top of page

Complex, hard to define, and growing in scale: three challenges to the policing of extremism

Insights Perspective


Callum Tipple, Senior Policy Analyst

Thursday 3 September 2020

Insidious, infectious, hard to detect but capable of inflicting immense harm on communities, there are obvious parallels between the transmission of a dangerous virus and the spread of extremism.

But while our understanding of how to respond to pandemics is developing almost daily, our understanding of how the authorities should respond to extremism remains limited – despite signs that the threat it poses is growing. This is particularly true of attitudinal data from Eurobarometer surveys; for example, whilst public attitudes towards minorities are amongst the most liberal in Europe, growing polarisation is reflected in less progressive attitudinal data surrounding Islam and Judaism.

There is a gap in the evidence base around the role of the Police in responding to the evolving threat, from hate crime to terrorist attacks. It is this gap which Crest is currently attempting to fill. Drawing on funding from the Dawes Trust, we are approaching the end of a one-year programme of research into the policing of extremism. Below, we set out three of the most significant emerging findings from this research.

Finding 1: There is no shared understanding of “extremism” in policing

In order to effectively police a problem, it is vital that all partners involved have a shared understanding of what the problem is. However, no such understanding exists in policing. Whilst government policy (through the Counter-Extremism Strategy) speaks the language of extreme views, policing deals with actions rather than thoughts. As such, policing tackles a wide range of incidents all under the banner of extremism, from incidents of anti-social behaviour or hate (dealt with by territorial policing) through to the harder edge of terror attacks (dealt with by counter-terrorism units).

However, as the Commission for Countering Extremism itself recognises, “not all hate crime is a consequence of hateful extremism” - much is instead motivated by general prejudice or external factors such as alcohol. In order to deal with all aspects of extremism more effectively, policing must be supported with a clear framework that identifies how the concept translates into offences. An example of such a framework is set out below.

Finding 2: Extremism appears to be placing greater demand on territorial and counter terrorism policing

Due to a paucity of statistics, it is difficult to quantify the scale of extremism as it presents to policing. However, there are reasons to believe that demand on territorial policing has significantly increased over recent years, and that a similar trend may be true of counter-terrorism work. For example, recorded hate crime has increased by 145 per cent since 2013/14, whilst community reporting statistics also show steady increases over the same period. At the very least this suggests that awareness and reporting of hate crime has risen, placing significant demand pressure on the Police and the criminal justice system at large.

Similarly, the number of individuals arrested for terrorism-related offences has increased by 35 per cent since 2002, and despite falls in the overall number of referrals, the number of individuals progressed through Prevent (the government’s multi-agency anti-terrorism programme) for further “Channel” support has more than trebled since 2013. Whilst counter-terrorism policing has received significant financial boosts in recent government spending rounds, this may not be addressing the squeeze lower down the ideological spectrum.

Finding 3: Growing complexity of the threat

Finally, evidence from Hope not Hate and other bodies which monitor extremist organisations has cast a light on trends in extremist methods that significantly complicate the Police’s job in tackling threats at source. For example, formal extremist groups with political structures have been largely replaced by looser, more decentralised networks led by influencers. These influencers are often able to avoid straying into overt acts of criminality, and such networks are very difficult to police. As one senior officer told us:

“The very easy categorisation of groups now [is] not so easy now. There are a number of different splinter organisations that may have the same sort of central core aims and aspirations, but actually there are subtle nuances and differences which make them quite distinct. So, it is becoming more and more difficult to pin that down.”

There are warning signs that extremism directed towards public figures and in particular MPs is increasing, with the number of offences reported to the Met’s Parliamentary Liaison and Investigation Team (PLaIT) more than doubling between 2016 and 2018. This is especially salient given the murder of Jo Cox MP in June 2016, yet question marks have been raised (including by the Committee on Standards in Public Life) over the effectiveness of the Parliamentary Liaison and Investigation Team and local forces in identifying and responding to threats.

Finally, extremist groups and individuals are using the internet and social media to disseminate and influence (use of specialist media and mainstream platforms to spread extreme narratives), to recruit and mobilise (use of narratives to recruit group members and use of encrypted messaging apps to organise action), and to directly abuse targets (use of online platforms to facilitate direct abuse towards individuals). A 43-force model with limited technological capability is imperfectly designed to respond to this shift.

The changes in the scale and nature of extremism pose significant challenges for policing. In particular, there is a risk that the combination of definitional uncertainty, rising levels of CJS demand, and changes in the operation of extremists and extremist groups, will create a ‘perfect storm’ that public services may be ill-equipped to address.

Extremism and COVID-19

In recent months, concerns have been expressed about the impact of the pandemic on extremism. For example, the Commission for Countering Extremism has suggested that national lockdown may have increased the exposure of vulnerable individuals to extremist narratives. As the National Coordinator for Prevent, Chief Superintendent Nik Adams, stated:

“Isolation may exacerbate grievances that make people more vulnerable to radicalisation — such as social alienation. The extremists know this and, as ever, will look to exploit any opportunity to lead those people into harm, often using topical issues as hooks to lure them in."


bottom of page