Think Tanks

« Matthew Sinclair's 'Let them eat carbon' - the crippling cost of climate change policy | Main | Sam Bowman of the ASI: A Tobin tax would be an economic disaster »

Blair Gibbs: The role of community policing in fighting crime

This is the third in a series of articles examining the conveyor belt to crime. Previous contributions have looked at the importance of early intervention and supporting families. Today, Blair Gibbs of Policy Exchange looks at policing.


Debate around police tactics during the riots has stoked interest in policing philosophies and the merits or otherwise of ‘community policing’.  The Prime Minister’s use of the phrase ‘zero tolerance’ distracts from this, and should only be taken as a signal of the legitimate public desire for a firm response by the wider criminal justice system to the serious criminality that occurred. 

‘Zero tolerance’ is not the same as ‘community policing’ and it is a mistake to conflate them. As Bill Bratton - the greatest police leader of his generation - has argued, ‘zero tolerance’ is a crude misrepresentation of the policing philosophy he advocated. Bratton’s success in New York, not to mention much more success with far fewer resources while he was chief in Los Angeles (2002-2009), did not come from ‘zero tolerance’. That is never sensible or practically possible. It implies mass arrests for all minor offences and the total absence of proportionality and officer discretion.

What really happened in New York was a change of leadership which drove a change of organisational culture, and with that, came a change of tactics on the ground.  Local commanders took control, were held accountable for crime, and whilst arrests went up, that was a product of a more proactive, disruptive policing approach – not an objective.  More important was the application of a new philosophy of community policing, that changed the way the police saw their role.

The intellectual origins of that philosophy were the 1980s in the US.  Best described by George Kelling who remains the academic authority, it was based on the ‘broken windows’ theory of crime.  Briefly, this held that the condition of neighbourhoods, not just individual behaviour, affects the prevalence of crime – that disorder left unaddressed, damage not repaired, and misdemeanours not tackled, all send signals.  A disorderly neighbourhood is not just one that reflects a high crime rate – it actually creates and sustains high crime by signalling that authority is absent, no one cares, crime has no consequence.

Kelling lamented the decline of the local beat cop and the police’s retreat from the streets. In response, ‘Community policing’ was the model that grew from this theory. It urged the police to see their role as preventing crime (a restoration of a core Peelian principle) and involved more proactive policing to help restore order.  Visible beat patrols were vital – they were not just a crime displacement exercise – and community knowledge from beat cops could both prevent low-level crime and supply key intelligence on serious criminality.

Officers were made more visible, with more deployed to local policing roles and designated neighbourhood teams.  Residents got to know their local cops and together felt confident to reclaim public spaces – even in suburbs like Harlem in New York which had become no-go areas at night. The model cut crime and won the public back, and it was adopted in most major cities.  Today, even in spite of large budget reductions, the US government prioritises funding, through the COPS programme, for community policing. This funding, started under President Clinton after the schemes success in Chicago and New York, has embedded the community cop in every American neighbourhood.  The community policing philosophy taught us that it is not about how much money you spend – it is about leadership that gets cops out there in the right place, doing the right thing at the right time.

Inspired by this, the Blair governments after 2002 pioneered the roll-out of Safer Neighbourhood teams that were built up with a brand new cadre of police community support officers (PCSOs) – of which there are now 16,000.  Whatever their shortcomings, the arrival of PCSOs did help to create a community policing approach by making the police more visible and locally rooted.  PCSOs have become popular, even if their impact alone on crime may be modest.

In spite of this, some chief constables resisted, wedded instead to the ‘intelligence-based policing’ pioneered in the 1980s in Kent and the West Midlands that took officers off the street, out of uniform and into specialist investigation units – invisible and unavailable to the public.  This improved detections but damaged public confidence, as the police became detached from the community and not focused on public concerns – which were, and remain, local crime and anti-social behaviour. This view is still glimpsed occasionally when senior officers dismiss local policing and beat patrol as if it is not really proper policing.  Take Sir Hugh Orde, who airily dismissed this “municipal model... where the cops wander round smiling at people”.  Community policing is nothing to do with cups of tea and cheery smiles and a police leader of Orde’s distinction should know better.

Community policing is a tried and tested model that reduces crime while enhancing public trust.  It began in the US and proves that our police do have things they can learn from elsewhere.  As a model it has now made inroads in the UK, and the police are more community focused than they were in the 1980s. And yet despite real progress, the elements of truly successful community policing are not fully established in the UK. For that we need:

  • More devolution and officer discretion - our chief constables, like those in the US, must have the freedom to try new tactics and to innovate, but they are still constrained, both by central guidance and an overbearing centre that has eroded officer discretion, bureaucratised daily police activities, and stifled experimentation.
  • More visible policing - with record officer numbers we still do not have enough police who are visible and available in local neighbourhoods, as our forthcoming report – Cost of the Cops – will show.  We need closer scrutiny of how the police are deployed and where, not how many are employed.
  • Democratic governance - we need modern oversight of the police that gives the public a way of demanding the visible policing that they deserve.  Elected Police & Crime Commissioners is just such a mechanism, and that element of the Government’s ambitious police reform agenda is now more urgent than ever.


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.