Blog & Update: 4

The office has continued to work from home and I have continued to hold meetings or take part in meetings remotely. So, last week I joined 42 other PCCs talking to the Policing Minister, Kit Malthouse, about everything from PPE, to testing, to the ability of our courts to cope with remote courts and a building backlog of cases. We have these conversations every other week.

This week we will also dial in for the Public Accountability Board (PAB) and the Local Criminal Justice Board, both of which will have a Covid-19 focus – what is the current state of affairs and what are plans for the future as we start to come out of lock-down. PAB has the media dialling in as well.

Although we seem as busy as ever, I have gained a lot of time by not having to travel, not just to work but also to meetings in communities up and down the county. Lock-down and self-isolation, therefore, gives you time to think – unless, that is, you succumb to the sort of tiredness that comes from having a less structured day. I suspect that our cave-dwelling ancestors spent a lot of their long winter evenings nodding off. Anyway, I realise I have evolved a theory of policing and reduced it to Four ‘Cs’ – each of which is challenged in present circumstances.

The Four Cs of Policing

1 Policing is consensual. Everyone agrees that British policing is grounded in Sir Robert Peel’s principle of policing ‘by consent’. This works as long as what the police do is broadly what people expect and want and is what the law says.

So far, people have been supportive of the lock-down and what the police have been asked to uphold – in fact public opinion wanted these steps taken earlier and, if our emails are anything to go by, they wanted them more heavily enforced.

People were emailing to tell us about their lax or wilful neighbours who needed police attention! Far fewer have complained about police heavy-handedness – at the moment.

But the police have been in a potentially difficult place in that the Government’s guidance – heavily publicised – was stricter than the legislation itself. The public probably did not distinguish between guidance and law; but the police have to.

If forces enforced the guidance of ministers rather than the legislation passed by Parliament, they could find themselves challenging lawful behaviour and that would undermine their legitimacy. One of the Peelian principles touches on this:

‘To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy…’

There is a danger if forces appear to be too willing to do the bidding of ministers (or public opinion), however grave the emergency.

Also, there may come a point where lock-down fatigue combines with mixed or confusing messages from the Government around relaxation of the guidelines, to make consensual policing far more difficult. After all, the emergency legislation has turned normal social behaviour into (potentially criminal) anti-social behaviour – and no government in a democratic state can sustain that indefinitely. This is another way of saying that policing by consent also assumes that we have government by consent. In the present climate that requires the government to take us with them in their thinking by sharing it with us.

2 Policing is contextual. What the police can do and how they do it will vary to some extent from place to place.

This is one reason for having neighbourhood teams, so that they can get to know their patch and its different communities. Whether we like it or not, policing in Hexthorpe is one thing, and policing in Wickersley is another. (This is why engagement and education in Page Hall, Sheffield, has involved asking for help from a Roma-speaking university student. He could explain to people whose traditional recreation in the evening is to gather in the street, why this was not allowed during the epidemic. Without this, the police might have been tempted to embark straight way on enforcement.)

Or again, among one social group or demographic, the police may be seen as ‘on your side’, whereas with another, trust has to be won over time and with a settled presence of approachable officers.

Nothing disrupts a neighbourhood team more than constant change of personnel. Yet there are many good reason for moving officers around. Getting this balance right is challenging.

While I believe this approach is right, it is not without its dangers and needs constant explanation and assessment. There will be some areas and people who will question the approach as building in unequal and so unfair treatment and use of resources.

And context is wider than the local. One aspect of the lock-down may be that more crime is going on-line, including traditional street-based crimes such as drug dealing.

3 Policing is contingent. This is not always understood, but what police can do and what they have to do, and how they do it is affected all the time by things that lie outside their control.

So, to take big and obvious examples, from c.2010 we had almost ten years of austerity. Each year the resources shrank. This required adjustments and changes. Most of this was done incrementally – because it had to be. It was salami slicing rather than working to a plan with an end-point, because no one was able to predict how long the year-on-year cuts in funding would go on for.

If you had been able to do this, you could have planned for a different (smaller and more focused force) accordingly. Then, almost out of the blue, austerity was reversed and there was a promise of increased resources. And absolutely out of the blue, we had the floods and then Covid-19.

As far as Covid-19 goes, we cannot predict the end result: what will happen, for example, to both the economy and, as a result, the criminal economy, as a consequence.

This also suggests that if a force is not to be caught out by those events and changes that can sometimes be foreseen, at least in part, they need the courage to try and anticipate them.

Sometimes that means making difficult choices – where to put resources, for example – and sometimes it may mean taking what turn out to be missteps, but learning from them.

So you need a police force that is dynamic – always looking around and thinking ahead.

4 Policing is communicating. My final C, which brings everything together, is communication.

This has already run like a silver thread through all of the above. But if the Force is to retain confidence in itself and the confidence of the public, it must be clear about what its seeking to do and be able to communicate that both internally and to partner agencies and the public. If the police do not communicate they leave a vacuum which will be filled by the speculation of others.

So that’s my theory. Policing is consensual, contextual, contingent and communicating. You have to be good at them all because they are all inter-linked.

I hope you are staying safe and well.

Contact Me

My office is now closed and we are all working from home. But you can still contact us:

General queries and correspondence:

Email: info@southyorkshire-pcc.gov.uk

Telephone: 0114 2964150

Media Enquiries:

Fiona Topliss, Communications and Engagement Manager:

Email: media@southyorkshire-pcc.gov.uk

Telephone: 07468 472975