The confidence question

Faith in the police is falling - why?


Author: Harvey Redgrave, Chief Executive


Thursday 4 August 2022


Crest Advisory Chief Executive Harvey Redgrave examines the factors behind falling public confidence in policing in England and Wales. Public debate has centred around recent high-profile scandals involving the Metropolitan Police - but the decline seems to be a longer-term trend, with a reduction in police visibility and charging rates also playing a part.

For the first time in decades, public confidence in the police has become a political issue. For years, policy-makers would marvel at the remarkable stability of polling data showing that between 50 per cent and 55 per cent of the public consistently rate their local police force as ‘good’, seemingly regardless of the level of crime.


But that appears to be changing. In the year to March 2020, the proportion of people saying they were confident that the police were doing a good job fell to 46 per cent - its lowest level since 2008-09. [1] That has not gone unnoticed by politicians, who have described the task of rebuilding public confidence as the number one priority facing the next Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. But knowing there’s a problem and understanding what has caused it are two different things.



High profile scandals

 

Over the last 12 months, the public debate has (understandably) focused on a series of high-profile scandals which have afflicted the Met, including the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer; two police officers taking and sharing selfies at the scene of the murder of sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman; and the failure to undertake basic and routine tasks during the investigation into the serial-killer Stephen Port.


In a recent speech on police reform, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, suggested that these scandals had:

not only exposed deep cultural problems within the Met, but have created an acute crisis of confidence in London’s police service” [2]

However, while the scandals have certainly dominated media coverage and illustrate the urgent need for reform, it is far from clear that they are the sole, or even primary, driver of declining public confidence. Below, we look at two other factors which might explain the trends.



Declining neighbourhood policing

 

A closer look at data published by the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) reveals that overall public confidence in the police began declining from around 2014-15 - before any of the recent scandals in the Met.



What might explain this fall in confidence? One plausible explanation is that policing has become less visible, with fewer officers on the streets. As the chart below demonstrates, that appears to be reflected by trends in perceptions of officer visibility, which show a similar pattern to the confidence data (albeit the decline started slightly earlier, in 2012-13).



In addition to declining visibility, another driver of falling confidence may be a growing belief that the police are less responsive to local concerns. Again, data suggest this is indeed the case, with a reduction in the number of people reporting both that the police understand and deal with local concerns since 2014/2015.



In Michael Barber’s ‘Strategic Review of Policing in England and Wales’, an explicit connection is made between trends in public confidence, perceptions of police visibility and the decline of neighbourhood policing. Of course, correlation does not equate to causation but the consistency of the trends is striking.




Source: Home Office, Police Workforce


These trends are also supported by what we know about the evidence. For example, several international studies have confirmed that visible and responsive policing can “have positive effects on citizen satisfaction, perceptions of disorder and police legitimacy”. [3]



Failing victims

 

While the decline in confidence appears to be partly due to the hollowing out of neighbourhood policing, another factor may have been the deterioration in core police outcomes.


Arguably the most important of these is the police’s ability to detect crime and bring offenders to justice. Since 2015-16, the national charge rate has more than halved (from 15.5 per cent in 2015 to 5.6 per cent in 2022). For rape offences, the charge rate is as low as 1.3 per cent. [4]




Source: Home Office, police recorded crime and outcomes open data tables


Unsurprisingly, this period has coincided with a significant reduction in victim satisfaction with the police - the proportion of incidents in which victims were satisfied with the police has fallen over the past decade (from 37 per cent in 2011/12 to 32 per cent in 2019/20) [5].


In a survey conducted by JL Partners for the Tony Blair Institute, the public were asked to prioritise (with a rank out of 10) the elements of local policing that mattered most to them, along with an assessment of how well that service was currently being provided. The police scored best in terms of their response to 999 calls, averaging 6.4 out of 10. However, a very small proportion of the public felt that the police were doing a good job in providing a definitive response to crime and anti-social behaviour (4.8 out of 10). The police scored lowest with 4.1 out of 10 when it came to a “visible presence on the streets”, a finding that chimes with the decline in neighbourhood policing, discussed above.


Again, the fact that the decline in confidence coincides with a period in which outcomes and victim satisfaction have dropped is not necessarily proof of a causal relationship. Nonetheless, it would appear to at least merit further investigation.



Conclusion

 

Understanding the drivers of falling confidence is not an academic exercise. To have any hope of fixing the problem, policy-makers need to be able to diagnose it.


Recent high profile scandals affecting policing are an important contextual factor in declining public confidence, but they don’t provide an explanation for what has been a long-term decline. That can be traced to an erosion in neighbourhood policing and, more broadly, the police’s ability to deliver core services.


The drive to recruit 20,000 extra police officers by March 2023, bringing numbers back to roughly where they were in 2010, means forces across England and Wales will have an opportunity to boost their presence in neighbourhoods and improve performance. But the increasing complexity of some types of crime and the rise in online offending mean that it may take much more than greater visibility on the streets for police to win back public confidence.

 

Footnotes


[1] https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/datasets/crimeinenglandandwalesannualsupplementarytables


[2] https://www.london.gov.uk/press-releases/mayoral/mayor-of-london-trust-in-policing-speech


[3] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/272011608_Community-oriented_policing_to_reduce_crime_disorder_and_fear_and_increase_satisfaction_and_legitimacy_among_citizens_a_systematic_review


[4] https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/police-recorded-crime-open-data-tables#full-publication-update-history


[5] https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/datasets/crimeinenglandandwalesannualsupplementarytables

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