Neighbourhood policing is “the bedrock of British policing”, according to The Policing Vision 2025 set out by the National Police Chiefs’ Council. It emphasises crime and incident prevention in partnership with the community, and neighbourhood policing’s important role in helping the police to build trust and understand community needs.
Yet, there are concerns that neighbourhood policing is being eroded, as a result of budget cuts and a failure to reshape the service in response to changes in volume and complexity of demand. In its 2016 Police Effectiveness Report, HMIC said local policing is the area of operational policing that shows the greatest decline in performance, with some Forces preserving reactive capability at the expense of proactive policing.
There are signs that the regime of austerity is now ending, with the outgoing government promising to hire 20,000 more police officers, and the Labour and Conservative parties both contesting the 2019 general election with promises to increase government spending.
In some cases, precept rises have already been secured to raise funds for neighbourhood policing. However, police and crime commissioners have made clear to chief constables that they must demonstrate to the public that the additional funding is being spent wisely. That means the police must be visible, available, and approachable, all key tenets of neighbourhood policing.
Adding extra resources won’t by itself solve the problems. In order to be effective and ensure value for money, it is important that the new resources are appropriately allocated and then directed to deliver the expected outcomes.
What do neighbourhood police teams actually do?
In one police force we worked with, we found that 60% of incident response time was spent on public safety and welfare incidents, with missing persons a key element. When we drilled into the numbers, we found that a huge number of missing person incidents were reported from one location, a children’s care home. The cost of repeated callouts, flagged as emergencies, was significant. This is just one example of where neighbourhood policing can help. By building a relationship with the care home and the residents, it may be possible to prevent future missing person incidents, reducing demand on response officers. A virtuous circle can be created whereby reactive capacity can be freed up for proactive activity, further reducing reactive demand.
This kind of proactive intervention is one of the purposes of neighbourhood policing. According to the College of Policing’s guidelines, neighbourhood policing also helps to prevent crime and disorder, promote community safety, and protect the vulnerable. It provides a vital flow of community intelligence, too. But does the day to day reality achieve these goals?
At Process Evolution, we’ve provided evidence-based consultancy on neighbourhood policing for several forces across England and Wales. We’ve often found that there is little understanding among senior officers of how neighbourhood officers are spending their time. While Command and Control systems tell us much of what response officers are doing, neighbourhood officers typically only spend 10%-15% of their time attending incidents, with few other systems in place to record their activity.
Without understanding what the officers are doing now, it’s difficult to define a more effective strategy for neighbourhoods, and impossible to measure how things change when a new strategy is implemented.
We’ve worked with police forces to capture detailed information about how neighbourhood policing teams spend their time. In these projects, officers usually spend a few minutes completing a spreadsheet at the end of the shift. In one force, officers used an app on their mobile devices to record the capabilities they were using and the activities they were engaged in. Because the data was captured more often, it was more likely to be accurate, and it was easier for senior officers to see what was happening on the beat.
In many cases, the analysis of this data was a revelation. There is often a significant difference between what managers think officers should be doing, and what they are actually doing. Our research across seven forces shows a consistent pattern, with only a small proportion of time being spent on the core neighbourhood policing capabilities of problem solving and community engagement. Instead, time is spent attending incidents, making arrests, or carrying out scene guard or hospital watch duties.
In some cases, neighbourhood officers are effectively working as response officers, responding to Grade 1 and 2 incidents, and carrying out guard duties that leave little time for proactive policing. In one force, neighbourhood PCs are spending a third of their time on incident attendance and crime investigation.
This often arises because response teams are under-resourced. It may be hard to increase engagement with the community without addressing resource shortfalls on the response team. Sometimes that can be achieved without additional hiring, by optimising shift patterns, managing abstraction better, and avoiding incidents being graded as emergencies (or even appointments) unnecessarily.
Although in some Forces a significant amount of time is spent on visible patrol, much of this is untargeted. One senior police officer would ask his neighbourhood PCSOs where they were going next after the briefing. It frustrated him that they didn’t have a clear plan or rationale and that there seemed little alignment with community priorities.
Deploying PCSOs optimally
PCSOs can play an important role in the community and many forces have increasingly filled neighbourhood roles with PCSOs and other staff, according to a 2017 report from The Police Foundation.
In our own research, we’ve seen that there are significant differences in how forces use PCSOs, and the powers they grant them. In some cases, neighbourhood PCs and PCSOs are used interchangeably, but this may not be an optimal use of resources. Important engagement activities, such as school visits, don’t require a warrant card and may not be the best use of a PC’s time.
In other forces, responsibilities are more clearly delineated with PCs undertaking activities that require warranted powers, and PCSOs responsible for community engagement and visible patrol. By analysing the activities that PCs and PCSOs engage in, it is possible to identify strategies that help to optimise resources, without compromising on the outcomes for the community.
Allocating resources to minimise harm and risk
Often, neighbourhood teams are allocated based on historical analysis, and their beats haven’t been updated in many years. That doesn’t account for changes in the community, or changes in the types of activities which the police must engage with today.
We worked with Hertfordshire Constabulary to develop HARM, software for Harm & Risk Modelling, so that they could allocate their resources in line with community need. The tool enables police forces to model detailed population demographics, crime and incident data, and vulnerability data sourced from other agencies. The outputs are used to make informed decisions about how to distribute neighbourhood policing resources.
This information plays an important role in priority-based budgeting, ensuring that resources are allocated based on the community’s need. Using our Neighbourhood Profiler software, we’ve helped police forces to drill down to the level of skills, so they can understand how much time each capability is required for and where it is required. As a result, the force can plan the use of its neighbourhood police resources in line with priorities.
Just as a police investigation relies on evidence, so too should police resourcing. Decisions should be underpinned by evidence of where neighbourhood police teams can have most impact and of where resources are allocated today. Only then can police forces demonstrate value for any budget rises they may secure in the future.
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