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Technology and the Future of Neighbourhood Policing

As delegates gather for IACP 2012, policing in democratic societies faces the twin challenges of increasing demand and diminishing resources. The period from the mid-1990s has seen the widespread adoption in Europe, North America, Australia and elsewhere of neighbourhood or community policing models. Governments and police forces have responded to popular demand for policing to be responsive to local demand to address crime and antisocial behavior, and to do so in a way which reassures the public that issues of public safety are being actively addressed. It has been an agenda which is rooted in an understanding of and responsiveness to the priorities of local communities.

Public sector budgets almost everywhere are under pressure, and so is neighbourhood policing. Prevention and reassurance are at risk of becoming the focus for cuts, whatever the longer term impact on reassurance and public safety.

So if there is to be a successful future for community policing, it needs to be on a sustainable and innovative basis. This is not just a question of technology, but technology can play its part. There are three areas in which this is the case:

  • An information rich police service will be able to apply data analytics to identify not only hot spots, but also the likely future migration of hot spots for certain types of crime. This predictive policing is discussed by police leaders including  Bill Bratton and in the Rand Corporation’s book Moving Towards the Future of Policing. In the UK, the Institute of Crime Science at University College London is among those working with police forces to build models which identify when and where burglaries are more likely to occur in future.
  • Developments in mobile technology will enable police forces to give officers on the street the information they need to know how to engage effectively in communities and increase the time which is available for street patrol.
  • Social media provides new ways for the police to engage with the public and to share information which is relevant to very localised communities and their issues. The work promoted by the Association of Chief Police Officers in the UK under the banner of Engage and by the IACP Centre for Social Media in the US are assisting police forces in using new media to strengthen their relationship with the public and hence to boost neighbourhood policing.

The riots in London and other UK cities in summer 2011 demonstrated the changing nature of the relationship between police and the public in an information rich society. Despite initial concerns about possible use of social media by rioters, analysis carried out by the London School of Economics and the Guardian newspaper and published as Reading the Riots shows that users of social media were overwhelmingly supportive of the police and the subsequent clean-up operation. Social media served as a means of dispelling unfounded rumours. A number of police forces used their own sites as a means of reassuring the public by giving updates about what was – and wasn’t – happening. It was apparent that this was most successful where police forces had already established trust in their social media sites, most often by effective use of the medium by neighbourhood officers.

In a networked world in which access to social media and mobile communications is widespread, police forces no longer command a monopoly of tactical communications at street level. Budget cuts mean that they cannot sustain neighbourhood policing by simple increases in numbers. But their access to analytics, the use of mobile communications and engagement of the public through social media are all means by which they can target resources, maintain their visible presence and strengthen public engagement, support and participation in achieving the goals of community policing.

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