A Uniform Not Uniform

Dr Camilla De Camargo

Police officers are distinct and unique actors in public spaces. They experience a peculiar familiarity with wider society: they often do not personally know the citizens in the areas they patrol but everyone knows that they are part of the police by their uniform. The image of the police has many different aspects and features: it has been designed and re-designed since the inception of the modern police force in 1829 and continues to change year on year. The police uniform is an important part of this image work and image management (Mawby, 2002: 5); it embodies not only the physical exterior, but also the character of individual police forces.

Adaptations to Uniform Policy

The visual representation and symbolic meanings attached to clothing is constructed, reconstructed, managed, controlled and communicated, not only by the uniform designers, but by police officers themselves to make the meaning of their uniform personal. As a consequence, paradoxically, the uniform lacks uniformity in style. Let’s consider the word ‘uniform’ then – it is, according to the Oxford Dictionary, ‘[r]emaining the same in all cases and at all times; unchanging in form or character’.  Yet, for various reasons, different versions of the police uniform exist (discussed a little later). It is important therefore to consider how adaptations and modifications can affect public perception of the police. West Midlands Police have said they would consider allowing their Muslim female officers to wear the burka or niqab if they wish, in a drive to recruit more officers from BME backgrounds. The Met and Police Scotland have previously approved the hijab but the burka would be  a giant leap in uniform adjustments. Indeed, Conservative MP David Davies  criticised the burka as being “a symbol of oppression for women and not something that a modern police force should be supporting” and of course, who can forget the furore surrounding the burka/burkini and the police trying to enforce its ban in France. Our concern however is not with meanings of the burka (or niqab) per se but rather how their incorporation into official police uniform might affect police image work.

So what is a uniform?

Scholars have debated what actually constitutes a ‘uniform’. Simply, ‘(it is) a distinctive dress worn by members of the same body’ (Randell and Gray, 1995: 16). Examination suggests that a uniform is: ‘a prescribed set of clothes which enables the observer to identify the wearer’s organisation or affiliation’ (Bhugra and DeSilva, 1996: 393).

Society learns to distinguish members from non-members of different groups through their uniforms. The attire informs the actor and the audience what to expect from the individual and the organisation. By requiring the donning of a uniform, and thus suppressing personal choice of clothes, the police institution ‘binds the individual to his or her peers, underscores common membership, and encourages a sense of loyalty among members and faithfulness to the same rules’ (Rubenstein, 2001: 87). If an officer does not abide by these rules, the alienation from the group is clear: if the transgression is serious enough, police officers are required to remove (and return) their uniform and accompanying accoutrements that are similarly embedded with the organisation’s authority.

A National Uniform

The police institution’s failure to roll out a national standardised uniform is due to managers not ‘buying into the concept’ (Police Review, 2007: 4), yet this negates the notion that a uniform is actually uniform in style across constabularies. The former ACPO Head of Procurement cited the ‘initial cost of a switch in uniform and a desire to maintain the identity of local forces are some of the factors discouraging people from the national uniform’ (Davies, cited in, Police Review, 2007: 4).

The police uniform, though essentially similar between different forces, has never been exactly the same in detail, colour or insignia nationally. These dissimilarities also apply across ranks and divisions due to the presiding Chief Officer’s preferences for each force, their access to different supply chains locally, and their individual budgets. The 1934 Dixon Committee on uniform consistency advised that ‘all police should be capable of turning out, in both garments and head-dress, approximating closely enough to a uniform pattern as to respects to material and style’ (cited in Clarke, 1991: 16emphasis added). Although the police uniform is symbolic and highly recognisable, it is debatable whether not having a set standard uniform for the same ranks causes problems with perceived legitimacy.. Young (1991: 72) contends that the police world does, unsurprisingly, ‘value uniformity’, and as the language suggests, ‘embodies the essentials of a system obsessed with physical and ideological concepts of order and discipline’, which is ‘massively symbolised by the uniform’.


