The future of policing

Policing in the UK is based on 'policing by consent', but recent data shows a decrease in public approval and trust in the police in the UK. We spoke with Rick Muir, Director of The Police Foundation, about the current state of policing in the UK, the perception gap the public have on police activities and how policing can be improved. In order to restore trust in policing, our data shows that presence, fairness, accountability and meaningful engagement are integral.

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Hannah Shrimpton Alice Sarkany Haley Jones Jessica Pace
Hannah Shrimpton
Director
Alice Sarkany
Research Manager
Haley Jones
Research Manager
Jessica Pace
Senior Research Executive

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Interview with Rick Muir, Director, The Police Foundation


The future of policing 

Policing in the UK is built on the model of ‘policing by consent’: the idea that the power of the police is reliant on public support1. Public approval, confidence and trust are therefore fundamental pillars of police authority, which makes the decline of these in recent years deeply troubling. According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales , the proportion who perceive the police to be doing a ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ job dropped 10ppts from 62% in 2017/18 to 52% in 2021/222. And Ipsos data from 2023 shows that just half (48%) of Britons would describe their local police as 'trustworthy', a drop from 56% in 20223.

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Against this backdrop, those who lead the police are facing significant questions about what they can do to win back public trust and shore up the future of policing in the UK. Based on Ipsos’ research and in conversation with Dr Rick Muir, Director of the Police Foundation, we recommend four key areas for the police to focus on in the future.

Be seen 

During our interview with Dr Muir, he pointed out there is evidence that a more noticeable police presence can be useful for increasing public confidence. Wanting greater police visibility is a consistent ask from the public – for example, in 2019, more police on the beat was seen as the intervention most likely to reduce crime in Britain4. In an Ipsos survey, we asked the public to consider how the police should prioritise different activities within the confines of constrained resources (Figure 1 below). Although results suggest the public had no clear answer, there was a prioritisation towards bolstering the frontline – wanting to see greater visibility of uniformed police and quicker responses to emergency calls5

And Dr Muir suggests the public could be right on this to some extent. While simply increasing the number of police officers may not be the silver bullet to effectively tackle all crime, there is international evidence that strategic deployment of visible policing can have an impact on crime rates and bolster public trust6. Closer to home, research showed that Londoners living in neighbourhoods where the police were more visible tended to have significantly higher trust in the Metropolitan police7.

Yet the public perceive that police have become less visible in Britain - a third (34%) think they see a uniformed police presence less often than a year ago8. Two in five (42%) say they haven’t seen a uniformed police presence on foot in their local area for over a year.  Although not all communities respond in the same way to visible policing, this suggests visible patrolling can send a positive message - that police are present in and care about an area. There is therefore potentially an argument to bolster neighbourhood policing and increase the numbers of Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) to offer more consistent and more meaningful community presence.  

Be fair 

Yet it’s not enough just to be visible. Research has shown that “procedural justice” – where authority figures are seen as fair and respectful in their interactions with the public – can be important in building trust and confidence. This suggests that even single, short-term interactions with officers can be pivotal in shaping public perceptions– both positively and negatively9 10. However, our work shows there is still much to do here. Just over half (55%) of Britons feel confident that they would be treated fairly by the police if they were a victim of a crime, with a third (34%) saying they are not confident.

And crucially, the public is not a homogenous group. Different communities, areas and groups continue to experience different interactions with the police. Ethnic minority communities in particular have faced significant and sustained unfair treatment and discrimination.

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Disproportionate use of stop and search powers is one part of this11.  In 1999, the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry found “a clear core of racist stereotyping” in the countrywide disparity of stop and search figures12. This remains an issue in the present day. Based on self-defined ethnicity, Black people were searched 4.8 times more frequently in England and Wales than White people in March 202213.  As a result, just a third of people from ethnic minority groups feel confident they would be treated fairly by the police if they were stopped and searched (35%) or suspected of committing a crime (34%), compared with around half of those from White ethnic groups (50% and 46% respectively)14. A greater focus on procedural justice training for new officers, as well as monitoring and accountability of the use of stop and search powers could help reduce the erosion of trust among those subjected to it. 
 

“Different groups in society experience policing differently. There isn’t just this one thing called the general public, which has the same experience. There are lots of different experiences of policing. The experience of black communities with the police has been very problematic for a very long time…There are long histories of police racism, unfair treatment, of disproportionate treatment. If you look at any example of police use of power, if you’re black you’re massively more likely to have been affected.”

- Dr Rick Muir, Director of the Police Foundation

 

Be accountable

There is also evidence of a greater need for the police to demonstrate accountability when things go wrong. Recent Ipsos polling shows that nearly three in five (58%) think police misconduct is a problem in British policing, compared to just a quarter (26%) who don’t see it as a problem15. Only 36% are confident that misconduct by police officers is treated appropriately by police leadership. A series of high-profile cases of gross misconduct and illegal behaviour, such as the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard by a serving Met police officer and the conviction of serial rapist Met police officer David Carrick will have contributed to increased public perceptions of a lack of police accountability16.

