The Community Cop Conundrum

Cracking the Community Policing Code (and keeping it simple at the same time!)

Since its formation my force has taken some criticism that it has failed to deliver policing on a local level as effectively as it could after merging the legacy force areas into Police Scotland. In response to this Policing Divisions are remodelling service at the moment to supercharge community policing models in order to deliver more of what the community wants. This does create a bit of a conundrum though because lets be fair, sometimes what the community wants can be a little unrealistic given what we know to be the demands on limited resources.

That being the case I thought I’d share my thoughts on how we might be able to best meet the competing demands that come from calls for ‘more bobbies on the beat’ (incidentally it’s ‘cops’ not bobbies up here on the West Coast of Scotland), versus the seemingly never ending call demand generated by 999 & 101.

What do the public actually want?

It’s a good question but I think it’s reasonable to say that over the years we have a pretty good idea so lets make some very simple and quick assumptions:

  • They want to know who their community cop is.
  • They want to see them, and particularly them, at community meetings and they want to see them leading on problem solving within their community.
  • They want to be able to contact them and specifically them.
  • They want and expect community cops to solve the problems they bring to them and they expect them to be reporting to them on progress.

There are probably many more demands but I would submit, if you are achieving the above you are probably off to a good start. I would say that when I took over a community role I worked out pretty quickly that if I could do these things in short order I would gain credibility within the Wards that I served. So how to do it? I am sure you will all have opinions on it. I can only say for me this is how it worked. Some of it is obvious, some of it maybe less so:

Ownership, Access and Partnership – Community Cop Visibility

My patrol partner and I (my ‘Neighbour’ in West Coast parlance), turned up to everything we could get to initially in order to meet folk. We didn’t just turn up though, we were pretty vocal about it. I remember those first meetings we took some flak about being the umpteenth cop that showed up and questions as to how long they’d see us. We didn’t hold back. We made sure the community knew there were new ‘Sheriff’s’ in town and we were their cops. We took ownership and told them to expect that we would be the ones dealing with their issues and we needed, well, to be honest expected, that if they wanted to make their community better then we would need their help and we’d do our best to be great partners for them. We could almost sense the scepticism. We passed out business cards with our personal email addresses on it and made it clear that community meetings were not where we expected to be hearing about problems for the first time given they could contact us whenever they needed. We also made it clear that our interaction with them wasn’t a once a month thing and that we wanted an open dialogue so we could deal with issues as they arose. The community meetings should never become ‘bitch’ sessions like some had the tendency to be (not necessarily unreasonably so given communities would see in some areas see a different cop every time who had no real idea of the issues and had not solved any since the last meeting). Over time the meetings became a time for us to report success and update on-going operations as well as appeal for support for new plans rather than a time to complain to us.

We did the same with our local Councillors, a good bunch whom I found wanted to build the same relationships with their local cops as the community groups. They got the same pitch. Ownership, access and partnership and we communicated with them on a very regular basis both in person and via phone / email directly.

Lesson: Community Cops needs to be left in place to establish relationships. They need the flexibility to modify their shifts to meet community needs.

Lesson: Community Cops should publicly take ownership of their community’s problems whilst making it clear that they need and expect the support of the community to do so.

Lesson: Community Cops need to be accessible on a personal level to their community. 

 

The Hard Edge to Compliment the ‘Softer’ Side of Policing.

Community policing can sometimes still get a reputation for being a little soft among our colleagues; all day school fete’s and community meetings and no ‘real’ policing. That belies the fact that some of the communities we police have difficult crime problems: violence, drugs, exploitation of the vulnerable. My neighbour and I were given wards that had some of these issues and fortunately we shared the view that community cops should be at the forefront of targeting offenders and locations that engaged in criminality. We saw it was our job to marshal resources we needed to make arrests and prioritise and investigate individuals that preyed on the community and frankly, in that great Scottish turn of phrase ‘needed the gaol…’

For us the freedom to act on these priorities was critical. If we’d been tied to the radio all day as a deployable asset we simply wouldn’t have been able to proactively deal with problems. Making the arrests / executing drug warrants, hunting the wanted folk and reporting the offenders that we did had a disproportionately positive impact on the communities we served. Primarily it made our communities safer and at the same time, generated a genuine increase in confidence in the police to deliver for them.

Lesson: Community Cops can’t be a ‘normally deployable’ asset. They need the time and space to proactively investigate and resolve problems.

Lesson: Its not enough for Community Cops to attend all the ‘events’. They need to be regularly ‘taking out the trash’ in their communities and doing the heavy lifting.

Of course they should shout in and attend urgent un-resourced calls when needed, but tying them up to endless calls for service kills their ability to positively impact their communities.

 

 ‘Squaring the circle’ – But who will take the calls?

I know having community cops being ‘not normally deployable’ is often difficult for response colleagues to understand. I get that. They’re getting humped with calls at times and they’d see us heading off to a community meeting. I’ve been that response cop wondering why community cops are ‘protected’.

After some time as a community cop I used to explain it to them like this: We could take 100 grade 1 or 2 calls today and many of the community will not see that we are attending them. The bulk are simply not affected by them and by and large neither is their confidence in the police. We must attend these calls and they are likely the most critical and important calls we will do that day. To be honest to my mind, they must be resourced first and foremost and make up the bulk of our duty to protect the public. We cannot fail in this respect. The bulk of our uniformed policing resource at this time needs to be allocated to this, at least until we can better reduce demand for calls for service (another blog entirely!).