If the police uniform is so iconic and important, in regards to perceptions of power and authority, is it not crucially important that all the police forces in England and Wales wear exactly the same uniform? Perhaps we’re too caught up in idealistic images of our British police in times of tension and unrest; after-all, we often see children falling out of the school gates, ties askew, shirts crumpled and untucked and wearing various items of non-regulation paraphernalia. Yet we know, from a glance, that they all go to the same school. But alas, school children are not hired to protect us, symbolically or otherwise! Research findings from my PhD showed that there are significant disparities between forces – in some London boroughs for instance, there is a shift back to the more ‘professionalised’ look of white shirt, tie and smart trousers; further up North however, there is more of a lean toward ‘militarised’ all black clothing. Other findings show that there are problems with legality and complaints when officers choose to modify their outfits; recognition and trust is important in this relationship, a problem particularly when PCSOs are mistaken for PCs (see De Camargo, 2017 – forthcoming). Across many UK cities, the public must make clear distinctions between PCs, PCSOs, special constables, private security, street wardens, city-centre night marshals, environmental crime officers… and this list is far from exhaustive. This presentation of ‘hybrid’ police may actually ‘heighten anxiety in the community’ (Cooke, 2005: 233). The ‘putting together’ of one’s uniform is personalised as well as regulated… to an extent. Various accoutrements, uniform versions (outdated or otherwise) and huge discrepancies between forces all add up to the uniform not actually being uniform. So while it is admirable that West Midlands Police are using (positive) discriminatory hiring techniques to increase the amount of BME officers to build better relationships with the diverse communities they serve, allowing a blanket covering of identity (and further uniform modification) could potentially further damage the already fragile and fractious police/public relationship.

Dr Camilla De Camargo is a Lecturer in Criminology and Sociology at Kingston University. Email: C.Decamargo@kingston.ac.uk, Twitter: @DecamargoC


Small Area Estimation for Targeting Hot-Spot Policing Interventions

David Buil-Gil and Angelo Moretti

Hot-spot policing strategies involve more focused police attention on small geographical areas where crime (and disorder) is more prevalent. During the last two decades, multiple evaluations have shown that police patrols targeting micro-locations with relatively high crime rates within a territory are effective in reducing offending, mediating what has been called a “micro-deterrence” process (e.g. Braga and Bond, 2008; Braga et al, 1999; Braga et al, 2012; Braga et al, 2014; Sherman and Weisburd, 1995; Sherman et al, 2014; Telep et al, 2014). The efficacy of hot-spot policing for targeting such areas depends, therefore, on available data geocoded at low-geographical level. Mapping crime is the first step for a smart policing intervention. Police-detected crimes are easily mapped at low-geographical level, as are calls for police service. However, an appropriate hot-spot policing approach cannot depend solely on known or officially-detected crimes, but also on non-detected offences, citizens’ perceptions of disorders, fear of crime and attitudes towards the police, among others. The latter variables are usually based on surveys with small samples that cannot be easily mapped at low-area level. The following sections are going to detail a new generation of statistical techniques that are helpful for obtaining small area estimates of survey variables; estimates that can play a vital role on a multidimensional-based hot-spot policing.

Some of the first approaches to hot-spot policing focused mainly – and sometimes only – on detected crimes as the unique data source for targeting small area patrols and evaluating those interventions (e.g. Sherman and Weisburd, 1995). However, more recent studies have established the need for including other variables in the databases and maps used by police officers to decide where to target major efforts and how to assess their impacts (e.g. Braga et al, 2014; Ratcliffe et al, 2015; Weisburd et al, 2011). Hot-spot policing interventions, whilst having crime reduction as their main objective, also tackle citizens’ perceptions of deviance and aim to decrease feelings of unsafety. Trust and police legitimacy also need to be analysed when assessing hot-spot patrolling (Weisburd and Telep, 2014). Officially-detected crimes collect three to five times fewer offences than victim surveys (Coleman and Moynihan, 1996) and might be influenced by criminal policy and police propensity to record offences (Aebi, 2010). It is therefore necessary to assess survey-detected victimisation as well as other variables related to subjective perceptions of disorder and trust in the police. As noted, the main source of data for obtaining information about these necessary variables beyond detected-crimes is victimisation surveys.

Victimisation surveys are sample surveys designed to obtain data on personal experiences with crime and deviance. The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), formerly the British Crime Survey, is the main source of data for analysing these variables in the territories included in its sample. However, the CSEW sample is mainly designed for being representative of the entire English and Welsh territory. With a few exceptions, the survey yields a minimum sample of 650 households for each of the 42 Police Force Areas (PFA), but the sample is not representative of small geographical areas within each PFA. In other words, the small number of households sampled in each of the 181,408 output areas included in the survey – zero in numerous cases – makes it impossible to support reliable direct estimates that can be used for police-targeting purposes. Output areas are small geographical areas designed by the Office for National Statistics to have similar population sizes (125 households on average). Whilst some police forces and local authorities run their own surveys, they are very few and their samples are not large enough to run direct estimates of adequate precision either. We must therefore rely on indirect estimates. In order to obtain indirect reliable estimates of the variables of interest at low-geographical level, small area estimation techniques are an option with great potential for the future (e.g. Taylor, 2013; van den Brakel et al, 2013; Whitworth, 2012).

