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Community engagement: can you beat the bobby on the beat?

Sophie du Mont, Strategy and Insight Manager

Thursday 1 September 2016

Now that more than a hundred days have passed since the new generation of Police and Crime Commissioners took office, Crest’s team have cast an eye over what our PCCs have been up to since May. Here we highlight six lessons about how to understand the public’s concerns.

Most PCCs have spent the summer listening to the concerns of people and organisations in their area, before putting pen to paper and writing their Policing and Crime Plans.

But with resources ever more stretched, how do they compete for the eyes and ears of the public against smartphones, digital content and the business of everyday life? If their community engagement is simply reactive in nature or outdated, relying upon old school techniques such as public meetings, what does this mean for their ability to gather intelligence and cut crime?

Most forward looking forces are using lessons from psychology to try new ways to encourage participation, and are working to understand how our behaviours, perceptions and experiences shape the way we respond to engagement and crime prevention messaging.

Met Police are Field Trial testing the impact of a new way of communicating crime prevention advice in respect of snatch thefts of mobile phones by criminals on bikes

At Crest we bring together ideas from colleagues who have spent time in political campaigning, journalism and with some of the best academics working in this area, such as Professor Martin Innes who, along with the Universities’ Police Science Institute at Cardiff University and the Metropolitan Police, has been testing effective crime prevention messages with a cartoon cat (below).

So, here are six emerging ideas about community engagement and getting effective messages across, courtesy of our colleagues and the result of reviewing engagement plans in four forces this year:

1. What you want to raise awareness about is not necessarily what people want to hear


People will respond to prevention advice about different types of crime differently – those with most impact on their life and those which they are most likely to hear about or experience are top contenders, such as burglary – not necessarily the issues the latest crime stats point to.

2. Authority figures telling the public what to do with crime prevention can have unintended side effects


Concern and worry, as well as annoyance and anger are typical reactions to authoritative messaging. It’s better to ‘show’, not ‘tell’. Think about who the audience is – can they relate to, or even empathise with, who is delivering the message? If the answer is yes, chances are the information you want to communicate will get through, without worrying or annoying the receiver (think cartoon cats.)

3. It is not Monsters Inc.


Scaring people isn’t the best way to get them to change their behaviour. Negative ‘fear-based’ messaging – top ten hotspots, lists of prevention tips or predictions of higher crime – is unlikely to get people to change their behaviour, and can stimulate a ‘victim-blaming’ thinking (i.e. ‘that wouldn’t be me, I would be more careful’.) Instead, recognise the value of positive messaging positing the ‘controllability of crime’ – promoting why people should do something alongside how they can do it has a much greater influence on behaviour. And remember that too much information can sometimes have the opposite effect and promote complacency.

4. Don’t expect the public to give up community intelligence or express their concerns if the trust is not there


For successful community engagement and empowerment, trust is pivotal. If the process by which communities are selected and conversed with builds trust, it then enables better communication, an appetite for openness and the sharing of ideas and resources. A recent HMIC public views of policing survey found that the extent to which someone interacts with local police officers/PCSOs is a powerful predictor of how someone speaks about the police; the more frequent the contact the more positive people are. Even for audiences who don’t typically engage with the police, they still value officers being visible, recognisable and approachable. After all, people being engaged, involved and interested is part of the basic essence of community. So in every community, any activity that builds and develops public perceptions and levels of trust should not be underestimated.

5. Community engagement is a process not an individual activity – you have to allow people to choose to come on board


If you want to build community relationships in an area where engagement has been low in recent years, you can’t expect gratitude straight away. Effective engagement strategies look to systematically include those groups and individuals who do not have a natural predisposition to go to the police at the level they want to – encourage the proactive actions of police staff to reach out, build trust, and access communities through different channels. And keep going – community engagement has to be a process.

6. You may think you know the best method but it is worth testing how communities have changed


Use socio-demographic data to understand the make-up of local communities. Without this information it is very difficult for beat teams to understand who they are or are not engaging with, and with evidence suggesting that the characteristics of an audience affects how information is received and retained, different engagement strategies will have varying degrees of effect depending on who they are targeting. Embedding local area profiling will also build institutional intelligence, rather than relying principally on the knowledge of experienced officers.


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