‘So what works?’
This is one of the most important questions I ever ask the police in my holding to account role. I don’t, of course, put it as impertinently or inelegantly as that; but I have to ask it. Understanding what works is crucial if policing is to be effective.
When, for example, at the Public Accountability Board, the District Commanders give their reports on policing activity over the previous quarter, I always get good presentations. A great deal of work is described and there are often impressive statistics to back up the narrative. But sometimes I am left wondering what some of this activity has amounted to. I need to know not only what has been done, but also, what the outcome was. Did all this activity actually result in crime or anti-social behaviour going down? Do you have a way of measuring your effectiveness? In other words, what works?
Sometimes we discover what works from academic research, and sometimes the results of that research are not what you might think. So, for instance, when I ask community groups what they most want from their police, they often say ‘greater visibility’. This, they believe, is the deterrent that makes all the difference to crime and ASB going down. Which prompts the question, Is it true? Does it work?
It’s an important question because with resources being finite, we know there is no way a police officer can be in every street every minute of the day. We also know that some areas have little or no crime or ASB, so what impact would a patrol have there?
When I point this out, people understand the situation very well; but they are sure that some high visibility patrolling would make a difference. But where and how much?
This is where academic research comes in.
The Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) recently considered some research that shows that high visibility patrolling can make a difference in specific circumstances – namely, in hot spot areas. Patrols should not be everywhere or anywhere, but tightly focused on those places that are most blighted by crime. Fortunately, we now know in some detail where these hot spots are thanks to the work of the VRU, which has been mapping them.
The research suggests that high visibility patrols in daylight hours over a number of days for no more than fifteen minutes are very effective. This reduces crime and ASB. However, and counter-intuitively, patrolling for a longer period or in non-hot spot areas does not have the same effect. I suppose this is not as mysterious as it might seem. A patrol at, say 4pm, will be seen by many people – and the word quickly spreads that the police are about. And the fact that officers are not hanging about gives the impression that they are patrolling purposefully and might suddenly appear anywhere.
I asked whether it really did suppress crime or merely cause it to be displaced elsewhere. The research suggests that it is not displaced.
All of which points to the need for us to go on asking what works and for the police to continue getting smarter by using the best research.
Changing offender behaviour
And that research includes insights into how we can change offender behaviour.
For example, over the years, there have been times when we have become very concerned about increased levels of violence in prisons, not least the four in Doncaster. This affects all who work in them and also impacts on police resources because they have to investigate crimes that take place there. How can we reduce this?
One interesting answer – from research – is through changes in diet. It seems that the food prisoners eat can make a significant difference to their behaviour.
At Aylesbury Prison and Young Offender Institute, the charity Think Through Nutrition reduced violent incidents by 26% and seriously violent incidents by 37% through dietary changes. These incidents included attacks on other prisoners, on prison officers and self-harming – all of which affected the health and well-being of individual prisoners as well as having financial implications for the prison, the NHS and the police. More recently, at HMP Eastwood Park, trials have shown that particular diets can improve cognitive functions such as concentration, as well as make prisoners more willing to join in activities and so reduce tensions.
These are important and positive conclusions and one wonders why what has been discovered is not being rolled out universally. One answer might be – and I am only guessing – the cost of any change. My wife and I live fairly frugally, but I reckon that even for us, our food bill works out at about £4 per day.
Those who run prisons have to do it for around £2. That does not give much scope for innovation
We thought it was all over ….
Last week I attended (remotely) the opening meeting of what Sheffield City Council is calling the Trees Inquiry. (When did enquiries become Americanised as inquiries?) This relates to the council policy of re-surfacing all the roads in the city and making future street maintenance easier by removing some mature trees that were causing difficulties on some pavements. The re-surfacing was generally well received. Police officers were very pleased that their cars would no longer be hitting potholes on a regular basis. But some instances of tree removal were controversial and the police were drawn in when tension between protestors and those doing the removals flared.
But an enquiry is not academic research. A researcher looks impartially at evidence and reaches conclusions. What happens next is up to others. An enquiry also looks at evidence but it has a (small ‘p’) political purpose.
In this case, it seeks to achieve something for the good of the city, something that will enable a chapter to be closed and for the city to move on. As the two councillors who introduced the meeting both said, they want it to achieve ‘healing’. This is a good outcome but a tall order. People have very different views about the tree felling. Emotions run deep. Reading documents and viewing video footage could take months if not years. Costs could escalate to the point where the enquiry itself would attract criticism. It has to be managed down in a way that all the interested parties deem fair.
At the moment the enquiry has no terms of reference, no independent chair, no budget and no timescale, and is asking for people’s views on each. Having once set up an enquiry as PCC, I know how crucial each of these is, and potentially how difficult it could be to agree each if the councillors feel they have to go back and forth to consult the public on each.
My office will co-operate in whatever way we can, as will the police, but there does need to be a tight focus because the potential for the enquiry to become buried under mountains of material and to lose focus is enormous.
It would be a pity if we couldn’t see the wood for the trees.
Stay safe and well.