Direct estimation methods use only area-specific sample data and sampling weights to produce small area estimates. This means that when the area sample size is small these estimates may suffer from low precision and are therefore unreliable for patrol targeting purposes. As noted, crime surveys usually sample few (or even zero) people from each micro-location/area of interest (e.g. output areas). Small area estimation aims to develop statistical techniques which produce efficient and precise estimates at small area level (also when the sample is not large enough to support direct estimates). In order to calculate estimates of adequate precision for small areas, indirect estimation methods make use of auxiliary information from other sources of data (e.g. Census) and produce linking models that borrow strength from related areas or time periods. Thus, this type of statistical inference is ‘model-based’.

According to Rao and Molina (2015), small area models can be classified into two types: area-level and unit-level models:

  • Unit-level models, which relate individual or unit values of a study to unit-specific covariates, can only be used when data is available at individual or unit-level. Due to confidentiality criteria, data from victimisation surveys is rarely released at individual level, thus making unit-level small area estimation impossible.
  • Area-level models relate small area direct estimates to area-specific auxiliary information available from other sources of data. Auxiliary data from the Census and other administrative records can be used in area-level small area estimation to produce reliable estimates at small area level of crime surveys’ variables.

Weisburd and Neyroud (2013) argue that a wider involvement of science is necessary in the arena of evidence-based policing. Officially recorded crime data mapped at small area level appears insufficient for targeting hot-spot patrols, as they only collect a small proportion of crime and can be biased. Victimisation surveys are today a useful tool for obtaining further information on crime and deviance, but their small samples cannot be used to produce reliable direct small area estimates. Model-based small area estimation techniques are today a potential option for obtaining further reliable information at low-area level for a more complex, efficient and evidence-based hot-spot policing.

David Buil Gil is a PhD student at University of Manchester researching small area estimation techniques for victimisation surveys data. Email: david.builgil@postgrad.manchester.ac.uk. Twitter: @DavidBuil

Angelo Moretti is a PhD student at University of Manchester researching multivariate small area estimation methods for poverty and wellbeing indicators. His research interests cover also multivariate statistical techniques for data dimensionality reduction. Email: angelo.moretti@manchester.ac.uk

Algorithmic policing and freedom of information – how far should transparency extend?

Marion Oswald

Algorithmic transparency is the new watchword – from the UK Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee (House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, 2016), to the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS, 2016) and even Angela Merkel (Connolly, 2016).  With the current controversies over fake news online, the spotlight has fallen mainly on the private sector – internet platforms, search engines, social media – but for how long?

The operational deployment of algorithmic tools (computational methods that analyse data sets in order to draw conclusions, increase knowledge and make links) within the U.S. criminal justice system has provoked considerable debate.  Third party proprietary systems used for parole and sentencing decisions have been accused of hardwiring discrimination into the system (ProPublica, 2016) and raise issues of natural justice and procedural fairness (Oswald & Grace, 2016).

Predictive database-driven tools for offender management in the probation and prison contexts have been used in the UK for several years (NAMS, 2015).  However, the extent to which algorithmic tools have been adopted within UK policing for investigative operations and intelligence analysis appears to vary significantly between forces and be less than transparent.  For instance, a search on Kent Police’s website for predictive policing tool ‘PredPol’ brings up no results, despite coverage of the force’s deployment of the algorithmic technology in the UK press (see for instance O’Donoghue, 2016).

My freedom of information-based study (with Jamie Grace, Sheffield Hallam) into algorithmic analysis of police intelligence in the UK (Oswald & Grace, 2016) suggested that a relatively small number of forces were using computational or algorithmic intelligence analysis.  Although, due to the limitation of such studies, this is unlikely to represent a complete perspective, the results may still give support to James’s conclusion in October’s blog (James, 2016) that the institution is ‘failing to make the best use of its intelligence’ and so is ‘not working smart enough.’

Responses from UK police forces to our freedom of information request indicated that algorithmic tools were used both at the ‘macro’ level – for instance, assessing crime patterns – and at the ‘micro’ level such as for decision-making or risk assessment relating to individuals.  Detail was lacking however, with no details as to the specific crimes, activities, schemes or laws that were the focus of the tools.  For instance, it would not be possible to determine from the responses whether the tools were used to assist decisions pursuant to the preventative disclosure schemes ‘Clare’s Law’ and ‘Sarah’s Law’.   The reasons for using such technology were expressed in general terms, and the exemptions under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act engaged by many forces may disguise other uses of such tools, or, importantly, gaps in operational capability.

