Public confidence in policing - A British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship

by Kevin Morrell

12 Jul 2016

The main aim of my Fellowship is to develop fresh insights into public confidence in policing - partly by analysing existing, large-scale survey data collected on behalf of West Midlands Police. Related goals, in keeping with the rationale for these awards, are to engage people in conversations about the topic of policing, and about how social scientists carry out research.

The pivotal event was a 1-day conference on March 29th at the University of Warwick. This was sponsored by the British Academy and by Warwick Business School. Opening speakers were Assistant Chief Constable Marcus Beale of West Midlands Police (WMP) - who spoke about confidence from an operational perspective, and Bernard Rix, CEO of CoPACC and Editor of Policing Insight - who talked about the governance context for Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs). Other researchers spoke about: confidence, legitimacy, trust, community engagement, threats to life, policing Transport for London, the child's voice in domestic violence, and racism.

As well as giving me time to carry out research and to plan the conference and other events, the Fellowship has also enabled me to build and maintain a policing and public confidence microsite. This is an online repository that is publicly accessible (and which the public can contribute to). It has videos of each speaker's presentations from the conference as well as other information about the project - talks and publications, an online forum and information about the project.

The Fellowship has also allowed time to speak with, and write for, audiences I would not normally have the chance to engage with - such as readers of The Justice Gap, The Barrister, Vigilance, Policing Insight, The Conversation and Police Professional; and other groups interested in policing. It has allowed me to grow a Twitter account (@ProfKMorrell) that helps to share ideas about policing and social science research and to promote the Fellowship and other work. I've found this to be the most effective route to establish links with individual researchers and groups of researchers, as well as to connect to those who work for the police and relevant professional bodies. This is also accessible via the microsite.

What is "Public Confidence" in policing?

The Labour government introduced the target of increasing public confidence in policing. Over time this became a single, top-down goal, replacing a range of other measures of police performance and effectiveness. This shift in policy became known as the "confidence agenda". It was the last policing target to be abolished by the Coalition Government in 2010, when (the then Home Secretary) Theresa May addressed the Association of Chief Police Officers:

In scrapping the confidence target... I couldn't be any clearer about your mission. It isn't a 30-point plan, it is to cut crime: no more and no less.

Although scrapped as a target, measures of police confidence continue in the Crime Survey of England and Wales. Also, many police forces still measure public confidence (albeit in different ways) because they find it provides insights into performance and engagement.

Work by Ben Bradford - who spoke at the 1-day conference - show us confidence is multi-faceted. This means using a single question to try to measure a level of confidence is  limited. Confidence has many facets because it can be related to trust, legitimacy, fear of crime, visibility, feelings of fairness, or the extent to which people identify with the police. It could reflect general attitudes or specific experiences. Perhaps the biggest conundrum when we try to measure confidence is that most members of the public do not come into contact with the police. There is a real puzzle then in trying to interpret their response to a typical question: "Taking everything into account I have confidence in the police in this area." What does it mean if people agree or disagree with such a statement? Perhaps responses reflect more general beliefs about justice or institutions.

Though the "confidence agenda" was part of the impetus for academic research, more recent reforms to policing governance mean understanding confidence takes on fresh importance. In England & Wales we have directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) but there are no universally agreed measures for tracking their performance. This is potentially a problem for people's belief in policing as an institution - particularly since turnout has been low in both the initial and most recent PCC elections. The PCC model is based on the principle that the general public should elect PCCs. This resonates with public confidence because that should also reflect the general public's attitudes. Improved measures of public confidence could be a way to compare across different forces in the wake of devolution.

How will the Fellowship help understanding?

One thing my research emphasizes is that when we consider policing and public confidence it is important to remember the police deal with different "publics". Some publics are vulnerable or lack voice or representation, and some face discrimination or are systematically disadvantaged within the criminal justice system. Existing methods and measures may not be effective in accessing these different publics. In the PCC era the public as a whole have a greater say in policing but aggregated preferences may not be the best way to understand different publics or different kinds of need.

Public concern is always important to effective policing, but it is also unlikely to reflect all the complex challenges confronting a senior officer team. Senior officers have to decide how best to police things that are comparatively well-known or visible (antisocial behaviour, speeding, burglaries, crimes to property, violent crime, public disorder), as well as those that are less well understood or invisible (cybercrime, domestic violence, child sexual exploitation, terrorism, modern slavery). Many members of the public are unlikely to realise police work involves a large proportion of time that is not spent fighting crime directly - for instance responding to mental health problems, missing persons, and trying to close the gaps left by cuts in other services.

Independent academic research can be beneficial in highlighting some of these sources of difference and complexity - partly because public arenas are often heavily politicised. In criminal justice, perhaps more so than in any other public sphere, measures take on a life of their own. This can happen even where people are aware of problems in methods and measurement. Moreover, top-down targets like the "confidence agenda" are only ever proxies for effective service - if they monopolise resources and attention, this can mean losing sight of other priorities.

Confidence in policing underpins civic duties that - ideally - the police and their public share. It supports intelligence gathering and means people feel secure in coming forward with information. But it does not mean blind faith. A public fully confident in policing would also have faith the police can be held to account. Discussing confidence remains crucial in the wake of periodic and sometimes brutal shocks to our collective faith in policing and criminal justice.

Universities and institutions such as the British Academy can support dialogue between groups with different interests, experiences and aims. They provide spaces that allow ambiguities and complexities to be explored and even at times to be left unresolved. Confidence may not be something we can ever measure definitively, but that does not make the pursuit of improved measurement futile. It will always be important to try to understand the public's relationship with the police.

Kevin Morrell (pictured above) is a British Academy Fellow and Professor of Strategy at Warwick Business School. The microsite for his project on 'Policing and Public Confidence' is:


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