Deciding the future of policing

Preparing for the future

Chapter summary

To address the challenges facing policing and prepare for future shifts, police leaders and politicians nationally and locally will need to make difficult choices. Policing needs to build its capacity to build sustained change or transformation and to harness tools (old and new) that will help police protect and serve the public. The most effective police forces succeed not just because they can articulate clearly their priorities and policing approach, but because they build the new capabilities they need to achieve their goals and learn to respond to periodic public pressures productively – not constantly shifting organisational focus entirely but seeking to understand the genuine issues behind public or political concern.

A new decision making framework

To support the tough choices policing must now take, we have developed a framework to support leaders’ preparation for the future. As in all public services the job of police leaders is to translate money into public value and outcomes and our framework identifies three key steps for achieving this:

  • Deciding, given the policing context, what your policing organisation does, its overall mission and aspiration
  • Deciding where it will prioritise efforts, both in terms of priorities and philosophy
  • Deciding how to ensure success by building the management systems or capabilities required, and ensuring the workforce can translate intent into effective day to day action.


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Deciding the future of policing

What? Mission and aspirations

Like many public sector leaders, PCCs and chief constables can struggle to articulate their organisational mission and overarching goal – in part because of the complexity of policing and ongoing uncertainty about levels of impact the police have on different outcomes. There are four key choices in relation to mission.

  1. Deciding the breadth of the police mission, in particular:
    1. whether to pursue a narrow crime focus or a broader goal around safety and public protection
    2. how far to focus on public perceptions (safety and confidence) as well as actual harms
  2. Deciding the level of ambition to motivate the organisation
    The Metropolitan Police Service’s (MPS) once aimed to make London the ‘safest, global city’. London is very unlikely indeed to become a safer city than Tokyo, Berlin or Madrid in the coming decade. As a result, many staff started seeing the goal as a rhetorical tool, rather than genuine loadstar to guide prioritisation and inform and reflect funding decisions – a reason the aspiration has now been amended.
  3. Ensuring that goals fit with an overall public service vision and priorities
    Using the MPS example, again, it is far from clear that Londoners would be willing to fund the effort necessary to make London the safest global city even if it were possible, given priorities in areas such as economic growth, employment, transport and housing. No policing organisations mission or aspiration can be determined in isolation from the public, or decisions about other public service goals.
  4. Consider ethical choices
    There will always be a temptation for leaders, particularly those subject to direct electoral pressures, to promise great things to all interested parties and then find ways of managing perceptions to avoid disappointments. However, while this can sometimes ‘work’ politically – for a short period – there is strong reason to believe such an approach is counterproductive in the long term, and a fundamental reason for ongoing mistrust of politicians and our political system.

Where? Priorities and philosophy

Choices are required about where to focus in order to meet policing aspiration. The starting point for all prioritisation choices is a thorough understanding of the policing context. This supports a set of further choices about what is focused on, where, and when, and choices about the guiding philosophy or ‘theory of change’ that will guide decision making at all levels of the organisation.

In terms of what the police prioritise to achieve their mission, it is no longer viable to simply set priorities based on crime types. The most successful policing organisations therefore prioritise work based on harm and potential harm – or what most in policing refer to as “threat, risk, harm and vulnerability”. The other element determining what to prioritise is addressability or solvability. Policing organisations need to know what return they will get from their investment to work out when to start or stop work. If activity isn’t supporting the overall aspiration, it needs to stop to allow more productive activity – a point that is easy to say but very challenging to realise in the context of emotive issues where the police need to maintain legitimacy and procedural justice.

In terms of where to focus (geographical prioritisation), the key decision is how far to focus on providing a broad universal offer to communities rather than a needs/ risk based approach to resourcing. Most forces told us that it was no longer viable to achieve visibility in communities to the same extent as in 2008 however there are new forms of visibility and service, enabled by the internet and officer mobility and telecommunications, which can increase policing’s reach and can form part of a powerful and more efficient universal offer. Choices will, of course, vary based on funding but also the priority attached to maintaining public support and the vulnerability of political position.

In addition to these questions, forces can benefit from defining when police provide resources too. Most police forces have significantly improved how far they ensure that staffing matches times of peak demand.

There is surprisingly little open discussion within forces about policing and leadership philosophies. Differences in philosophy can relate to values and priorities as well as interpretation of evidence – for example, the relative importance attached to justice or crime outcomes. Just as forces need to build alignment around a clear policing philosophy, they need to make choices about their leadership philosophy. As in all sectors, police leaders do not lead or manage in the same way.

How? Capabilities

Once aspirations and priorities are clear, the question is how to build the capabilities that support success. This requires a wide range of choices relating to workforce (size, skills, reward etc.), processes, structures and collaborations, technologies, and other management systems.

Priority capabilities will vary depending on a force’s mission, priorities and policing approach. There are core capabilities that forces have rightly prioritised over the past few years, and a newer set of capabilities that are increasingly important. The five core capabilities we have observed are: public contact; emergency response; local and specialist investigation; safeguarding; and detention and prosecution. However, we draw attention to six new capabilities that might equip policing to cope with the new policing realities:

  1. Data management, analytics and digital capabilities
  2. Relational and influencing capabilities
  3. Sensing, noticing and regulatory capabilities
  4. Ability to operate and interpret cyber-physical systems
  5. Knowledge management capabilities
  6. Ethical decision making capabilities and powerful public engagement approaches

Core, age old policing capabilities also need to be developed for a changing society. Some core policing skills are irreducible. Policing will always rely on the professional judgement, experience and empathy that characterises policing at its best. But there is clearly huge potential to build real time situational support through technology, and to select for and develop the attributes that make for success in the real world. And there is similar potential to equip neighbourhood officers with problem solving methods, tools and skill sets that build community engagement and prevent crime.

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