In response to our freedom of information request, thirty-two responses used some form of exemption.  Twenty-seven responses cited the Section 23 absolute exemption: ‘Information supplied by, or relating to, bodies dealing with security matters’ – MI5, MI6, GCHQ and so on – outnumbering the use of the Section 31 exemption (Law enforcement) cited by only five responses.  The Section 31 exemption was combined with the Section 23 exemption four out of the five times that Section 31 was used.  Section 23 was most often cited on its own rather than being combined with other exemptions.

Most (although not all) responses that cited Section 23 combined it with ‘neither confirm nor deny’ wording, which should be used when either confirming or denying would reveal exempt information in itself.  Section 31 is a qualified exemption, requiring the public body to engage in a public interest balancing exercise to decide whether or not to release the requested information.  There were considerable inconsistencies in the way that forces handled this balancing exercise, with some forces providing rather generic arguments either way, and one providing only a bland statement that a test had been completed.

So what can we take from this?  The inconsistent use of FOI exemptions may allow sensitive information to be inadvertently exposed or gaps in capability inferred, which could be damaging to law enforcement and national security interests.  However, if one thing can be learned from the debate surrounding the Investigatory Powers Bill, it is that the adoption of new technology by the State without appropriate transparency around methods can result in damage to public trust as well as legal challenge.

Operational details and methods must be protected.  Yet balanced transparency is also vital. Examples of such balanced transparency exist, for example in Canada, where, while a detailed understanding of the Violent Crime Linkage System (ViCLAS) ‘is quite rightly not in the public domain due to investigative sensitivities – but official, clear, easy to find information on what the system is, who can use it, how to go about access and related research is available‘ (Dawson and Stanko, 2016).

The Investigatory Powers Bill is in itself an example (in some eyes a flawed one) of an attempt to achieve balanced transparency and oversight.  As the use of algorithmic tools within UK policing appears to be at a fairly early stage, now would seem to be the right time to assess the legal underpinning and the governance framework, and to ensure that appropriate transparency is built into contracts with third party software suppliers.  Such an exercise may help to demonstrate the effectiveness of these tools, as well as increasing public trust and so could contribute towards James’s call for the institution to make the best use of its intelligence.

Marion Oswald is a Senior Fellow in Law, and Head of the Centre of Information Rights at the University of Winchester, and a solicitor (non-practising). Email: marion.oswald@winchester.ac.uk. @_UoWCIR @IRPandPJournal

Drowning not waving: after 40 years of neglect, what now should be done to develop police intelligence practice in Britain?

Dr Adrian James

I have been studying police intelligence practice for about 16 years (see James, 2016, 2014, 2012, and 2003). It has been a fascinating, intriguing, and frustrating journey in almost equal measure. Perhaps the thing I have found most frustrating is that after more than 40 years of scholarly research, police-led research and ‘official’ inquiries into criminal intelligence work, that practice looks very much the same today as it did in 1975.

The Audit Commission (1993) was a significant actor in stimulating interest in the subject, but insider-led scrutiny of criminal intelligence work began with the Baumber Inquiry (ACPO, 1975). This was followed by the Pearce Report (ACPO, 1978); the Ratcliffe Report (ACPO, 1986), the 1997 report Policing with Intelligence (HMIC); the Bichard Inquiry (Home Office, 2004); the  National Intelligence Model Review (to which I made a small contribution) (ACPO, 2014) right the way through to Building the picture: An inspection of police information management (HMIC, 2015). These are some of the most significant inquiries but I doubt this is an exhaustive list.

            Of course some things have changed. There is increasing specialisation in criminal intelligence work as well as a proliferation of intelligence assessments and sundry other analytical products. But, largely, these changes are presentational. Even if they have shaped practice at the margins, I question whether they have influenced policing in anything other than the most superficial of ways. Certainly, what really mattered to Baumber (and to a great extent to both Pearce and Ratcliffe) in terms of the development of a suitably professional and capable intelligence workforce – a collective vision for intelligence; common understanding of the intelligence basics; improved training and selection procedures that put the best and most experienced staff into those important positions – have not been delivered. I argue that is because, despite the rhetoric to the contrary, the institution has never truly accepted the case for them.

