Demos Daily: The activist police force


During the current crisis, there have been questions from all sides around the role the police should be playing in enforcing social distancing measures. With maintaining public trust so crucial to the force’s legitimacy, examples of officers having been too stringent in imposing measures are potentially damaging.  Yet the police have always faced these sorts of challenges. Over 10 years ago, we took a look at what the role of the police force could look like in 2020, and argued that police officers must learn to give up their monopoly over issues of law and order and take a more proactive and political role in shaping the society around them.

Read Charlie Edwards’ essay The activist police force below.

The activist police force

“There are restrictive practices that prevent police forces from delivering the kind of policing people want. We should be more aggressive in breaking down the barriers in the way of a professional, twenty-first-century police force, whether it’s political correctness from above, or ploddishness from below.”

David Cameron MP

When Richard Handford became the new executive producer of the ITV series The Bill, he set about changing the format of the series. Not content with changing the cast and story lines, Hanford decided to change how the police fought crime. No longer were cases solved in 25 minutes by police officers racing their squad cars around, kicking down doors and arresting would-be criminals. Instead plots spanned many episodes, and quite often a minor offence dealt with by uniformed police officers in one episode would re-appear a few weeks later as part of a major case for the CID. Handford’s ideas were not just about creating ‘cliff-hangers’; he wanted to reflect the true complexity of crime and policing. In the process, Handford portrayed a more progressive, responsive and citizen-focused police service.

The reality of policing has also shifted in this direction, but it has taken rather more work. It has required a process of cultural change which continues to this day, as the police service seeks to become more proactive and more sophisticated in serving the public. As then Home Secretary Charles Clarke told a conference in January 2005: ‘It must seem sometimes that there is a process of perpetual change but society is changing fast around us. We have to find the right way to change in order to meet those challenges. That’s why the Citizen- Focused Policing relationship is central to everything we do.’ (1) The key implication of this principle is a new – or renewed – focus on neighbourhood policing. The police reform white paper, Building Communities, Beating Crime: A better police service for the 21st century states:

“The Government believes that, as a starting point, we need revitalised neighbourhood policing for today’s world. Our clear view is that increasing public trust and confidence in policing – while important in its own right – will also be a real benefit for the police service itself. It will help make policing more effective.” (2)

This echoes an early report on modernising the police service by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of the Constabulary (HMIC) which suggested that:

“The key challenge is to make the service more professional and to enrich the role and contribution of all staff in providing the best possible service to our communities. In doing so, whilst change will be inevitable, it is equally vital that we retain the core values inherent in the office and powers of a constable that have made policing in Britain the envy of police services across the world.” (3)

Within policing, the challenge of professionalisation is the challenge of building a culture of confidence and competence around the task of actively shaping our public realm. The fundamental task facing the police, in other words, is the transformation of their operational capacity.

Over the last two years, Demos has worked to guide groups of senior police officers through a ‘futures thinking’ exercise, imagining policing in 2020. The scenarios were originally developed by participants on the Strategic Command Course in December 2003 and these ideas have since been tested and refined by more than 150 officers. (4) The process has offered an invaluable opportunity to interrogate the future of police operations, and to garner the views of those who will shape it. Engaging with tomorrow’s ‘top cops’ has been a hugely rewarding way to gather and test out ideas. It is the lessons of this work on which this essay is based, as well as the longer pamphlet A Force for Change. (5)

In response to Cameron’s suggestion that the government ‘should be more aggressive in breaking down the barriers in the way of a professional, twenty-first-century police force’, the new head of the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA) argues that the police are very far from being ‘the last great unreformed public service’. He points to the ‘major review of the post-1962 police force structure’, ‘a significant investment in community support officers’ and the new Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) as examples of how the police are adapting to the new challenges they face.

Our police forces are certainly changing fast. Government has shifted the role of policing to ‘reassurance’ through community-based policing, moved officers from desk-based jobs to the streets and introduced ‘community support officers’ (CSOs) to the police family. Alongside workforce reform, police officers are making much greater use of technology and work more and more in partnership with other agencies and with the public.

While this approach has been accepted by senior police officers, who have long complained of ‘mission creep’ and the lack of support they receive from government agencies, they have also caused some difficulties. However, more significant is the deep culture change of which they are a part. To succeed in the twenty-first century, today’s police officers must learn to give up their monopoly over issues of law and order and grow into a more proactive and ‘political’ role in shaping the society around them.

Public value policing

When Robert Peel founded the police service in the nineteenth century, he finally won a long and bitter battle with opponents who said that such a move threatened the essential liberties of the British people.

