ are indeed daunting, a renewed investment and focus on community policing in the UK would be a very welcome and long overdue addition to new normal. What the current crisis has demonstrated quite clearly is that community policing and the engagement-focused methods on which it is based are far from ‘expendable’ in policing.

Dr Megan O’Neill is an Associate Director (Police Community Relations Network) of the Scottish Institute for Policing Research and a Reader in the School of Social Sciences, University of Dundee. Email: Twitter: @drmeganoneill

The National Intelligence Model

Paige Keningale, PhD Researcher


Understanding the job of intelligence officers is comparable to a jigsaw puzzle; they begin with a few pieces, over time more pieces are gathered.  As analysts their job is to make sense of the information and form a report that others can act on. However, analysts can never be certain that all the pieces are necessary, or if all the pieces have been collected or perhaps come from a different puzzle. During the 1990s, serious and organised crime became a top priority internationally, which saw the development of Intelligence-led Policing (ILP). ILP reinforces problem solving ways of dealing with increasingly sophisticated offenders and to reinforce this, in the UK, the National Criminal Intelligence Service created the National Intelligence Model (NIM) in 2000 (Ratcliff, 2008).

Drawing on my master’s research, during which I interviewed intelligence practitioners about the NIM, this blog discusses the limits of the National Intelligence Model identified by my interviewees- culture, dynamic decision making and information sharing- and how these can lead to intelligence failures.

The National Intelligence Model

The NIM is a business framework which provides structure in a police investigation to process information and turn this into actionable intelligence. Innes and Sheptycki (2004, p.6) explain the distinction between information and intelligence thus:

Information consists of bits of data that, when combined and viewed together with relevant background knowledge, may be used to produce intelligence, which informs the actions and decisions of policing organisations.

The NIM allows information to be processed through different points of the decision-making cycle, generating intelligence to act on (Police ICT, 2019):

  1. Setting strategic direction
  2. Making decisions through the gathering of information
  3. Allocating resources
  4. Developing tactical plans
  5. Tasking and co ordinating activity

The collection, development and dissemination of intelligence allows decisions to be made about priorities and tactical options. The NIM works at three levels: level one- Local/Basic Command Unit could include low value thefts and criminal damage. Level two- force and or regional which involves more than one local command unit, advice from national experts and bordering forces. Finally, level three- serious and organised crime which is on a national and international scale.

The Limits of the NIM

In practice, investigators are able to leap back and forth between each stage of the process outlined above which could affect the analysis and investigators cognitive processes when making decisions. Gill and Phythian (2012) note, that police forces are at varying stages of development with the NIM, which means it is interpreted differently in different places, with police investigators having a varied approach, thereby contradicting consistency the model promotes.

So, is the NIM a hinderance to investigations or is it a framework that is instrumental in today’s policing? I interviewed six intelligence practitioners, five were from police forces in the UK. This included a Sergeant and a Chief Inspector; one individual based at the Ministry of Defence, one individual had twenty-five years of intelligence analysis, one managed a team which investigated cybercrime and the final individual was based in the RAF. They described problems with the NIM in three themes bases on the applicability and effectiveness of the model: culture, dynamic decision making and sharing information.


When referring to culture one means how police culture has changed since the forces adopted ILP for the better but also, how culture is a key factor in the causation of intelligence failures. When discussing intelligence failures (e.g 9/11, 7/7 bombings) two respondents suggested that errors can occur from managers being overconfident. Two experienced police officers expressed:

When discussing cultures, many emphasise a lot of time serve, so someone who has served thirty years despite their competence their views will be considered over a junior who also knows how to use the information, but they are not valued enough.

Within the police there is very much a focus on police officers that they have the voice and analysts are staff members whose voices are probably less powerful.

This sentiment is also supported by a senior police professional

Senior police officers on the outside world show they are changing and they want to share things, however privately they are still very much I am the boss and we will do as I say.

This is a concern as analysts play a vital part in every investigation as they are the main source of information. Thus, culture must change to a more open-minded setting where top ranked police officers listen to analysts and take on board the suggestions which the individuals pose in terms of how to act on the available intelligence.

Sharing Information

Practitioners described sharing information as a problem within their workplaces. This is supported by one respondent who provided the following answer:

Different organisations do not work together as it is classed as a hindrance to an effective investigation.

 Senior officers are guilty of receiving information but then do not know what to do with it and don’t share it appropriately to those who know what to do with it.

This is of a concern due to there being a strong emphasis on the importance for organisations to understand other professionals and agencies and knowledge of the tasks performed by others (Alison and Crego, 2008).

However, one Sergeant in a police force spoke highly of analysts

 My experience with police analysts, is that they are good at what they do, they won’t try to mask or embellish and they will say it how it is. I trust them very much in the products they produce are balanced.

From this, we could learn that analysts are valuable, and their voices must be heard. Instead of police forces just simply obtaining the reports produced by these experts, analysts must be seen as a key player during investigations, whom are able to make decisions and guide intelligence practitioners throughout for positive outcomes.

Dynamic decision making

Dynamic decision making discusses the pressures of the environment which the practitioners work in and how that can negatively impact decision making. One interviewee stated:

It is down to the analysts to take that step back, understand you are not going to have all the information all the time. The analogy of 80% of information on time is better than 100% information late.

Indeed, analysts want to improve their performance especially under such pressure however, to do this, analysts must remember their past decisions, knowing what they knew at the time and how the decision was made, this can be achieved by having a decision log. The effectiveness of the evaluation process and of the learning process to which it gives depends on the accuracy of the decisions under the pressures of the environment which the practitioners work under.

The NIM which information is generated through still has gaps and those gaps can cause intelligence failures. Many articles, books and journals focus on the analysts needing to be more blue skied thinking about the possibilities or too poorly focused (Richards, 2010; Gill and Phythian, 2012; Reiner, 2010. However, as one respondent noted, there are concerns with police training:

I oversaw analysts in the second biggest police force in the country and some of those analysts never received training in eighteen months.

Thus, the above comment might suggest that intelligence failures exist, not due to failing of individuals, but due to a lack of training or because the training provided is not of an appropriate standard.


In summary, taking all the above limitations of the NIM highlighted by my past research into consideration, for the NIM to be as effective as hoped, analysts need training around the model. But most importantly, police culture needs to change and listen to those who are vital to investigations- the analysts. However, from the findings it seems that improvement is far in the distance, thus my PhD research continues to understand the operation of intelligence processes, critically examining  how information is generated, recognising forward communication processes and understanding whether the NIM is appropriate for all levels of policing, all of which will be answered in my PhD research.

Paige Keningale is a PhD researcher in Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Surrey. Email: Twitter: @PKeningale LinkedIn: Paige Keningale

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