In previous publications, I have attributed this to human factors; the negative impacts of institutional conservatism, managers’ self-interest and professional subcultures (see James, 2016). I have also reflected on the extent to which there is an identity crisis in the intelligence world; left to its own devices has it lost sight of its raison d’etre? Perhaps, it is able only to focus on its own part of the business, without concerning itself with the external realities; the police organization’s unswerving commitment to action over reflection, its rejection of existentialism in favour of pragmatism. It may be more accurate to say that an indifferent executive has not allowed it to concern itself with those external realities by sidelining it from meaningful involvement in the decision-making process – that certainly was a significant factor in the story of the NIM (see James, 2013). I remain convinced that these realities are hugely significant factors in this environment and are detrimental to the development both of the work and the workforce but the more I reflect on the issues, the more I wonder if these are just very obvious symptoms of bigger problems rather than the problems themselves.

Recently, I have been exploring that idea with a colleague from the Finnish Police University. Our dialogue increasingly has focused on classic analyses of bureaucracies. Weber (1947) argued that bureaucracies are wired to become increasingly specialized precision instruments. Largely, their aim is not to fit better with the pieces of a larger puzzle but to achieve excellence in their own right. When the task is unclear, the bureaucracy loses its identity and floats without purpose. Perhaps, that is where the intelligence world finds itself today. Weber said that to exercise control, bureaucratic administrations relied on a combination of technical and experiential knowledge, which itself was a product of the “‘striving’ for power”, characteristic of bureaucratic organisations (1947 p.339). By that analysis, arguably, what we are witnessing here in the intelligence milieu is a natural development of the institution in which significant efforts to reshape the status quo through ‘revolutionary’ schemes such as: the first recorded intelligence-led policing initiative, the Aberdeen Policing Experiment; the Unit Beat Policing experiment of the 1960s, the Kent Policing Model (the precursor of the NIM) and the NIM itself (see James, 2013), have consciously (or unconsciously) been disdained for fear that in the long run they may have unknown and unintended consequences, more detrimental to the institution or to the individuals who wield power within it or to the communities it serves (not necessarily in that order).

Both Robert Reiner (2012) and Ben Bowling (2007) have argued persuasively that we should recognise the limits of policing. Bowling suggests that ‘good enough’ policing is as much as we reasonably can expect from the institution. Should we apply that same caveat to police intelligence practice? I am in complete agreement with Reiner and Bowling on the need for a kind of reality check on police capabilities but it seems to me that ‘good enough’ is only an acceptable aim when it can be demonstrated that the organisation and its individual members actually are doing their best, working efficiently, effectively, and ethically to provide the services that stakeholders and communities expect and need. For all the energy expended by the institution in the context of crime and criminality, the evidence suggests that it may be working hard enough, but in failing to make the best use of its intelligence, it is not working smart enough. As the reader has seen, identifying the root causes of these inefficiencies will be difficult; as the last 40 years have shown, resolving them may be much, much harder.

Dr Adrian James is a Senior Lecturer in Criminal Investigation at the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies, University of Portsmouth. Email: adrian.james@port.ac.uk  



Holding the Line: Policing and Public Order in Protest City

Professor Peter Squires and Dr Denise Martin

The first images that came to me on a recent visit to the States were of protesters and police clashing in Seattle following earlier peaceful demonstrations on May day.  Police clearly tooled up in a show of strength against protestors fired tear gas in an attempt to regain control of the ‘angry mob’.  These images, also repeated in LA where demonstrators carried an effigy of Donald Trump whose views on immigration were challenged in these events, were interpreted by officials as acts of violence and disorder.  No distinction was made between the peaceful and ‘criminal’ in these reports.  Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole said that her officers had undergone “enhanced crowd management training” and had planned specifically for the May Day unrest.

While the police may have planned for these events, the often careful preparation does not always lead to positive outcomes.  Situations where tensions run high can often mean that proposed strategies or policies are difficult to adhere to and the group protesting, the circumstances, the location and the police tactics can profoundly influence how protest situations develop.  There is a lot of truth in the old military adage that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Yet, while police have sought more legitimacy for their actions in these situations, recent events suggest that the policing of protests remains an area of concern still in need of attention.  To illustrate this further we examined two examples: one from empirical research completed by the authors and the other concerning the police use of force where local residents were campaigning again fracking.

In the UK following the controversy over the death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 riots in London in 2009, approaches to the policing of protest were set to change with the introduction of clear new guidelines from the HMIC (2009a, 2009b).  These arose after the HMIC’s inspection of protest policing found inconsistency of practice across regions, lack of understanding about individual officers’ use of force in public order policing environments, lack of understanding of the law and human rights and lack of training.  To rectify this, a ‘dialogue’ or ‘liaison’ based approach, informed by recent research, was encouraged.  Police were expected to have a clear command structure in place, communicate effectively with demonstrators, have a set of principles regarding the minimum use of force and take a measured approach to protest should they escalate.  Initially there was certainly evidence that police forces in the UK moved towards the adoption of this set of recommendations and it had a positive effect in some protest situations (Gorringe et al. 2012).  Despite this, other evidence (including our own) has suggested that a more measured approach to protest while desirable is difficult to sustain, and confusion over what actions are legitimate by the police remain.