The debate between Peel and his critics goes to the heart of questions about how we think about the value of our public services. Peel’s critics argued that it was not in individuals’ self-interest to give up their freedom, in the form of extra powers for the state and higher taxes, to support the creation of a police force. Maybe so, said Peel, but it was still in their collective interest to do so. As he is reported to have told Wellington, ‘I want to teach people that liberty does not consist in having your house robbed by organised gangs of thieves, and in leaving the principal streets of London in the nightly possession of drunken women and vagabonds.’ (6)

Today, the challenge of ensuring and demonstrating that the police are serving collective interests remains as crucial as ever. Indeed, it connects with important contemporary work on public services and public policy – the idea of ‘public value’. Public value takes as its starting point the idea that leaders in public services cannot take the underlying purpose of their institution, its legitimacy, or the value it creates for citizens to be self-evident, simply because they are public institutions whose mandate has been supplied by democratically elected governments. Instead, the leaders of our public services need to focus on operational capacity, legitimacy and support, and values, mission and goals. It is the issue of organisational capacity on which we focus in this essay.

The operating challenge

The police face a growing number of competing demands. Today, the pressure of these demands is reaching a critical level. To respond, police officers will have to challenge deeply held beliefs about their own profession.

For example, public concern about prevalent anti-social and nuisance behaviour and its impact on quality of life grew during the 1990s, creating a demand for the police to focus on local issues and ‘level 1’ crime. (7) Although people perceive that specific types of behaviour have fallen from their peak a few years ago, their overall perception of anti-social behaviour is that it is still getting worse. (8) However, at the same time, the need for the police to tackle ‘level 3’ threats – terrorist networks, organised crime, drugs and people- trafficking – has been brought home vividly by a number of incidents over the last year, from the deaths of the Morecambe cocklers, illegal migrant workers killed by the negligence of their gangmaster, to the 52 men and women murdered in the 7 July bombings on the London transport system.

Is it feasible for the police to continue to cover such a wide terrain? Many within the service argue that it simply has to be feasible, because ‘omni-competence’ is integral to the values of the police service. Others claim that omni-competence is a dangerous and unsustainable fiction, and that more work should be hived off to other (and more specialised) agencies at every level, from local authorities at the neighbourhood level to SOCA at the national level.

The London bombings appear to lend weight to both camps. On the one hand, they have shown that in the age of the home-grown suicide bomber, effective national intelligence needs strong local roots into communities. On the other, the targeting of particular ethnic minorities makes cooperative, high-trust relationships with local communities (and particularly the British Muslim community) seem both more necessary and less feasible than ever.

This dilemma, therefore, cannot be resolved simply by focusing on what the police do. The police need to improve their ability to draw on work to which they are connected or with which they have a relationship. In doing so the police need to learn to shape explicit priorities on which they can focus and to allow other organisations and the public to help to achieve them. In other words, they need to be smarter at engaging in the political process at national and local levels and get better at creating and sustaining partnership.

The challenge in improving the police’s partnership working is to address their reluctance to let other agencies take more of the strain. Since 1984, the police have been expected to operate through multiagency partnerships, particularly in the delivery of crime prevention activity. (9) The ‘joining-up’ agenda gathered pace after the election of the Labour government in 1997. Section 17 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 placed a duty on the local authority ‘to exercise its various functions with due regard to the likely effect of the exercise of those functions on, and the need to do all it reasonably can to prevent crime and disorder in its area’. Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships (CDRPs), linking the police to local authorities, other statutory agencies, the private sector and community and voluntary groups, are now an important focus for policing activities.

But many Basic Command Unit (BCU) commanders are sceptical about CDRPs, suggesting that they are little more than talking shops unless the police really take responsibility for driving them forward. Some senior officers profess concern that the police’s ‘can-do attitude’, an asset in so many operational settings, is actually damaging for long-term strategy. It breeds a ‘mission creep’, often not formally recognised or accompanied by additional resources, leaving the police’s operational capacity spread ever more thinly across an expanding range of priorities, and clarity about the core purposes of policing is lost. Other officers believe the police themselves must share some of the responsibility for their reluctance to trust other agencies and refusal to compromise any of their operational independence, even if ultimately it would increase the capability to get the job done. Finally, some officers believe that the only way forward is to create ‘local accountability frameworks’ that allow the public to see which agencies are involved at any one time. In the words of one senior officer: ‘We bring it [overstretch] on ourselves. . . . We don’t trust anyone else to do anything but us.’ For another: ‘If what really matters is fear of crime and reassurance, and that agenda is too broad for us to manage by ourselves, we need to work in partnership and be evaluated as such.’