The review into the standards and behaviour of internal culture of the Metropolitan Police by Baroness Louise Casey called for an overhaul of the Metropolitan Police misconduct procedures and improved oversight and accountability processes. And a recent report by His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) also concluded that vetting standards are not high enough across England and Wales generally and that “it’s too easy for the wrong people to both join and stay in the police.”17  HMICFRS recommended several major changes, including setting minimum standards for pre-employment checks. Although there have been some concerns over the capacity of vetting departments18, communication of a successful “raising the floor” of standards could be pivotal in re-building public trust in the police.

Work collaboratively and listen deliberatively

When making change, particularly when policing is built on consent, it’s crucial to secure public buy-in by taking them on the journey with you. However, recent Ipsos polling suggests that the public currently feel unheard and disengaged from policing. Only a quarter (24%) feel they have an opportunity to share their views on what police priorities should be in their local area, compared with 65% who don’t19.

But simply offering more opportunity to have a say in policing priorities may not be the answer because there is often a disconnect between public expectations and perceptions of the police, which can make conversations between the police and the public difficult.  Dr Muir talked about how media portrayals and popular culture can distort the view of what the police actually do. TV shows portray police as solely focusing on catching the ‘bad guys’ and solving crime, but in reality, a lot of what police do is not crime related. Dealing with mental health, missing persons and anti-social behaviour are far more common daily tasks for the police.

Deliberative engagement with the public undertaken by the Police Foundation shows that presenting people with the detailed context and challenges (including of resources) faced by police can alter people’s expectations on what they think the police should prioritise20. At the start of the research process, participants held more traditional “law and order” view of policing, with less emphasis placed on concerns around protecting vulnerability and considering the personal impact police can have on the public.  But once participants understood more about the complexity of police demand management, greater priority was given to working in partnership with other agencies to link into support systems. There was also broad support for a re-design of public service provision, with greater funding to services such as the NHS to support those with mental health difficulties and to deprioritise this as a responsibility of the police.

Overall, it is becoming increasingly important for our future policing to not only prioritise presence, fairness and accountability, but also to actively engage with the public in a meaningful way.  One potential way to achieve this is by making greater use of deliberative engagement methods to gain access to a more informed understanding of public concerns and foster a more collaborative approach to policing.  These efforts have the potential to enhance public trust and restore the concept of “consent” within the British model of policing.


References

1 Definition of policing by consent - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

2 Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) estimates of personal and household crime, anti-social behaviour, and public perceptions, by police force area, year ending September 2022

3 Public Perceptions of Police – 2023. 6,213 participants aged 18+, interviewed via Ipsos KnowledgePanel 18-24 May 2023

4 Ipsos MORI Campaign Tracker Crime & Policing November 2019 

5 Ipsos Understanding Society – Policing 2023. 2,178 participants aged 16+ in GB, interviewed online between 9th – 12th June 2023

6 Barnes et al (2020). Sweet Spots of Residual Difference: A Randomised Crossover Experiment in Minimalist Police Patrol

Yesberg, J., Brunton-Smith, I., & Bradford, B. (2023). Police visibility, trust in police fairness, and collective efficacy: A multilevel Structural Equation Model. European Journal of Criminology, 20(2), 712-737

8 Ipsos Understanding Society – Policing 2023. 2,178 participants aged 16+ in GB, interviewed online between 9th – 12th June 2023

Murphy. K., Mazerolle. L., & Bennett. S. (2014). Promoting trust in police: findings from a randomised experimental field trial of procedural justice policing, Policing and Society, 24(4), 424  

10  Weisburd et al (2022). Reforming the police through procedural justice training: A multicity randomized trial at crime hot spots, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 119(14), 1-6

11 Murray et al (2021). Procedural justice, compliance with the law and police stop-and-search: a study of young people in England and Scotland, Policing and Society, 31(3), 263-282

12 The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: Report of an Inquiry by Sir William Macpherson of Cluny, Cm 4262–1

13 Update to stop and search and arrests statistics using 2021 Census estimates 

14 Ipsos Understanding Society – Policing 2023. 2,178 participants aged 16+ in GB, interviewed online between 9th – 12th June 2023

15 Ipsos Understanding Society – Policing 2023. 2,178 participants aged 16+ in GB, interviewed online between 9th – 12th June 2023

16 Ruddell, R. & Trott, K. (2022). Perceptions of trust in the police: a cross-national comparison: International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice

17 HMICFRS (2022). An inspection of vetting, misconduct, and misogyny in the police service 

18 Home Affairs Committee (2022). Oral evidence: Policing priorities,. HC 635

19 Ipsos Understanding Society – Policing 2023. 2,178 participants aged 16+ in GB, interviewed online between 9th – 12th June 2023

20 The Police Foundation (2019). Understanding the Public's Priorities for Policing 

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