Researchers to study how technology is changing police engagement with public

A major new study will examine how engagement between the police and the public is being changed by the use of new technologies. 

Over recent years, the public has become increasingly likely to encounter police in “technologically-mediated” ways thanks to new communication technologies, such as online reporting of crimes and answering of queries, body worn video cameras, mobile data terminals, and the use of social media accounts.  

In the UK, the National Police Chiefs' Council believes the public expects policing to join other services 'online', but while attention is being paid to what technology can do, for the police in particular, the public side of this encounter has barely been considered. 

Now, Dr Helen Wells, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Keele, is co-authoring a study funded by £862,000 from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), to explore experiences and understanding of such technologically-mediated contact between police and the public.  

The study is being led by Dr Liz Aston, Associate Professor of Criminology at Edinburgh Napier University and Director of the Scottish Institute for Policing Research (SIPR), and co-authored by Dr Megan O'Neill of Dundee University, and Professor Ben Bradford at University College London (UCL). New researchers based at Keele, Edinburgh Napier and UCL will also be involved, funded by the ESRC. 

Over the next three years, INTERACT – Investigating New Types of Engagement, Response And Contact Technology – will consider the perspectives of both police and public, looking at ways in which the police can and should design their systems to better reflect people's needs and expectations. 

INTERACT represents a significant opportunity to impact the landscape of policing policy and practice nationally and internationally.  

The researchers said that although online reporting may appeal to some people, or be particularly useful for some crime types, not enough is known about how people experience these types of interactions for experts to be confident that they will be of benefit to everyone, in all circumstances. 

Dr Wells said: “We also do not know if and how these developments might affect the way people feel about the police and what they do. We know that when people interact with officers they come to conclusions about the trustworthiness and legitimacy of police. But this knowledge is based on research which assumes that most or all contact between the public and police happens face-to-face, as it has done for decades.” 

The research will allow the experts to reconsider theories of public trust and police legitimacy, and if they are both fit for purpose in the current environment and are future proofed against new developments, allowing them to recommend ways for the police to stay legitimate in the eyes of the public. 

The research will also consider what it means for the police to be 'visible' and 'accessible' in a digital age and assess how the public feel about the different ways the police can be seen and contacted. 

Lead author Dr Aston added: “We aim to shape policy and practice, with a view to improving service provision. We will be working closely with three police forces, and with various communities in each, as well as with national policing organisations. Our findings should directly and positively influence what the police do, and what the public are able to do to access police services.”