Policing 'Fear' and the Language of Community Engagement

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Posted on 22 May 2017

Chief Superintendent Owen West (@WYP_OwenWest) is Director of Corporate Services for West Yorkshire Police and a Research Fellow of KPAC (@Keelepolicing).


Recently I was at an N8 Policing Research Partnership event that brought academics and police practitioners together to discuss police community engagement.  N8 is a research partnership of 8 research intensive universities and 11 police forces in the north of England.  The aim of our gathering was to see how collaboration between academia and forces might improve the effectiveness of police community engagement activity.  I must admit that I came away with a few concerns.

Firstly, what do we (the police) actually mean by ‘Community Engagement’?  It was apparent that none of the speakers could readily articulate a definition.  So it strikes me as suprising that, while the phrase is now common shorthand for what we naturally think is a fundamental police core role, no one really stops to think what we actually mean by this ubiquitous term.  Ironic then that so much resource and energy is put into a concept the meaning of which largely alludes us.

I think that lack of clarity about what we mean is partly why we tend to fall back on ‘reassurance’ as an easier descriptive for what we might be doing when we ‘engage’.  Indeed, many (almost all) of our speakers deployed this word to illustrate their work at some point or another.  ‘Reassurance’ must be one of the most often used words in the policing lexicon and the dictionary definition - ‘to remove doubts or fears’ is striking; when you actually stop to think about it, do we really realise we are in the business of policing doubt and fear in communities?

‘Fear’, be it rational or irrational, is such an all-encompassing word.  It could mean fear of being a victim of crime (the easiest to comprehend for policing) to fear around deprivation, fear for the prospects of our children or lack of socio-economic opportunities, to fear based on unfounded community rumour or sensationalised media reporting.  In short, all of the factors at play in society at any given time.  But people’s ‘human security’ is never just a matter of policing crime.  It’s a massive task that we set ourselves here if and when we undertake to reassure communities and no other public service makes such a claim.

Understandably then, policing has struggled with the enormity of this task.  Community Policing was created to break away from a model of random patrol and reactive response in order to better connect with the societal changes that were then, as now, creating fear and uncertainty.  Fifteen years ago, PCSOs were introduced specifically to provide reassurance as the then-Labour government realised the police were not delivering on the scale and with the consistency that was needed.  Put another way, Community Policing simply wasn’t working.

At our Community Engagement event we had a presentation on Community Wardens - uniformed local authority resources under the control of the police in a Scottish City.  When all was said and done (they did some excellent work, it must be acknowledged), they are just another example of engagement and reassurance being ‘sub-contracted’ from the police that cannot hope to do this properly and consistently even with pre-austerity resources.

Many seek to fill this space - Community Wardens, City Ambassadors, or Street Angels etc.  There appears to be all colours of the uniformed rainbow ‘doing’ reassurance on our streets, little of which is consolidated and coordinated.  And there are others too, as I learned, eager to help with the engagement and reassurance challenge.  Here then is my second concern, the ‘sub-contracting’ of engagement to the commercial world.

Even IT tech companies are now very much in the engagement and reassurance market, all with the promise of the latest algorithm to identify specific communities and target bespoke messages towards them.  Police forces can buy, as we heard at the event, ‘big data modelling’ or ‘sentiment analysis’ ‘mosaic demographic patterns’ and social media monitoring.  It all sounded so accessible and easy.  Just what forces need to take the hard work out of talking to people face-to-face.  Perhaps a necessary development though given there just aren’t the number of bobbies around anymore.

For the police in a democratic and free society, technologies like these come with great responsibilities around data integrity and the protection of privacy.  If the police are to maintain a claim to legitimacy we must tread carefully.  Technology can be no substitute for the face-to-face dialogic relationship between public and police.  The civil liberties concerns around police body worn cameras in America is just one example that illustrates how hard we have to work to earn the trust of the public in our use of big data, analytics, and technology.  Our language then is crucial, and telling.

Telling because most of the speakers representing police forces at the event spoke of ‘intelligence gathering’ in the same context as community engagement.  Indeed ‘engagement’ and ‘intelligence gathering’ seemed almost interchangeable words in some of the presentations.  Of course, intelligence is obviously the life blood of preventing and detecting crime but for me it should flow from a relationship of legitimacy and trust between the police and the public, the very definition of Community Policing.  Doing engagement because the police want something, i.e. intelligence, from the community is not the basis for a relationship of trust and mutual respect.  How often do we hear the exasperation of communities who say we tend to engage only when we (the police) want something?  A one-way transaction that says a lot about relationships of power.

For the police, a simple dialogue with communities may be more achievable and, importantly, authentic.  A conversation between the police and the public.  Dialogue doesn’t presuppose one party will extract something, i.e. intelligence, from the other - it requires an equal exchange and a partnership built on respect.  It may be enhanced by technology but dialogue is not reliant on it or ‘targeted’ by it.  Above all, dialogue needs to be authentic, constant and normative.

To achieve this we must consider the power relationships in a police-community dialogue.  Communities have priorities forged through life experiences, very often experiences the police don’t share – we no longer tend to live and bring up our own families in the areas we police.  All the more important then to put a greater strategic priority to the needs of a local people. It might be said in this context that we tend to have selective hearing; that we hear and act on matters that resonate with a performance target here or a force priority there.

It strikes me then that when we speak of community engagement we should also be be discussing how our role, and priority, should be focused on how policing can engender the empowerment of communities to self-police.  Focusing excessively on performance targets and technology can undermine that aim.  One of the speakers at the event described this as “marginalised, silent concerns which are largely unlistened to and ignored”.  This wasn’t a personal view, it was a finding from academic research in a community setting.  Time then to put authentic, equal and consistent local dialogue at the centre of our strategic priorities.  To make more effort to do this ourselves with less sub-contracting to the commercial sector.  Time to rebuild and stick with community policing.