Neighbourhood policing for all?
A #PolicingMatters seminar by the Northern Ireland Policing Board
by Sam ALLEN for Shared Future News
27 September 2017

At its Belfast office, the Northern Ireland Policing Board (NIPB) held a public seminar, “Local Policing: Delivering for Communities?”. The seminar addressed community and neighbourhood policing, as part of its ongoing series of seminars discussing policing issues in Northern Ireland.

The seminar panel included Anne Connolly (Chairwoman, NIPB), Alan Todd (Assistant Cheif Constable (ACC), Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI)), and Professor Rick Muir (Director, The Police Foundation).

Professor Muir gave the main presentation, titled “The Future of Neighbourhood Policing”. It detailed the neighbourhood policing project in England and Wales, and its own debates regarding this particular type of police activity. In its current state, Professor Muir said that there are “a lot of reasons for concern” regarding neighbourhood policing in England and Wales: the officers and supporting teams facilitating these policies were found to be overstretched and under-resourced, for which he linked the Government’s policy of austerity and recent cuts to policing resources at large. But the problem, Muir added, is also partially caused by the “change in demand” from policing; while overall crime has gone down in England and Wales, certain specific crimes, such as sexual crime and domestic abuse, have increased. The Police Foundation has been studying changes in community policing and how austerity policy, political change, and other factors have changed how police forces carry out community policing.

Another key point was the question of whether the model of neighbourhood policing should be implemented in every local community or directed in particular communities. Prior to the economic difficulties of 2008, the government was able to fund community policing teams all across England and Wales, but now that “is not possible to sustain anymore”. Professor Muir’s own opinion was that the universal model “just isn’t affordable”, but added that “there needs to be some kind of universal offer, but it might be digital, it might be online, it might be a different way of doing it”.

Following the presentation, there was a question and answer period towards all three members of the panel. Key issues from Professor Muir’s talk were brought up again for further discussion.

ACC Todd stated that the PSNI had been “subject to the same challenges” brought up in Muir’s presentation. In regard to the idea of universal neighbourhood policing, he said, “When we looked at our numbers, we couldn’t physically provide that purist neighbourhood team in every part of Northern Ireland.” As a result, areas that had high levels of crime were prioritised, meaning that other low-risk areas “will not have a dedicated neighbourhood team”.

He also commented that one of the reasons that resources had to be reallocated from community policing and general on-the-street policing was, as stated earlier, the change in demands. He said that academics had consistently been warning of “threats to the public moving from the visible space to the invisible space”, with reference to cybercrime. The takeaway was that ultimately there would have to be compromises with resourcing and funding, to meet these different challenges effectively.

Connolly reiterated that neighbourhood teams were not needed in every single community, but added that there needed to be a clearer definition of what a neighbourhood policing team actually was. Furthermore, he said that there needed to be more discussion about “how neighbourhood policing officers work, how they’re trained, what skills they need”, and that if they are not performing adequately, then this should be investigated with the aid of research.

This led to representatives from Queen’s University Belfast being asked to comment on their research on neighbourhood policing. They stated that their own findings reflected what Professor Muir had been talking about. One of their more notable key findings from their interviews was that lack of police visibility and confusion over the 101 emergency number caused severe negative feedback, lower crime reporting rates, and “increased a perception … that local communities are less safe”. Other findings and details from the research were discussed, with the risk of losing the trust of communities emphasised.

Several other key issues that were discussed during this session were how certain areas such as East and West Belfast severely needed more community policing teams and resources — particularly in dealing with anti-social behaviour on weekends. It was also stressed, amongst a number of factors, that police services that had successful neighbourhood policing schemes tended to have the benefit of consistency in terms of leadership; sudden changes in leadership or wider governance seemed to cause instability and correlated with poorer results. In her closing comment, Professor Muir’s said that policing was “an ongoing dialogue with the community”.

ENDS

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