Community policing is not about 'cops and robbers', it is not a Hollywood gangster movie. Police are a part of the community.
Interview with Tim Rees, Head of Community Engagement, Metropolitan Police Authority
When was the term ‘community policing’ coined? How old is this idea?
It is an old term. For the last 50 years police forces in the UK, and also in other countries, particularly the US, have been playing with the concept of community policing of different forms and styles. Also, going back to the time when the Metropolitan Police was established in London, in 1829, Robert Peel, the prime minister at that time, talked about a policeman as a citizen in a uniform. Back then, there was some appreciation and understanding that the police are a part of community and policing is not done to the community but with the community. So, in that sense, one could say that the whole notion of community policing was there from the very beginning of the policing. However, we have moved away from that in the last 170 years. Policing has become more tactical, more professionalized, more mechanized – you do not see policemen walking the streets anymore, but driving their cars. The process of evolution has removed police from its origins.
Over the last twenty years, there have been efforts of reintroducing the notion and try and get back to the basics, to the roots of what policing is about. Also, learning has evolved that community policing is a more effective form of policing; it really does improve the ability of police to perform their functions more effectively when they work that much closer to the community. It is better both in terms of trust and confidence, and in terms of the level of intelligence and also [in terms of] the ability and willingness of the community to communicate with the police.
You mentioned trust. What are the elements that trust is based on, in other words, what makes people trust policemen?
When former chief constable in England John Woodcock talked about the reasons why the police force was established in 1829 his analysis was that it was founded by the propertied classes to protect themselves from the ‘dangerous classes’. It is an interesting notion and, in a way, the police have been protecting middle classes and upper middle classes from the ‘dangerous classes’ ever since. The definition of what the ‘dangerous classes’ are has changed and you see it reflected in police practices, for example, in cases of ‘stop and search’. For example, the disproportionality of black people versus white people… There is a lot of sensitivity around the practice and it is a rather clumsy tool for catching criminals.
The reality is that there will always be a class of people who interact with the police in disproportionate numbers either as perpetrators or as victims or as people who are marginalized by society. I think that is a problem, which will always be there, a rather large segment of society who feel that the police do no represent them and are imposing on them.
The other aspects of developing trust and confidence relate to performance and people’s expectations of what the police should be doing. Certainly our experience in London shows that there is a gap between that and the institutional perception of success. The police perception of success is that crime is going down and clearly that is an achievement of the police. But the community’s perception of success is based on different criteria. People are not so interested in catching criminals and dealing with terrorism; the community is generally more concerned about its neighborhood – anti-social behavior, graffiti, things to do with safety. Those are the sorts of ingredients that increase people’s anxiety, people’s fears, and people’s sense of not feeling safe. These are sorts of things that the police have generally not been very good at dealing with.
Is this gap a problem? How do you deal with it?
The primary way in which we have dealt with it is responding through what we call the Safe Neighborhood initiative. In London, there are 630 Safe Neighborhood teams comprising of a sergeant, two police constables and three community support officers who have lesser functions and responsibilities than the uniformed police officers. The primary purpose of these teams is to walk the streets, to talk to people…
Walk, not drive?
Walk, absolutely, they do not have cars. They sometimes have bicycles. The purpose is not to address the issues of crime but to look at issues of disorder and to work with other local partners such as schools to address the issues that are of the concern to the community. The teams are very purposefully directed to establish a variety of communication mechanisms with the community and hold public meetings to establish community panels that are as representative as possible of the demographics of the community. They have to work together and identify the community’s crime and disorder priorities. Another group they have to establish is what we call the Key Informant Network, or the KINs, to provide feedback and to monitor the performance of the team.
What does a KIN comprise of?
They are the key stakeholders in the community, religious leaders, business leaders, residents who are respected in their communities and who have some sense of what the problems are and some sense of whether the teams have been effective or not. This is very much ‘from the bottom up’ process of assessing police performance. I think it is also the most legitimate way.
How do you define a community in the city the size of London? How does it work?
It is an interesting question, because it is one of those elastic terms. But it has been said that London is a city of a thousand villages. It has been and continues to be a challenge to ensure that you are defining an area that does have some kind of identity, that the residents themselves know that this is the area I live in and do my shopping and not the one across the street. It is an interesting dynamic to recognize that, yes, this is a community and this is a neighborhood that can be appropriately policed.
It might be an even bigger challenge in Riga. The legacy of the Soviet era is that people tend not to care much about their neighborhood or even their staircase and the only place they identify with and feel safe in is their own flat. What is a starting point for developing the sense of belonging to a certain community?
One of the first tasks of these Safe Neighborhood teams is simply to knock on people’s doors and hand a leaflet out and to introduce themselves face to face. This is who I am, this is what I do, I want to get to know you, I want to listen to you and to learn about the issues that concern you, we have a public meeting next week, it is in the basement of such and such church, please come and if you can not then here is my card and tell me what is going on. It is very basic. Obviously it is a slow process – building that level of dialogue and communication, and that level of trust. These people are here for the long term. He was here six months ago and he is still here; now he knows who I am and I know him. Or her, because what we found during the recruitment is that the Safer Neighborhood teams attracted a significantly higher proportion of both women and ethnic minorities than the existing police establishment. The nature of policing, the nature of responsibilities and tasks of Safer Neighborhood policing are more appealing and attractive to women and ethnic minorities than the normal policing.
What is it that appeals to women and minorities? Is it communication?
Yes, it is communication, the human interaction, the community aspect, the fact that they are dealing with issues and problems that are meaningful to them. This policing is not a culture of ‘cops and robbers’, it is not a Hollywood gangster movie with that macho kind of ethic that the old policing had. Community policing is creating a different kind of ethos, a different approach to policing, which is more meaningful to those who do not like the macho culture of old policing.
You have been observing the Safer Neighborhood project in progress. What changes have you noted in the neighborhoods where it was implemented?
Certainly, in terms of our own public attitude surveys, public trust has increased significantly in London – it has gone up by 10 percent, which is a greater improvement than anywhere else in the country. We have also begun to detect some improvement in declining crime rates in the areas where the Safer Neighborhood teams have been working. That happened despite the fact that it is not the primary function of these teams to address criminal activity.
The third element is in terms of the effect and impact of the teams is their unique role in bringing together other local partners. For example, in one area of London, a very poor area the teams were located not in a police station but in different kinds of public buildings or even in commercial buildings like a big department store. One example was that the team was located in a school. And the consequence of that was decrease in insurance rates that the school had to pay for the building and decrease in sickness rates among the staff. And graffiti around the school declined, too. Totally unexpected… So, those are the intangible sorts of side benefits that you do not purposefully set out to address, but they are reflective knock-off effects of having Safer Neighborhood officers who were making themselves visible.
There are all sorts of exiting elements that we discover afterward and had not thought about before. You begin to interact with local people and new issues come up such as street lighting – whether it is dark and dingy and whether it encourages young people to hang about and deal with drugs. Put streets lights there and it helps to dissipate those sorts of problems! Those are the sorts of simple solutions that only people like the Safer Neighborhood teams can see and they are able to carry these messages to the appropriate officials. In fact it means going back to the village Bobby – a friendly type who will fix it for us. This is what the Safer Neighborhood teams are, they fix things.