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Public perceptions about policing: every silver-lining has a cloud

Jon Clements, Development Director

Monday 14 January 2019

Last week Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) published the results of its annual study of public perceptions of policing, conducted on their behalf by BMG. The results are worth studying, both for what they do say and what they don’t.

Unsurprisingly, the headline pushed by the HMICFRS was the reported increase from 53% to 61% in the proportion of people satisfied with their local force (HMICFRS even tweeted a smiley face infographic to accentuate the positive). Good news undoubtedly. But dig a little a deeper into both the way the research was conducted and some of the other findings and the warning signs can be seen; the cracks in the service are there and may be getting bigger. Below are three reasons Crest suggest the good news should be taken with a pinch of salt.

First, leaving aside the headline satisfaction ratings, there are indications the police are becoming less responsive and visible. Since 2017 there has been a 10 percentage point decrease in the number of people who are confident the police would be ‘easy to access/ speak to in an emergency’. Moreover, just under half the public are dissatisfied with the number of officers or PCSOs they have seen on foot in their local area – and the trend is heading in the wrong direction, with over a third (35 per cent) saying they have seen police officers or PCSOs less often over the past year (up four percentage points since 2015).

Responsiveness and visibility are key components of public consent – arguably the bedrock on which the British policing model is built. Their erosion speaks to a fundamental chipping away of neighbourhood policing and ought to be of significant concern to PCCs, Chief Constables, or indeed anyone who cares about the future of policing in this country.

Second, on the broader question of how the police prioritise finite resources and interpret their mission, many will have read the findings of this report and concluded the public do not think it is the police’s job to deal with public safety/ welfare-based crises, such as mental health incidents. But the way the questions have been posed in this report are potentially misleading. It is unsurprising that when people are asked which agency is primarily responsible for mental health issues – they say the NHS rather than the police. But it would be wrong to conclude from this that the public do not think the police have a role in responding to emergencies caused by vulnerable/ mentally unwell individuals.

This is backed up by polling undertaken by Crest in 2018, which found that more than three quarters of people believe the police have a duty to respond to emergencies involving people suffering mental health crises.

Were the police to stop responding to 999 calls involving individuals displaying mental health issues, posing a threat to themselves or others, policing legitimacy would (rightly) suffer. It has long been accepted that the police’s role extends beyond narrow crime-fighting, to encompass a broader public safety function. Clearly, there is a debate to be had about the extent to which cut-backs made in other public services are having a knock-on effect within policing – but the answer lies in a more joined up, inter-agency approach to managing demand, not in a residualisation of the police’s role.

Finally, a note about the methodology used in this report. While the response of senior officers to the report was relatively (perhaps curiously?) quiet overall, one chief constable who did respond was Dave Thompson, of West Midlands Police. He challenged HMICFRS on the validity of the findings noting that BMG spoke to around 400 members of the public in each police force area, irrespective of the size of each force. By sampling the same number of people in (much smaller, relatively well-funded) provincial forces as in (much larger, often more deprived) urban forces, has HMICFRS given a disproportionately large voice to those communities less likely to have had negative experiences or views of policing?

There is useful information in this report. But chief constables and PCCs grappling with shrinking budgets and rising expectations may need to look for a different approach to understanding public opinion.  For example citizen juries and deliberative workshops ask people not what they think of their police, but what they would do if they were their police. This kind of information can provide crucial insights to those tasked with tackling rising, ever more complex demand, in the months and years ahead.


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