The Blog

Making Community Policing More Wicked

There is a long way to go to ensure that PCSOs are supported within their Police force in LISPing, and for partner agencies to recognise that these projects are very important to the Police, and become willing to help the Police achieve their objectives- through making an exception over hedgecutting in the district trying to protect themselves from burglaries.

There is a small neighbourhood in an East Midlands town in the UK that centres on an ancient church and graveyard. Within a few hundred metres are a sex shop, a pharmacy that supplies methadone to many of the town's drug users, homeless shelter, a massage parlour, a pawn shop, three workingmen's clubs, a night club, two pubs and a children's nursery. It is a perfect storm of anti-social behaviour and street drinking. Further, it is one of those hotspots of crime that has been frustrating the local police force for years, distracting PCSOs and officers alike from tackling serious acquisitive crime.

Dozens of strategies have been used over the years, from high visibility patrols to Designated Public Place Orders to prevent public drinking with little visible effect. To make it even more embarrassing, this neighbourhood is just round the corner from the police station and the magistrates court, with very high Police visibility. This has been one of the experiments that the University of Northampton has been working on with Northamptonshire Police to co-produce low crime levels with communities, through intensive community engagement and a process called LISPing.

In an era of significant public spending cuts, the loss of momentum of many community safety partnerships and restructuring of community policing, complex crime hotspots and high expectations of rapid response to anti-social behaviour calls, coupled with a culture community consultation that is limited to asking members of public about their problems, Police forces are under intense pressure to address performance targets that are often out of their control. Aspirations like 'drug free counties' coupled with areas of high crime vulnerability lead to forces stretching themselves very thinly over large districts. This project is piloting focussed intensive engagements with specific neighbourhoods that feature highly in a Police Force's performance statistics to recruit new and otherwise disengaged stakeholders into co-produced anticrime solutions and behaviours.

The duty on Chief Constables to consult with the public came in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2010. Forces has subsequently struggled to work out how to actually involve the public in policing, first through customer service strategies like regular meetings with parish councils and community associations to creating 'you said we did' three weekly cycles of reporting and regular collection of data about priorities called Locally Identified Priorities (LIPs). With the best of intentions, these processes of consultation sought to extract information and decision-making resources from a public that is generally ill-informed about policing issues in their community, working through grass-tips representatives who are neither experts in policing or necessarily experts in the needs of their home neighbourhoods but who have the time and inclination to make their opinion known. LIPs data was collected in ways, at places and at times that created skewed and unrepresentative data. This data was also simplified down to a small set of ready-made categories, most of which were not technically crimes but fitted with a wider, unstructured definition of anti-social behaviour and ranged from 'broken windows' to dog mess on the street. The Police then commit to unsustainable cycles of action, promising to tackle pretty much any problem within a three week timeframe, even though they have little actual control over the conditions that create the LIPs priorities. PCSOs and officers also reported a 'revolving door' of priorities, where consultees felt required to choose a priority, even if none of those offered were actually priorities.

The approaches described are all based on a simplistic notion that social problems that contribute to anti-social behaviour and wide spread vulnerabilities to crime are essentially solvable with a short-term project based initiative directed by expert officers. This led to one senior officer, reporting on a few days of a night-time economy crackdown to claim that 'behaviours are already starting to change', despite decades of neglect.

I have written before about wicked issues when thinking about the now rather neglected Big Society election promises. In that article I noted that public servants often view the world as collections of clearly defined and stable social problems, and that the Big Society would just step up to solve these problems with predictable, and short-term, results. The reality of the situation, I asserted, is that such social problems are super-complex, and have to be tackled with complexity in mind. These are messy issues (or as the American's like Jeff Conklin calls them 'wicked issues'). Messy issues have been recognised since Ackhoff's work in the 1970s and becomes clearly a part of Checkland's soft systems methodology for solving social problems. Indeed, even complex human/technology interfaces have been explored with wicked issues in mind.

I have been working on real-world super-complex problems to create LISPing, first dubbed as a pun on the faulty LIPs data collection process. This LISPing approach brings together elements of community organising (Alinsky), critical community practice (Ledwith), asset-based community development (Kretzman and McKnight) and modified soft-systems analysis (Checkland) into a street-level set of PCSO catalysed activities. It is designed to go beyond the usual suspects of agencies and professional consultees found in parish councils and residents associations, and works directly with grass roots citizens to co-create neighbourhood plans. The PCSOs are trained to listen carefully, and to develop a deep understanding of the causes of crime in a given location with and through the experiences of those affected by and involved in the crime. In this way, for example, street drinkers are seen as part of the solution, not just a problem. It builds social cohesion, enhances bridging and bonding social capital and recognises the assets that already exist to make the neighbourhood 'mostly successful'.

The pilots in 20 different neighbourhoods are revealing startling solutions. Which police officer would have tackled burglaries of gold with tidy hedgerows, or who would have said that a children's play area would reduce street drinking? Who would have thought to involve a women's self-help group in a skateboard park? Not only are the suggested solutions (and associated ongoing and self-sustaining practices) unexpected but these are also solutions that barely involve Police resources. In some community safety partnerships, the task list has been almost entirely Police-led and Police-delivered. The neat thing about LISPing is that is harnesses the skills and resources already available in a locality, making sure that the Police only need to fix their bit of the problem.

There is a long way to go to ensure that PCSOs are supported within their Police force in LISPing, and for partner agencies to recognise that these projects are very important to the Police, and become willing to help the Police achieve their objectives- through making an exception over hedgecutting in the district trying to protect themselves from burglaries.

All of this is part of a wider project about social innovation at the University of Northampton called Changemakers. It's great to see PCSOs leading the way in showing that everyone can be a changemaker