Increasing formal control by a more visible police force isn’t as effective as, say, making sure stop-and-search is done fairly
As part of their effort to slash £500m from their annual budget, the Metropolitan police is going to sell off Scotland Yard, reduce the number of senior managers, close 65 police stations and put police officers in post offices. While it may certainly be time to find a cheaper version of Scotland Yard, the idea of the police having counter space inside the local post office seems incongruous with the other cost-saving plans. The proposed pilot would allow people to file documents, report minor crimes and purchase licences at fixed points, thereby increasing interaction between the public and officers. At the same time, the Met wants to improve community confidence rates and reduce certain crimes by 20% by putting more officers on the street.
The post office pilot has the potential to be an effective tool in increasing community confidence, but needs to be approached with caution. We know from previous studies that when people initiate contact with the police the interaction can have a positive impact on their trust and confidence. This is in stark contrast to police-initiated encounters where research has often shown a negative impact on the perception people have of police. Although this negative impact can be mitigated through procedural fairness and just application of police powers, it cannot be eliminated. In situations where people initiate contact with the police to report a minor crime, the victim wants to feel that the officer taking the report is interested in their situation and will make an effort to deal with their problem. Provided they are treated well by police, the actual outcome is an insignificant factor in the victim’s feelings about the interaction.
The eminent UK criminologist Robert Reiner has pointed out that the police in Britain have undergone a transformation in the last 30 years from a sacred institution to just another profane arm of bureaucracy. The idea of queuing in the post office to speak to an officer would only serve to solidify their profane status in the eyes of many. I’ve never come away from the post office thinking, “Wow, that guy really cared about when my package would arrive in Hull!” This isn’t a problem, because I’m fine with the post office staff not caring about ill-fitting shoes that I bought online, but it’s not the type of service I’d want if I’d just lost my iPhone.
Perhaps the focus on the postal element of the Met’s proposals is ignoring the larger issue. The effort to trim spending also seeks to improve confidence in the police by cutting crime rates. Focusing on the instrumental measurement of crime figures won’t return the office of constable to the position it once held in Britain. People don’t want more opportunities to see an officer in their local high-street establishments if they don’t feel that the institution will treat them and their fellow citizens fairly. Whether this perceived behaviour applies to the officer in front of them is irrelevant. Safer Neighbourhood Teams already hold “street briefings” in local Starbucks, and few people ever turn up to speak to the officers. Instead of trying to increase formal social control by putting more officers on the beat and perching them behind the counter at the post office, the police should work on making sure that every stop-and-search is done in a procedurally fair manner and only based on good intelligence. This will have a much greater impact than just having more officers patrolling.
As an institution, there is a limit to what activities the police can engage in to prevent criminal behaviour. The informal social controls that once helped communities function cannot be replaced by more formal control in the form of police presence. Post office counter space may be cheaper than a full station, but I don’t know that it will move London towards the larger goals the Met envisages unless it is accompanied by an internal reform process to improve the way officers wield their powers.