A policy to restore peace to ‘broken neighbourhoods’ by putting the police back into the community
In the age of cuts and the Big Society we need easy cost-neutral solutions to seemingly intractable problems. So, UK Regeneration has focussed its attention on one of the grittiest and most challenging aspects of regeneration: how to reintegrate the police into new and existing neighbourhoods so as to make people safer and help build a more civil society.
“Does a police officer live in your street?” asked radio talk-show host Nick Ferrari, on introducing Kit Malthouse, London’s Deputy Mayor for Policing, to a discussion about the relationship between anti-social behaviour and where police officers live. “I’d like to see more of them in London”, retorted Malthouse, without saying how.
So, is it practical to get police officers living in the communities they serve; what would it cost; and what sort of benefits should we expect?
From Dixon of Dock Green to Z Cars
There was something very comforting about Dixon of Dock Green. It was the abiding moral of the stories, laboured so helpfully by Jack Warner at the end of every episode. Crime and anti-social behaviour don’t pay because the local policeman knows his patch and knows his community: using his local knowledge and relationships, he will either nip the problem in the bud or inevitably catch the culprit.
But, with the advent of Z Cars, it was the drama of fast car chases that excited the public and pulled in the recruits, rather than the rewards gained through getting to know your surroundings and building local relationships.
Whatever happened to keeping the peace of the neighbourhood?
When the police force was first founded, much of its work involved keeping the peace. Local Bobbies were not just well-known on their beats, many of them lived in the communities they served. But now, community policing is a sideshow and too few police officers live in or know the communities that most need their help.
A host of new priorities such as internet crime and international terrorism have conspired with the sale of police section houses to shift policing and police officers out of their communities. Only half of the officers in the Metropolitan Police now live in London. Just 64 police officers live in Westminster, 41 in Islington, and 24 in Southwark. And, we can be sure that very few of these will be policing the communities in which they live.
According to Anti-social behaviour: Stop the Rot (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), September 2010), although the public made 3.5 million reports of anti-social behaviour last year, a further 10 million cases went unreported.
Analysing the biggest review of anti-social behaviour to date, HMIC pronounced:
“ASB is not intractable…. In the context of ‘crime control’ and its association with crime statistics, ASB is relatively important, However, it has over time become a second order consideration as has keeping the peace…. We need to examine the impact of the drift away from maintaining order by presence, persuasion, communication, cajoling and when needed coercion, though often short of physical force, to a model principally geared around control and the use of powers.”
The need to police from within
Clearly, policing is more effective when exercised socially from within than when applied forcibly from without. If the Police are to be a force for social good, rather than an army of occupation they need to know their community, and their community needs to know them. Merging police forces, introducing elected Chief Constables and making cuts is not a strategy for tackling the most persistent challenges at the heart of so many neighbourhoods.
Here, interventions that respond to complex social problems must be intelligent, co-operative and sensitive if they are not to be counter-productive. The key ingredient for success is the degree of trust that exists or can be built between those who are involved, affected or responsible. And this depends on relationships between individuals who know each other within a structured and stable local setting.
Housing the Police in the Big Society
So, where do the police fit into the Big Society? How can we put the Police back into the communities who need them most? Is there a simple way to police ‘broken neighbourhoods’ more effectively and more sensibly, without increasing resources?
The most obvious problem for communities blighted by crime and anti-social behaviour is that either police officers can’t afford to live there, or they can afford to live somewhere else. Since many of these neighbourhoods contain properties owned by local authorities or housing associations, it’s an easy matter to house police officers in return for them making themselves known to their neighbours, playing a role in the community, and acting as a bridge between local people and the Police.
Experience shows how it can work
A handful of neighbourhoods across the country have re-discovered this particular wheel, exploiting its massive potential to reintegrate the police into the community at various levels. The experience of one particular inner city association, which has granted a tenancy to a local policeman for the past decade, shows how it can work on the ground.
The policeman has to relate to people as his neighbours, meeting them casually in the street, shop or pub; he plays his part in the community housing association; and he is also a local police officer. He has a page in the residents’ newsletter and a stall at the summer festival; he conducts the auction of unclaimed bikes for community causes, and he even cooks the turkeys across the road at the local police station for the older people’s Christmas party. Pervading such regular activities, he is, above all, available to people, able to provide leverage for them and the community with the Police as an organisation.
This fine web may seem trivial, but its detailed weave is the secret strength communities need to control selfish and harmful behaviour. This neighbourhood is especially fortunate in having a relatively stable population that is served by stable staff teams in the housing association and in the local police. This stability is critical for facilitating the development of relationships and trust.
When residents go off the rails, and this affects the wider neighbourhood, the relationships formed between individuals in the Police and the housing association facilitate bespoke solutions to crime and social problems that are more effective because they address specific needs within a known community. The Police know who they are dealing with, and work with a landlord that knows its population intimately, so they can respond together, more sensitively and more productively than elsewhere.
And the relationship is a visible one. The police have prioritised their work according to the concerns expressed by residents, their association and other local representatives. There they are at the key communal events: seven uniformed officers came to the association’s recent well-attended AGM. That’s more than enough to keep order!
In many another neighbourhood, a large crowd of residents heading for a social housing landlord’s annual meeting might spell trouble, yet you would hardly expect any support from the police. There was no trouble, and the Police weren’t there to keep order. Yet, their formal presence undoubtedly reinforced the social and housing order that the residents and their association have established.
In this community, turning to the resident policeman for help is encouraged; working closely with the Police is normal; and collaborative interventions are noticeably more productive. There is no Service Contract governing the relationship between the association and the Police, just the police officer’s tenancy agreement.
Easy, effective, cost-neutral and ready to go
The common-sense tactic of putting police officers back into communities is an easy and effective way to bear down on crime and anti-social behaviour; it provides just the sort of powerful and intuitive mechanism that could help realise the ‘early intervention strategy’ called for by HMIC; and it’s more or less cost-neutral, as there are plenty of police officers in need of affordable rented housing whose housing costs would have to be funded anyway.
So, it’s all too simple: It won’t cost a penny, and everyone can do it immediately. There’s no need for a national plan; and no need for roomfuls of legislation and contract documentation – people are perfectly capable of devising their own sensible arrangements appropriate for their circumstances.
Social landlords can house police officers in the communities they serve; planners and developers can stipulate that a flat in a new development be reserved for occupation by a police officer on an assured tenancy at an affordable rent. All that’s required is to interview the officer to assess his or her commitment to working with the community.
Don’t wait for government! Lead the way by implementing the UKR’s Big Society approach for tackling crime and anti-social behaviour. House a police officer to help restore peace to ‘broken neighbourhoods’ and to make residents feel safer in new developments.