In interviews with a number of police officers of varying ranks in a South Coast City, following a series of protests against student fees and the abolition of the post 16 education maintenance grant this ‘return to force’ became abundantly clear.  The following quotes taken from officers describe a point where officers felt that they were losing control of the situation and needed to deploy force in order to take it back.  The first comment describes a widely shared perception within the police ‘front-line’ and the second notes the consequence:

When we were boxed in it was quite heavy, we all had this sense, we were the thin yellow line, and it could all’ve gone horribly wrong.  I felt sort of let down, I felt we were lucky to get out of it.  We were heavily outnumbered and could’ve been sitting ducks. [L3 Public Order Officer]

I turned around to see one officer throwing a demonstrator to the floor.  I didn’t know why, I hadn’t seen what had preceded it.  I can only assume that it was a use of reasonable force, it was a particularly tense part of the march, we were being attacked at the time… it wasn’t a ‘red mist’ situation, the guy had gone down as he was pushed away. I assumed he’d been having a go at the officer. [PSU Sergeant]

It became clear that while the police had initially attempted to facilitate peaceful protest this didn’t mean the same thing to every officer and, when confronted by a perceived greater challenge from the protesters, officers reacted in a variety of different ways.  There was evidence that some officers believed that physical force was both necessary and legitimate despite others feeling that colleagues sometimes went beyond what was an appropriate use of force.

A different situation arose at the fracking protest.  Demonstrators had blocked the road to the fracking site.  Police seemed content to allow the protest to continue – facilitating legitimate protest, no doubt – until such time as the fracking contractor’s vehicles sought to enter the site.  At this point the police response was to stop ‘facilitating legitimate protest’ and instead began to remove the demonstrators, who were seated on the ground, arms linked, by use of force, specifically using the pain compliance pressure point behind the demonstrators’ ears. The obvious pain caused demonstrators to release one-another so they could be easily led away by police officers.

Several issues arise for us: in the first place the decision to start or stop ‘facilitating’ legitimate protest appears quite arbitrary; in the second place, use of ‘pain compliance’ seems forceful and excessive and prompted some disagreement amongst police officers regarding its appropriateness; and, thirdly, pain compliance was only inflicted on male protestors, not females, and certainly not on Caroline Lucas MP., who had joined the protest on this particular day.

Peter Squires is Professor of Criminology and Public Policy at the University of Brighton. Email: P.A.Squires@brighton.ac.uk

Denise Martin is a Senior Lecturer in Criminal Justice and Criminology at the University of the West of Scotland. Email: Denise.martin@uws.ac.uk


Police use of social media: Empirical research is necessary

In 2010, Mawby identified police interest in new media as “worthy of further research” (p.135). However, since then few studies have advanced knowledge on this area. This primarily relates to the ways in which social media serves as a communications channel for many police forces. In its broadest sense, communication signifies the exchange of information (Bessonov, 2008) whereas social media, specifically refers to online platforms which facilitate these practices (Ellison and Boyd, 2013). A useful starting point for understanding any phenomenon, whether that is a particular theory, policy or practice is to identify the underpinning context in which this emerges. In doing this, it is possible to appreciate why police forces have started to use social media in communication terms. Additionally, we begin to unveil what the future linked to this aspect of policing might look like. In turn, this blog argues two main points. Firstly, social media is significant to twenty-first century policing. Secondly, empirical research on this area is necessary in order to work towards evidence-based practice.

Undoubtedly external communication is nothing new in police practice. For example, in the 18th century, two-way communication (both information distribution and collection) between the renowned Bow Street runners and London residents and businesses was common, as guided by Henry and John Fielding (Rawlings, 1995). Two centuries later Banton (1964) again highlighted how communication between police officers and civilians largely reflected the peace keeping role of the police, although urbanisation represented a threat to such cooperation. This raises the idea that policing, by its very nature, has relied on officers communicating across society. In recent times, this has intensified in line with two developments. Firstly, the evolution of an ‘information age’ starting in the 1950s, characterised by an evolving societal appetite for news, with social media arguably the latest phase in this growth. Secondly, from the 1970s onwards the notion ‘public engagement’ has become ingrained in political discourse. In policing this has coincided with the introduction of community, neighbourhood and reassurance policing. Set within this context, we have seen the expansion of police corporate communications departments. In light of the opportunities to reach out to a large audience – based on its significant and growing popularity (see, for example, Ofcom 2015) – it is unsurprising police forces have started to communicate via social media. However, with police research for the most part focused on the role of traditional media, it is now time we shifted our attention towards better understanding the growing part of new media in police communication. Unlike conventional mass media forms, this raises new questions on account of its direct communication function, as messages can be exchanged in real-time between the police and citizens, in turn circumventing the traditional media. Support for this type of direct communication by police forces across the UK suggests this trend is likely to continue if not expand (see Mawby, 2010; Horsburgh, 2015).

