Blog Post

Policing: a science-based profession?

Peter Neyroud, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge, UK, Member of the Expert Panel on the Future of Canadian Policing Models

Public policing in the developed world has been going through a very rough patch. Whether it is riots in London, UK, riots in Ferguson, Missouri, or the G-20 protests in Toronto, policing and police leaders have tended to be making the news for the wrong reasons. Underneath the headlines, policing has become more expensive just at the time when governments need to reduce costs. This has led to renewed questions about effectiveness of the police as crime falls and its patterns change.

In an international debate about the reasons for the crime drop, few analyses of the causes have accorded police the central role. As a new report from the CCA sets out, police are part of a safety and security web and one of many players, but not necessarily the prime agent of change.

Across the globe, the police are struggling to cope with escalating cybercrime, because they remain locked into a geographic model of policing with physical boundaries and nationally defined legal remits.  They are also falling short with crimes such as people trafficking, child sexual exploitation and domestic violence, which cross the boundaries of countries, agencies or public and private space. This existential crisis of policing is posing a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the police as an institution.

The solutions are too often seen as structural reorganization rather than more fundamental reforms. Yet one of the universal truths about policing is that approximately 80% of the budget pays for the people. The most important reforms must, therefore, focus on developing the skills, performance and professionalism of police officers and support staff.  This requires a root and branch rethinking of the ways police are recruited, qualify to be police and continue to build their expertise. Across the Anglo-Saxon world, police education has remained stubbornly rooted in a model largely defined in the nineteenth century in which law and procedure combined with the passing on of experience are given preference over evidence-based practice. Whether in the UK, USA or Canada, we train our police first to follow procedures rather than to use the best police science to solve problems.

As a result, too many police forces are still pursuing a police professional model, based around random patrol, rapid response and reactive investigation, which has largely been discredited by research and which tends to produce high levels of stop and frisk and an over reliance on discredited crime figures as a measure of success. Instead of this, the growing body of police science suggests that police should be adopting a new police professionalism based around targeted interventions, problem-solving, public engagement, partnership and strategies focused on enhancing legitimacy. This approach is well documented in the CCA’s newest report, Policing Canada in the 21st Century.

In the UK, the police have recognized that they need to make firm steps in this direction. Budgets have already been slashed by 20% and forces are preparing for the same again in the next five years. In the midst of this budgetary carnage, a new police professional body, the National College of Policing has been established. Government has funded it to be the “what works?” centre on crime reduction and the College is scouring the world for the best research to embed in UK police education. New recruits have to qualify before being able to join and most are doing so through university programmes. New qualifications for managers and leaders are being designed. The aim is to move to an accredited profession, underpinned by a systematic body of knowledge.

This is a major transformation for policing and a crucial one for our societies. Our police are hugely important symbols of our democracy, whether it is the British bobby or the Canadian Mountie. In 1829 Sir Robert Peel recognized that a watershed had been reached and eighteenth century voluntarism in policing could no longer cope with nineteenth century industrialism. In the same way, we need to recognize that twenty first century policing needs to transform itself by marrying the best science and knowledge to Peel’s model to form a new professional police fit for today and the challenges of tomorrow.