In the media

Policing through paradoxes

By Richard Davis

Police Professional

31 May 2024

Chief Constable Gavin Stephens QPM, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), recently spoke of policing’s ‘opportunity for a reset’. His comments recognised the need for wider change, identifying the influx of big systematic challenges on ‘a number of fronts’.

The challenge is that a number of fronts may well be all fronts. With increasing societal pressures and demands on law enforcement, there’s a risk of paralysis as priorities compete and forces focus on the most obvious challenges that vie for their attention. However, what is needed is a new model of service that takes full advantage of this opportunity for reset.

So, when pulled in all directions, how can policing reset for a secure future? It can certainly look back to the founding Peel principles – but there’s also a chance to look forward, charting a new course to navigate the paradoxical challenges of today. PA Consulting recently released a report, entitled Secure Futures, which explores this. The research – validated by senior leaders at the Ministry of Defence, Royal Air Force, Home Office, Cabinet Office, and others – pinpoints five paradoxes that, at first glance, seem contradictory. However, it found that there are huge opportunities to unpick these paradoxes and approach them with a new lens, with three that are particularly relevant to the task of policing.

Paradoxes for police

Perhaps the most acute paradox for policing is the balance between strategic and tactical decisions. In an inherently reactive service, strategy can be seen as the antithesis of ‘getting things done’. Tactical decisions are made in the moment, in response to challenges as they arise. These tactical actions also provide public reassurance, disrupting crime in a very visible way. Strategy, on the other hand, is the overarching plan that shapes direction and may not have such a visible impact in the immediate term. So, it’s difficult to balance the two.

Policing is also complicated by the perceived paradox between global and local. All policing is local because victims exist within a specific geographic area. However, global considerations and actions increasingly impact local people. The shockwaves of global conflicts play out on British streets, calling on the police to respond to differing views inspired by events far beyond their control or influence. In a digital world, crime can originate from anywhere – particularly online harms and fraud. Victims and perpetrators often exist in different jurisdictions. With the rise of immersive technologies and the metaverse, it’s even harder to determine where perpetrators are located. Policing needs the ability to not just react, but to disrupt and ideally prevent tech-enabled, borderless crime.

Another hugely relevant paradox for policing is the relationship between technology and people. Today, almost any crime can have a digital element, with demand for digital forensics growing at a seemingly unstoppable rate. This can be intrusive for victims and lengthen investigation times. There’s also a tension between technological approaches to crime reduction, such as drones and facial recognition software, and more people-focused approaches such as neighbourhood policing.

Levers for law enforcement

In all of these paradoxes, the challenge is not only finding a balance but treating them as a more coherent whole – in other words, moving beyond binary thinking and spotting connections between apparently opposing demands. While there’s no quick fix, there are three key actions forces can take to start putting this into practice. These can form the basis for a reset to make UK law enforcement more resilient and future-ready.

1. Build appropriate structures

First, the organisation of law enforcement is complex. Any reset should therefore consider what is actioned internationally, nationally, regionally, and locally, and how information flows smoothly across these levels. Let’s forget the idea that global and local priorities are simply competing or independent of one another. Rather, strong national governance enables policing to both protect local force identities, all while maximising capabilities to address regional, national, and cross-border challenges.

One way to achieve this is to form globally coordinated workforces, as seen with the WeProtect Global Alliance, which brings together organisations, charities, and law enforcement to combat online harms against children. By taking a more holistic, international approach to online harms, the organisations can have a greater impact at both a national and global level.

Police forces can also strengthen their structures by looking to the private sector to access new resources and innovation. For example, this could involve agreeing private sector partnerships or outsourcing to gain access to specialist analytical skills, such as in the cyber crime space.

In this way, improving the organisation of law enforcement and strengthening structures also addresses the tension between strategic and tactical. This is because better organising and aligning the component parts of forces not only makes it easier to react more quickly and tactically to threats, but also to create robust strategic plans that prevent offending and protect the public. Without an effective structure, police forces risk striking at the symptom rather than the cause of issues.

2. Make police data a national asset

Crucially though, effective policing structures are underpinned by the smooth flow of accurate, relevant information. Police data is currently often siloed and disjointed, which can cost police officers hundreds of working hours each year.

As such, significant effort is needed at a national level to drive data-sharing and embed the right infrastructure to enable it. This will clearly help to bridge the perceived gap between technology and people, by drawing on data to enhance human work. But beyond that, better data will help reconcile other paradoxes that police are grappling with – for example, enabling forces to enter into more effective information-sharing partnerships with international peers to address borderless crime on a local and global scale.

Some progress has already been made by regional consortia such as the Athena Collaboration Programme, and the NicheRMS collaborations in the East Midlands and North West. This is only a partial picture and could be replicated in other regions, as well as across borders.

3. Reappraise workforce skills

Finally, paradoxes can be dealt with through workforce planning that is less short-term or operationally focused. Growing cost constraints are amplifying the need for omni-competent people who have greater technical literacy, as well as specialisms in key areas. This is particularly true for digital skills, where shortages of tech talent are prevalent. The emergence of new technologies like GenAI further highlight the need for a reset and reappraisal of workforce skills.

A long-term, strategic view can drive the right learning, recruitment, and retention initiatives to balance traditional skills with those required to adapt to new forms of crime, particularly less visible crimes that necessitate complex analysis, such as online harms. This is key to unlocking the paradox of people and technology. Forces that share skills and take an integrated workforce planning approach – understanding the skills needed and balancing these with current and future requirements – will be more effective in the long term.

To reset policing in a changing world, and prepare for ‘significant systematic challenges’, it is incumbent on forces to develop integrated solutions. This takes more than collaborative sentiment – it requires appropriate structures, information-sharing, and a new approach to talent that address organisation, data, and – importantly – people. With this foundation in place, there’s the potential for paradoxes to become new opportunities.

This article was first published in Police Professional

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