Tick Box Community Engagement – Time to Reconnect?
The past year has been an interesting and some might say an unfortunate one for Neighbourhood Policing. Frontline officers have been saying for some years how this bedrock of our police service is being slowly eroded due to increasing cuts to funding and police numbers. Now we are starting to hear more Chief Constables espouse the same concerns with the likes of Ian Hopkins (GMP) and Andy Cooke (Merseyside) warning of the impact of further cuts and how the service might well end up as purely a reactive one.
You might also be aware of the recent concerns raised by HMIC about the state of Neighbourhood Policing in the 2017 PEEL report and how they were concerned that ‘local policing’ had continued to be eroded.
Are we about to witness the end of Neighbourhood Policing?
What would Sir Robert Peel say about where we are today if he used Peelian Principle 7 to assess our ability to deliver Neighbourhood Policing?
‘To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.’
I often wonder whether the last part of this principle is something that we have forgotten about? With strap lines such as, ‘You Said, We Did,’ and a public service ethos to find out and act upon the concerns and priorities of communities, have we forgotten that it’s not our job to fix everything?
Are some of our communities now so client dependent on the police and other services that they have forgotten how to carry out the, ‘duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence?’ And by constantly trying to fix what is going wrong, have we become the unwitting creators of this client dependency?
The College of Policing is currently carrying out research into what works in Neighbourhood Policing in order to provide future guidance on how forces can go about rescuing the current situation. While I applaud their aims, I wonder if we will simply put together a toolkit based on what has worked in the past not on what will work in the very different climate of the now and the future?
In all that is done under the banner of Neighbourhood Policing the starting point has to be our relationship with fellow citizens and how we maintain this. Over the past few months I’ve been discovering for myself how some forces are still managing to deliver what is often labelled as, ‘Community Engagement.’
What I found was how some forces have stopped doing any form of structured community engagement either because, ‘we don’t have the time or resources,’ or, ‘it doesn’t work anyway.’ If you take a look at several force websites you’ll see how this is reflected on the sparsity of opportunities for citizens to meet with the police. Some forces still have a diary of events where you can speak to a police officer, however, these are starting to look like a police service in retreat as often they take the form of a monthly ‘surgery’ (where you go to be fixed?) at a police station.
I did see first hand some attempts to keep ‘Community Engagement’ going, however, what I witnessed left me worried and concerned as it appeared that these meetings and initiatives were being run to hit targets or to provide a tick in the box to show HMIC or other stakeholders that, ‘we do still do Community Engagement.’
The first Community Engagement event that gave me cause for concern was a PACT meeting held in a challenging part of a Metropolitan Force area. The agenda looked like a police performance meeting and the lay out of the room did nothing to remove a feeling of, ‘Us and Them.’ The service providers sat at a top table and the community sat in rows in-front of them. About 15 residents turned up and from listening to their initial conversations they wanted to discuss a drug-dealing problem that was occurring over the weekends in the early hours.
The meeting started with the service providers bickering about why the housing association weren’t present and continued with them telling the ‘audience’ about what they were doing to tackle crime as well as providing them with an insight into their world of targets as the police officer explained the latest month / year to date crime statistics.
When it came to the community ‘having their say’ they explained their concerns about the drug dealing activities. I almost fell off my chair when the police officer explained how they wouldn’t be able to do much to tackle this issue as, ‘we all finish at midnight at the weekend.’
The meeting ended with the chair from the local authority asking the residents what their priorities were for the next month, ‘as we have to have three.’ Off road bikes (a big problem in the area apparently) was mentioned to be met by a response from the sergeant that the off road bike team are really hard to secure, and besides, they’re currently, ‘off the road,’ and we don’t have the money to fix them.
As I left this meeting I felt saddened, sad for the residents who turned up because they cared enough to act, and sad for the service providers who were running their PACT meetings in a way that would only serve to further disengage with communities.
I got the feeling that the meeting was being run as a tick box exercise to demonstrate that the force and local authority were doing, ‘Community Engagement.’
The meeting of targets to demonstrate how forces are doing ‘Community Engagement’ was demonstrated a few weeks later when I attended a ‘PCSO surgery’ held in a Parish Hall in a County force area. The PCSO appeared to be surprised to see me and later commented how, ‘it’s rare for anyone to turn up for my surgeries and if they do, I usually know them and what they want to complain about.’ The PCSO went on to explain how she has to hold surgeries on a regular basis to hit the targets set by the force and how she prefers it when people don’t turn up as when they do they will invariably bring a problem to her that (she perceived) she couldn’t do anything about such as speeding, ‘as we don’t have the resources in the RPU.’ She went on to describe how everyone at her station knows that the surgeries serve no purpose other than to demonstrate they are doing, ‘Community Engagement.’
Again, I left this opportunity to engage with communities saddened as it was very clear that what was happening here was the game playing of Community Engagement targets.
These examples are just two of many Community Engagement activities I have inquired into. Others include:
A Participatory Budgeting event at a completely inappropriate venue where the police officers stood at the back watching their phones as opposed to seeing the event as an opportunity to build relationships and to enable community building.
Officers describing their community meetings as an opportunity for the ‘usual suspects’ to attend and moan about the same single issue problems that aren’t in their opinion the responsibility of the police or are about things that aren’t urgent and have little or no risk attached to them (dog fouling, littler, parking offences, young people, alcohol misuse).
Some areas where the police and local authority are doing their best to manage problems around homelessness and alcohol / drug misuse only to find that the public only appear to have an appetite for enforcement as a means of dealing with these (Wicked) problems.
Having witnessed the ‘best’ of what is left in respect of Community Engagement and Neighbourhood Policing I’m concerned that The College of Policing review will result in nothing more than examples of these types of practices. These are all ideas about Community Engagement that might have had a place in the early days of Neighbourhood Policing but don’t now – if anything they will hold us back from exploring the next chapter of Policing as we try and shift our culture from one of Service Provider to Citizen Enabler.
In 1829 Sir Robert Peel didn’t talk about the police being responsible for fixing the community’s crime and safety problems. Is it time to remind ourselves of the need to remember the ‘historic tradition,’ of how the police are, ‘only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.’
There are some key words here: ‘citizens’ and, ‘the interests of community welfare and existence.’ There’s no mention of crime. Within this principle does Sir Robert Peel remind us of what our true calling should be?
I’d like to believe that there is a positive future for policing and our relationship with communities. After a decade of being a practitioner and enabler of others to adopt a Community Safety approach which involves enabling the assets within communities in order to tackle everything from serious and organised crime to mental health issues amongst vulnerable community members, I’m really pleased to be able to announce a collaborative partnership with Richard James (former Superintendent in TVP) and Tim Curtis (Senior Lecturer at Northampton University) of Intensive Engagement Limited.
We passionately believe in the power of communities to resolve many of the community welfare issues that result in demand on services and are already in talks with forces / local authorities to help take them on a journey from Public Servant to Citizen Enablers.
Previously I could only bring the power of my experience in this approach, which has already been successful in several force and local authority areas. Bluelight’s partnership with Intensive Engagement Limited now offers more – it provides the best of what works at a tactical and strategic level as well as an evidence base for what we do. This isn’t just about training, it’s about organisational development.
I’m very excited at the prospect of enabling others to change lives in geographic areas where there is low trust and confidence in the police as well as in themed areas such as homelessness, drug /alcohol dependency and mental health (one our future challenges).
I’m excited to be part of the journey as police and local authorities join us on a journey to reconnect with communities, to become a part of those communities again as opposed to apart from them.