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What is the role and the future of policing?

George Floyd was certainly not the first Black man to be killed by a police officer. Yet his death earlier this year sparked a particularly powerful movement across the world of people calling for the end to systemic racism and police brutality.

Many commentators have noted that these are not just issues in the US, but in the UK too. Recent data showed that the Metropolitan Police were four times more likely to use force on a Black person, and Black people are twice as likely to die in police custody.

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests and the emergence of the #DefundThePolice movement, it seems that policing has reached a pivotal moment. While we continue our work to reduce racial disproportionality in policing (we’ll soon be releasing a briefing on section 60 suspicion-less stop and searches), we thought that now is the right time to get member’s views on the role of policing in society, what it might look like in the future, and how its legitimacy can be increased.

We invited several policing experts to consider these questions in our last Members Meeting. Here are some of their key thoughts.

Falling police budgets and increasingly complex demand

Rick Muir, Director of the Police Foundation, said that the police have seen large cuts in the last decade. Despite this, police are dealing with more mental health incidents and missing persons cases, and the number of complex crimes reported to the police, such as sexual offences and cybercrime, has also increased. The key challenge for policing, Rick said, is what they should prioritise. Rick argued that police should continue to have a general response function, because there will always be a need for an agency that can use non-negotiable force; however, other agencies may be better equipped to deal with some incidents, such as mental health crises.

Collaboration between the police and other organisations

Jack Rowlands, Chief Inspector at the Metropolitan Police and founder of the DIVERT programme, said that policing must consider how it can work with other organisations who are better suited to dealing with mental health incidents and missing persons cases, with the police still playing a part but not being the primary response.

Jack also emphasised the importance of what he called ‘symbiotic relationships’ between police and other organisations. He said: ‘Even though now that DIVERT is established and working well, it is really led by youth workers and organisations that work with police. It’s not police-led. For me, that’s an example of how you can collaborate with organisations that have that real common purpose of making our society safer.’

For Jack, prevention is key. He said that we must invest in the early years of people’s lives – in health visitors, mental health nurses, youth workers and more – to tackle violence and crime at their root causes. He warned that mental health services, Youth Offending Services and youth workers are critically underfunded.

Trauma-informed policing

Whitney Iles, CEO of Project 507, highlighted the trauma that police officers often experience, and how this can impact how they interact with people in the community.  She said: ‘In my interactions with the police, I see individuals that are completely overworked, undertrained in areas such as mental health, and not particularly cared for in their roles. There needs to be more reflective practice and clinical supervision. Even if a police officer does go and see a counsellor, they’re looked down on, as if they aren’t good enough at their job. If that trauma isn’t dealt with on a personal level, it will seep into organisational culture, into language, into behaviour. We need trauma-informed policing.’

Whitney warned that if the police are to work effectively with community organisations as Jack suggested, we need to carefully consider the power dynamics at play, and who is involved in these partnerships and structures.

Whitney added that there was a need for critical discussion about the role of the police. She said that given that police officers must enforce laws which are often oppressive and racist, such as joint enterprise, the police can therefore be described as a tool for state violence.

Race disparity in police tactics and technologies

Martyn Underhill, a former police officer and the Police and Crime Commissioner for Dorset, discussed the disproportionate use of stop and search, and the fact that the majority of searches are for drugs rather than weapons. He said: ‘I’ve laid down a challenge for my Chief Constable. Prove to us this tactic works, because we don’t think it does. If you stop the tactic, you stop the disproportionality.’

Martyn leads nationally for forensics, and he discussed the increasing use of artificial intelligence and algorithms in policing, most notably in facial imaging technology. He warned that bias will increase with new technologies unless we are careful.

He said: ‘If I said to most senior police officers, “What is an algorithm, and what’s underneath the hood? What’s underneath the bonnet? How does that engine work?” they wouldn’t know. It’s hugely complex. Software providers are also reluctant to submit them to scrutiny. There is a need for caution and a serious effort by the police service to maximise the oversight, governance, and ethics of the new capabilities that are being introduced, which will erode public confidence in policing unless we’re careful. Algorithms need governance. They need scrutiny. Otherwise, you will find more bias coming into policing as technology evolves.’

Martyn added that the Independent Office for Police Conduct should play an important role in the future in holding police to account and restoring public trust.

Police complaints and custody visiting

Rachael Waldron, Compliance Lead, City of London Police Authority, highlighted the importance of police complaints.

She said: ‘Complaints can really help shape and inform the confidence and trust that members of the public experience with the force. It’s important to understand whether police processes and practices have been conducted correctly. This enables us to identify any necessary corrective action, such as the issuing of an apology or further training.’

However, one member highlighted that there is a wall of silence when you make a complaint, with other officers often saying they did not see anything. Another member said that Black people may not make complaints due to a lack of trust.

Rachael is also an Independent Custody Visitor Manager, and she discussed the importance of considering race and gender and the potential for discrimination when monitoring police custody.

Strengthening community scrutiny and access to born worn video

Amal Ali, Policy Officer at the CJA, said that one way to increase police legitimacy is through community members scrutinising how they use their powers. Recently, the College of Policing released guidance encouraging community scrutiny, building on the principles set out by the CJA in its Stop and Scrutinise report. However, Amal said that for community scrutiny to be effective, it must be compulsory for every police force. Amal also highlighted that community scrutiny panels often struggle to access body-worn video and called for a review of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act to mandate community scrutiny and ensure body-worn video is being shared with panels.

So, in summary, three core ideas emerged in the discussion over the role and future of policing. Firstly, that the role of the police must be considered in light of the potential role other organisations could play. Such organisations are often better placed to prevent crime happening in the first place or to respond to cases such as mental health incidents and missing persons. Other areas where community organisations could assist with or take over police duties should also be explored.

The second idea was that in order to rebuild trust and confidence, there needs to be a wholescale review of scrutiny and complaints mechanisms to ensure they are fit-for-purpose and effectively challenge race disparity. There should also be a review of the tactics, technologies and laws which are shown to produce disproportionate impacts on Black, Asian and minority ethnic people.

The third idea was that policing must be trauma-informed and proactively work to understand and reduce trauma experienced both by the police and those the police have contact with.

There were lots of insightful comments and questions posed during the meeting, too many to detail in this blog. You can watch the full discussion in the video below.

We will be using the insights from this meeting to inform our policy work on policing, including our submission to the Police Foundation’s Strategic Review of Policing.