One of the first media stories to catch my eye as I dragged myself back to work from my post-Christmas cheese and chocolate-induced stupor, was this Telegraph story about increasing use of social media by police officers and forces to engage with the public; the so-called “new version of bobbies on the beat”.
It is easy to be churlish; to think of it as a corner-cutting or tokenistic exercise, or a cheap way of dealing with cutbacks. Working in and with communities for over 15 years, a visible police presence was one of the ‘staple’ demands of communities; up there with “something for kids to do”. I’m less ‘frontline’ now but I imagine it remains the case. This is, however, despite there being little evidence that the traditional British bobby on the beat has ever had any actual impact.
When I worked in Communities First in communities of the Gwent valleys the turnover of neighbourhood bobbies was huge. In 5 years I worked with over twenty. To be perfectly honest the vast majority of them never truly learned enough about their communities; they seldom established productive relationships with partners; and it undermined the credibility of the neighbourhood bobby role. I recall one bobby telling me that she would return after days off to often see a mountain of enquiries and correspondence related to her patch that had been left unattended because her colleagues saw them as only hers to deal with. Another remarked how many of her colleagues were disinterested in the neighbourhood role because it wasn’t as “sexy” as other policing roles and duties.
Another perception held by the community that served to erode the credibility of the neighbourhood role was that of sergeants who oversaw the neighbourhood division doing the job as a final ‘call of duty’ before retirement; a cushy desk-job that wasn’t taken seriously. Again, the turnover in personnel in this role was high and served to alienate communities rather than foster cohesive relationships. From a community development point of view I could see plain as day where the police were going wrong, organisationally and often individually:
- they didn’t involve people in decision-making
- they would obscure matters and alienate people through neglecting to de-jargonise terms
- they would not, or at least only tokenistically, promote the opportunity for communities to define their priorities (though the introduction of PACT meetings went some way to addressing this)
- didn’t seek out diversity and plurality of views (attending a CF Partnership meeting, though necessary, should have not on its own ticked the box ‘Engagement’, but often did)
- most importantly, it was not clear whether collective reflection on their practice, values and beliefs was a routine process
Curiously, the most effective neighbourhood bobby I ever worked with was a relatively new recruit having had a background as a manager of a Sainsbury supermarket. With customer service skills honed in that cut-throat sector he recognised the merit in making people feel valued, taking time out for them, explaining decisions and providing feedback. Without necessarily realising it he would probably not learn much new if the National Principles for Public Engagement were placed in front of him.
If Twitter and Facebook allow for engagement that is responsive, personable, in an appropriate level of formality and focused on individual and/or community needs then it is arguably providing for a more effective interface with communities than ‘traditional’ neighbourhood policing can do; or at least the neighbourhood policing I have witnessed.
The days of police surgeries are increasingly numbered in communities; and if they aren’t in some communities, they should be. I remember these being a routine feature in communities: an advertised weekly/fortnightly drop-in in a community setting where the neighbourhood officer and perhaps a PCSO would be available. Certainly informal and locally accessible, they tended however to be poorly attended . Most people with crime and community safety issues don’t want to advertise that they are off to speak with the police. The police knew this and the the community representatives/leaders knew this. Suggest stopping them or finding alternative means of engagement would be resisted; a veritable case of doing what has always been done irrespective of the results or impact. They became a crutch to communities who feared losing something that they had a degree of control over against a backdrop of dissatisfaction with and a lack of control and influence on a service as outlined above.
Interestingly, I recall encountering a CF team in the Gwent valleys about 3 years ago who mentioned how their neighbourhood officers would now drop-in to the CF office of a Monday morning, access a PC and browse local Facebook pages. They gleaned more intelligence about the community and learned more about specific instances of disorder or nuisance this way than in a month or more’s worth of surgeries. They could also build a more informed and accurate picture of events over a weekend from the myriad of different perspectives that were provided by people sharing and interacting on Facebook. Would people confide this with bobbies face-to-face in a surgery setting? The consensus was overwhelmingly not, and the time taken to build a similar picture in ‘traditional’ methods was so much greater.
At that time the bobbies didn’t have their own Facebook page and so there was little engagement. The Devon and Cornwall example in the Telegraph article, and in a Welsh context the reporting of crime – or “crimemongering” – by the popular @EvanstheCrime, highlight the benefits of taking that bold step and not just ‘lurking’ but actively engaging. I’d be curious to know whether the Gwent example eventually did this and how it has affected their relationship with the local community.
Like in so many instances of tentative public sector embrace of social media, they probably encountered some resistance or apprehension on the part of their seniors if they did become more active and participative; the article acknowledges this was certainly the case in Devon and Cornwall:
“force bosses were initially uncertain about whether their officers should use the tool, but are now fully behind the new method of community engagement”
Having spent a lot of focus and time in work of late on welfare reform where there are concerns about the impact of a digital-by-default approach to aspects of benefit claims, rent management and compulsory job search, there is a parallel here with policing. Tackling people’s perception of crime is critical, irrespective of the actual recorded crime; which incidentally was always regarded with suspicion anyway because the their poor trust in policing prompted many people to see the reporting of crime as a pointless exercise. If, say, older people or disabled people could attend a surgery and subsequently feel safer (let alone listened to or feel engaged) then this is important; digital engagement ought not become the default mechanism because there are people who lack the digital literacy and access to technology to engage fully, even partially, via social media. There remains a need for informal, accessible, safe and occasionally discreet face to face engagement and a drop-in at a sheltered housing scheme or a youth club or in partnership with a support group/agency should not be rejected completely.
Speaking of youth clubs, though the article doesn’t touch on this, I’m also interested in the extent to which young people’s engagement with policing is enhanced and improved via a shift to increased digital and social media engagement. Should digital engagement repeat mistakes I used to witness – seek narrow range of views, jargonise,
There is a lot of evidence, at least anecdotally within Communities First, that young people are engaging more effectively with the programme and articulating their thoughts, desires, ideas and concerns because engagement is aligning itself with how young people are engaging with each other. I recall the ‘old model’ of engagement did little, in my experience, to narrow the chasm in the relationship between police and (most) young people.
Anyway, I’ll leave the last word to @HonestFrank who tantalises at what The Sweeney in a digitally-engaged age of neighbourhood policing might look like…