External communication has long been a feature of policing, with social media an ultra-modern way of facilitating this. The expanding number of police social media accounts in the last five years is indicative of the considered opportunities for communicating in online public spaces. Significantly, due to its contemporary emergence in police practice, it is reasonable to suggest that police forces are at the moment attempting to ‘get to grips’ with how best to use social media. For example, over the last few months numerous police forces across the UK have witnessed a backlash by both social media users and the traditional press over content posted which has been considered contentious. This can be seen with Coventry City’s Police recent attempt to raise awareness of burglary by tweeting photos of unlocked residential properties, discovered by officers on foot patrols. This practice was reported as “controversial” by local and national media outlets who frequently cited examples of online criticism by twitter users and also highlighted the police force’s later decision to delete some of these posts (see for example ITV News, 2016). The same sort of ideas are evident from Greater Manchester’s Police recent request over Facebook which asserted people should avoid giving money to a homeless person near a local supermarket in the area (see for example, Manchester Evening News, 2016).

For police forces across the UK, this likely acts as a warning against the dangers of ‘bad communication’. This points to the need for collaboration between police forces and scholars which will be key if the former are to make best use of social media. In turn, researchers must open up police use of social media to wider criminological discussions. As aforementioned, social media allows for information to be provided in real-time directly between the police and citizens with a ‘one-to-many’ function (one message has the potential to reach a sizable audience) and can facilitate a vast array of communication types (including one-way, two-way and multi-way). Exploring police use of social media offers the possibility to generate new insights into existing concepts and frameworks in light of these notably unique features. This can include formulating an understanding of how this area ties in with crime control, legitimacy and accountability. Put simply, what does crime control, legitimacy and accountability look like in relation to how the police use social media? In doing this researchers can address some of the challenges specific to a police context, while providing an empirical base for future police social media strategies.

Crucially, long-term research is required in order to keep this body of literature relevant over time. The ever-changing nature of digital technology and, in particular, social media, in conjunction with the increasing total number of social media users (Ofcom, 2015) and the manner in which people interact on social media is also constantly transforming. This is shown with the ‘rise and fall’ of various platforms since the turn of the century. Aside from understanding users’ online behaviours in general, researchers also need to recognise diversity across police social media profiles. Current studies tend to locate this within national and regional-level accounts, therefore overlooking police officials and in particular officers who engage with social media in a personal capacity. Some evidence (see Denef et al, 2012) suggests individual officers in parts of the UK are using social media in order to facilitate community policing. As a result, future research will likely need to appreciate the ways in which potentially distinct police accounts employ social media as well as the theoretical implications of these practices. In keeping with the nature of developments in policing outlined at the beginning of this blog, this should contribute to an understanding of how communication via social media can best facilitate citizen-focused policing.


Liam Ralph is a PhD student at Edinburgh Napier University researching police use of social media in Scotland. Email: 10005254@live.napier.ac.uk Twitter: @liamdralph

This blog post continues the discussion on private security from two earlier blogs by Dr Adam White and Professor Philip Stenning. Those earlier posts can be accessed here:



On the Study of Private Security: A Response to Philip Stenning

Professor Ian Loader and Dr Adam White

We tick almost all of the boxes of Philip Stenning’s recent depiction of British policing scholars who study private security.  We approach the industry from a ‘police-centred’ – or, more accurately, ‘state-centred’ – position.  We are acutely aware of the ‘risks’ it poses.  And we openly describe private security as a ‘tainted trade’ (indeed, one of us helped coin the phrase, see here).  Almost all.  One box remains unticked.  For us, these characteristics do not necessarily equate, as Stenning suggests, to a ‘strong normative position against private sector involvement in public safety’.  Quite the opposite in fact.  We think they serve as a solid foundation on which to better incorporate the private sector in public safety.  Far more solid, in fact, than existing regulatory blueprints which tend to approach the industry as an ‘ordinary’ trade, indistinct from repairing cars, delivering parcels, or walking dogs.  In this blog post, we expand on this claim. We do so not simply to clarify misrepresentation. We’ve also just published an article on this exact theme – ‘How can we better align private security with the public interest?’ – and we’re keen to promote it.