Conversely if we ignore the problems that the community bring to us, recognising that say, a repeat call for ‘youths causing’ simply isn’t as high a priority and allocate no asset to deal with it, it has a disproportionate effect on police confidence within that community. The response shift may not see that there have been 20 calls of this nature over the past week and for that small community at that small time, it’s perceived as their biggest ‘crime’ problem. Not solving it disproportionately damages that community’s confidence in us. We have ‘failed’ in their eyes and are ‘powerless’. Go back to my initial list of things community cops need to do… its not a challenging list really, but we need to work out how to resource it with minimum effect on being able to deal with calls for service.

Lesson: We need to establish the minimum number of cops to conduct community policing till we get a better handle on managing demand.

I know, it’s a chicken and egg problem, would more community cops reduce demand? Perhaps, and as we measure effect we could look, and perhaps should look to shift resources. For now, for me, it’s about picking the right cops that can make a disproportionate impact on their community’s problems. For now, we are where we are and the calls still need to be resourced.

 

Selection and Training.

So if it’s about picking the right cops what does a Community Cop need to be able to do? Traditionally we have often selected cops more senior in service for these roles and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Nor is it wrong to grab a cop young in service who has already displayed some key characteristics that I have identified below (again am sure we could come up with a myriad of requirements but here is a starter for ten):

  • They need to be able to ‘lead beyond their authority’. The ability to lead their community, often including community leaders, is critical. Its irrelevant that they are a PC, they need to lead…..
  • They need to have a good understanding of internal and external resourcing and partners and how best to use them to deal with their community problems. They have to be innovative and willing to look wider than their own experience to come up with effective plans.
  • They need to be able to communicate convincingly in person, in public and in writing and I would add now, be social media literate (I know I am preaching to the converted by and large here!).
  • It goes without saying they need to be passionate about making their communities better with a proven track record of delivering great service. The community will notice and feed off their passion.

Some of the above is innate and we see it in great cops on our shift. Some of it however can be, and needs to be, taught. Investment in great training is something I am personally passionate about.

In this case training investment makes perfect sense to both reward these individuals who have stepped forward and been selected to do the job, to show their role is valued and to give them to tools to execute it to best effect. In my own force’s case, we run a genuinely challenging and detailed Community Safety course. It seems to be a natural fit for community cops though they don’t attend it as standard just now. Speaking to folk that attend it, its long hours and tough assessments but then, the type of cops we want to select as community cops will be up for that.

Lesson: Pick leaders and invest in their training

 

A Simple Blueprint for a Complex Problem

So what does a revitalised community policing program look like up here in Scotland from my point of view? Something like this:

  • 2 x cops per Ward area with a couple of extra to float and cover leave.
  • An Inspector and Sgt to lead and administer them.
  • Working an early and late shift roster with the ability to modify their own shifts to meet community needs.
  • Selected based upon the characteristics above and given specific training investment to support their mission.
  • With their effect regularly measured through the impact they have on local problems and the satisfaction of the community they serve.

I look back on it and it really does seem like a simple blueprint and I guess I am heavily influenced by my positive experience in the role. But to my mind, select the right folk, invest in their training, free them up to get on with the job and they will deliver a disproportionately positive effect on crime and fear of crime within their Ward area. Simple, but I think we can agree we may have drifted away somewhat over the years from a working model for a number of reasons and it’s a credit to the Divisions that they are reviewing where they are and coming up with their own local solutions to the problem.

I’d welcome knowing what you’d add to the lists above, or indeed what you disagree with. We are all formed by our experiences and I am about as far from an expert in this stuff as you can be, just an enthusiastic amateur.

Thanks for reading and feel free to tweet me @west_response or comment below.

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Author: West Coast Response

I'm a Police Sergeant here on the West Coast of Scotland. I love the job and the folk that do it. I enjoy polite debate on policing and criminal justice and am particularly interested in the practical impact of policing policy, police leadership & making the job better for frontline officers.

2 thoughts on “The Community Cop Conundrum”

  1. Hey there really, really enjoyed reading your blog, I am working on a European 2020 project Unity. My part of the project is analysing the data from across Europe regarding existing CP practice and how we can improve police community engagement and communication through technology and training. Right now I am looking at providing data to our partner in the Finnish Police College regarding the development of a CP specific training programme. I would like to ask your opinion (not for the research just my own interest from a Police Scotland perspective) on 1. Providing specific CP training to all or designated CP officers and 2. The best approaches and platforms to deliver this training?

    Evie

    Like

    1. Am a big fan of investing in specific CP related training that focuses on best use of partners and relevant legislation Evie. As for the delivery model a great mix of opportunities to meet with and learn from local partners about how they work and can work together combined with practical mentored problem solving efforts based within the communities they serve. Why shouldn’t we have them undertake this part of the training within their own policing areas? We can mentor and manage online and by visiting the divisional area or appointing local mentors to support a distributed learning program to perhaps build on initial central learning? I’d be really interested to read more of your research.

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