Alongside the need to improve their partnership working, senior police officers need to improve the ways in which they engage with politics. However, this rubs up against professional values forged in times of strife, which see political engagement as only one step removed from political interference. Concerns about political interference re-emerged on the national scene in the 1980s. The Thatcher government’s mass mobilisation of the police service in its conflict with the National Union of Mineworkers during the Miners’ Strike was hugely divisive, particularly in the northern areas most affected by the strike. Many viewed it as politicisation, with the police becoming an arm of the state rather than a servant of the law. For a number of serving senior police officers today, the Miners’ Strike was a key formative moment in their early careers that entrenched a deep hostility to political interference.

An activist police force

As a result, a key issue for police professionals is the trust and confidence they have in working with other organisations and in workingin public. Difficult as it is, this is an important challenge for police officers to face as a profession as circumstances continue to change.

As we have seen, for some police officers, the introduction of CSOs has been a cause for anxiety. However, arguably it is only the tip of the iceberg. A number of actors from the wider ‘policing family’ are beginning to encroach on traditional police turf. Security companies, voluntary organisations and local authorities increasingly provide reassurance services such as neighbourhood wardens. Specialist services such as forensics, divers, helicopters, the management of custody suites, cyber-crime and other high-value investigation services are or could soon be offered by private providers. As the operating environment changes, the question is what role police will play as quality assurers, brokers, commissioners and coordinators in this more diverse market.

Naturally, the police profession will want to be at the heart of decisions of this kind. However, in order that they can be, they must make two important shifts. First, there must be greater collaboration between forces with different specialisms, and the police force must embrace a role for a more diverse range of providers of policing services – including the private sector – where it brings benefits. Indeed, police leaders should make clear their commitment to partnership working by building on the best practices of existing arrangements. They should push for coterminous boundaries with other partners, pooled budgets, common targets and accountability frameworks, and a shared leadership under a ‘director of community safety’, who might be a police officer or from another agency. The capacity of policing to create public value is greater than the capacity of the police to create public value. Rather than resist the growth of the ‘policing family’, the police should harness and shape it.

Second, while independence is a non-negotiable for the police, it cannot be at the expense of ‘splendid isolation’. Impartiality cannot mean the police always know best. Although reticence in forging connections to local local politics is understandable, this must form an approach to engagement rather than legitimise a police monopoly over law and order. Public engagement needs to be expressed in practical relationships between the police and the community, not abstract structures. Done properly, community participation can help solve problems for police officers; it need not be seen simply as a way of causing them.

Whatever happens over the next 15 years, policing as a profession cannot stand still. Its work must become more open and better connected to those the police serve. From the growth of para-professional support to the rise of more specialist roles to demands for greater accountability from communities and politicians, the traditional bases on which policing bound itself together and claimed legitimacy are being undermined. Rather than resist these pressures, police officers should embrace change as an opportunity to renew policing as what Judyth Sachs calls an ‘activist profession’:

“An activist profession is one that is open to ideas and influence from the communities it serves, actively seeks to build trust with those communities, has a clear vision of the society it is trying to create in the future, and which recognises the importance of engaging in political forums to help realise that future. Such a culture exists in pockets of the police service, but it is far from widespread.” (10)



(1)  Citizen-Focused Policing, conference, London, Jan 2005; cited in C Edwards and P Skidmore, A Force For Change: Policing 2020 (London: Demos, 2006), see (accessed 24 May 2006).

(2)  Home Office, Building Communities, Beating Crime: A better police service for the 21st century, police reform white paper (London: Home Office, 2004).

(3)  Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of the Constabulary, ‘Modernising the Police Service’, HMIC thematic report, January 2004.

(4)  These officers all took part in the ‘Policing contexts and futures’ module of the Senior Leadership Development Programme II run by Centrex, the police training and development organisation.

(5)  Edwards and Skidmore, A Force for Change (London: Demos, 2006).

(6)  See (accessed 24 May 2006).

(7)  Levels 1, 2 and 3 refer to the National Intelligence Model (NIM). The NIM was designed by the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) in 2000 to professionalise the intelligence discipline within law enforcement by planning and working in cooperation with partners to secure community safety, to manage performance and risk, and to account for budgets.

(8)  M Wood, Perceptions and Experience of Antisocial Behaviour: Findings from the 2003/2004 British Crime Survey; see (accessed 24 May 2006).

(9)  Home Office, Crime Prevention, interdepartmental circular 8/84 (London: Home Office, 1984), cited in J Bright, Turning the Tide (London: Demos, 1997).

(10)  See S Groundwater Smith and J Sachs, ‘The activist professional and the reinstatement of trust’; available at (accessed 24 May 2006).