Let’s begin, however, with some points of agreement.  Stenning is quite right:   we do approach the industry from a ‘police-centred’ position.  In our view, the industry’s operations play out under the long cultural and institutional shadow of the police.  For good or ill, private security does not possess the symbolic power that has been accumulated by the police in liberal democracies. This does not automatically cast the industry in a negative light.  Indeed, when citizens are in the grip of an oppressive police force, private security can take on an almost emancipatory hue, as Stenning rightly suggests.  But it does mean that where private security coexists with a reasonably legitimate and effective police force, it tends to be regarded as something like the second best option.  And, regardless of which of these scenarios plays out, we place great value upon the normative position that policing should as far as possible be anchored in the public sphere, not in the market.  These ‘state-centred’ propositions do shape our analysis of the industry.

Stenning is also right that we are acutely aware of the risks posed by the industry.  To be sure, for those willing and able to pay, private security offers advantages in terms of value for money, flexibility and expertise. It can also often generate positive externalities by contributing to reductions in crime rates.  Yet it is also a cause for concern.  Fierce competition results in the proliferation of budget services and technologies that erode the wellbeing and safety of citizens.  Unequal buying power not only means that the rich enjoy privileged access to the market but also that security resources are often distributed in inverse relation to need.  Commodifying security into discrete goods tailored to individual, community and organisational preferences chips away at the trust and solidarity required to guarantee equal protection for all members of society.  In our view, these are risks that should not be ignored.

Stenning is right too in saying that we regard the industry as a ‘tainted trade’.  We do.  It is at this juncture though that our position parts company from Stenning’s depiction.  Stenning suggests that we deploy the term ‘tainted trade’ as a normative position, asserting that scholars who use the term are negatively disposed towards the industry.  For us, however, it is an empirically rich category.  Many in the industry see the police as the dominant institution and think policing ought to be anchored in the public sphere.  They are also very attuned to the risks their line of work poses to the democratic order.  They too have a ‘police-centred’ worldview.  In sum, the depiction of private security as ‘tainted trade’ forms part of the self-understanding of those who work in the security industry – it is not simply a label pinned on that industry by critical observers.  This is why security firms spend so much time engaging in legitimation activities designed to align their activities as far as possible with the public sphere, such as seeking regulation, dressing their employees up in police-like uniforms and employing ex-police officers wherever possible.

Recognizing this does not negatively dispose us towards the industry or its role in public safety.  Rather, we think it offers a platform for new ways of thinking about how to align the industry with the public interest.  In our view, this can best be done by inviting the private security industry into the regulatory process as moral actors who are conscious of how their chosen profession impacts on the democratic promise of security rather than recalcitrant economic actors who blindly follow the terms and conditions of contracts and nothing else.  Anyone interested in our analysis, and our proposals for a new ‘civilizing’ model of regulation, can find our more by clicking here.

Scholars of private security should not approach the industry from a standpoint pre-loaded to reject it – and that is not our stance.  Nor, conversely, should they be pre-committed to celebrating or promoting it. The plural provision of policing is a fact of modern social relations – and would most likely remain one even under conditions of greater economic equality. This calls for a grounded analysis of the benefits private security brings (and for whom) and of its social risks and costs. It also calls for an approach to regulation that seeks to reconcile security markets with the democratic promise of modern security – the idea that all citizens have a stake in, and merit equal consideration when determining, the protective arrangements of the political community to which they belong. It is this reconciliation that our analysis has sought to advance.

Ian Loader is a Professor of Criminology and Professorial Fellow of All Souls College, University of Oxford: ian.loader@crim.ox.ac.uk

Adam White is a Research Fellow of the Centre for Criminological Research at the University of Sheffield: Adam.White@sheffield.ac.uk

Response by Professor Philip Stenning

This is a good, and welcome, response to my earlier piece. Although I don’t agree with some of its key arguments and assertions, I’m not going to write a ‘rebuttal’ because (a) I’d prefer to leave the floor open for others who may wish to have a say, and (b) I’m going to be addressing several of these issues more fully in a paper I’ll be delivering at the ESRC conference on “Markets in Policing: Comparative Experiences from Europe and Beyond” at Leeds University on 11th-12th July 2016.

Philip Stenning is a Professor of Criminology at School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Griffith University, Queensland, Australia. E-mail: p.stenning@griffith.edu.au