Protecting relational networks


Unlike military law enforcement, policing is a relational activity whose success relies on preserving trust at local and national levels.


  • Global comparisons on policing and crime are hard to find – because offences are defined in different ways and not always reliably recorded.
  • Violence used by police varies by country and culture. FBI data for 2012 showed that 410 Americans were killed while committing a crime. There were around 9,000 gun-related murders. In the same year, British police officers fatally shot only one person.
  • In the UK, in response to the economic crisis, police numbers have been reduced. Home Office Statistics show a fall from 244,497 to 209,362 between 2010 and 2014. The number of police constables in England and Wales fell by more than 16,000 (11.5%), while police community support officers (PCSOs) fell by more than 4,000 (almost 25%).
  • In many Western nations, including the UK, overall crime rates have been falling in the 21st century. Various factors may have contributed to this. Police are targeting resources more efficiently (using “CompStat” or “Hotspot” policing). The advent of mobile phones increased personal theft, but car theft and burglary have simply become more difficult.


Crime is a breach of relationship

A common feature of most recorded crime is a breakdown in a relationship between people. This is clear in crimes such as assault or theft. But it is also the case in less targeted offences – for example, poor driving, anti-social behaviour, tax fraud or shoplifting – which indicate a breakdown in relationship between one individual and the wider community, and which demonstrate disregard for the well-being of others in society, however remote that relationship might seem.


The role of money in securing individual and family wellbeing makes financial difficulty a major cause of stress. A Barclays survey showed that money was the most frequently cited reason for arguments between partners. The psychological pressure resulting from personal debt is linked directly with child abuse and physical violence between adults in households.

Policing has positive goals

The greater goal of policing is to enable communities to flourish, building community well-being, enhancing safety, security and confidence. Policing exists to enable people to live together in healthy relationship. Doing this successfully requires the police to relate not just to citizens but to government, communities, non-profits, medical services, schools, social services and businesses.

Prevention is better than cure

“The primary object of an efficient police is the prevention of crime” wrote Sir Richard Mayne Metropolitan Police Commissioner in 1829. The focus of modern policing is on the prevention of harm – preventing the breakdown of relationships and reducing crime and disorder in communities. Much of the prevention work of policing goes unrecorded. While crimes and offences make substantial demands on policing, over half of calls for assistance do not result in a crime being identified or reported.

Intervention in relationships can be crucial

Fractured relationships contribute heavily to most calls for police assistance. Disputes between neighbours, a child missing from home, local disturbances, civil disputes – all have relational causes and require relational responses. The preventive presence of police officers can be a powerful influence in calming down volatile situations, intervening in disputes before they escalate, stopping fights and disorder, restoring peace and order. Police officers intervene as people. Their success depends on forging effective relationships, based on the authority of their office and their interpersonal skills.

Relational causes matter

The underlying causes of crime are often associated with difficulties of education, housing, addictions, mental health and unemployment. While it is not the role of the police to solve these alone, they have a key role to play in contributing to the solution, particularly as they will often have unique information through their role at the point of crisis. A compelling argument can be made for intervention as early and appropriately as possible to solve problems before they escalate. This is usually done in conjunction with other agencies or organizations. Tackling the problems of drug misuse, anti-social behaviour or youth disorder are delivered most successfully by agencies working together, and investing in solutions to tackle underlying problems over the longer term. Such approaches are also effective in tackling major crime, serious organized crime and terrorism.

Protection for, not just protection from

Safety is a basic human need and we expect the criminal law to protect us from harm. Living in fear for one’s own safety undermines the ability to build strong community links and contributes to personal isolation, loneliness, vulnerability, poor health and a lack of well-being. But the police also have a role in safeguarding democratic processes and many other aspects of social life – upholding human rights, encouraging free speech and facilitating marches and demonstrations. This role underpins not only personal relationships but also the individual’s relationship with society and the nature of society itself.

Investigation relies on relational networks

When prevention and protection fail and a crime is committed, then investigation and the due process of law are necessary. In response to a reported crime, the police act on behalf of both wider society and the victim of the crime. Their responsibilities are to investigate, to gather evidence, with a view to identifying offenders and bringing them to justice, through arrest, and report to the relevant prosecuting authority. Successful investigation depends on information from the public and their willingness to cooperate with the police enquiry. The cooperation of victims, witnesses and the general public in providing vital information will reflect the quality of the relationship between the police and the public, including the extent to which the public trust the police, and whether they believe that the exercise of police power is legitimate and subject to the rule of law. Such trust and confidence will be informed by the behaviour of individual officers and by the reputation and perception of the institutions of policing.



Zero tolerance of corruption

Much more harmful is where policing activity actually abuses relationships. Examples include abuse of power and a lack of legitimacy, where the power and authority of police officers is misused for personal gain or gratification and corruption. There are many countries across the world where the police are wholly distrusted by the population because they abuse their positions, and cannot be trusted to act with legitimacy on behalf of the citizen.

Technology to facilitate relationship

CCTV and cars (and I would add computers, internet/social media) – concern the methods, rather than the core, of policing. Relational policing does include responding rapidly to incidents, and by doing so, increasing public confidence and trust in the police. If used properly, CCTV can be very effective in enhancing safety and preventing crime (as well as an effective investigative facility). Most young people today would expect to be able to contact the police on-line and would expect a speedy response. The police need an on-line presence to prevent and to investigate internet crime, which can be very harmful and damaging. From a relational policing perspective, all technology should be used as a tool to support relation-ships with the public, and not as a substitute for good relationships.

Elite skills, not elite attitude

Armed policing is a necessary aspect of modern policing. We would expect the police to be trained and equipped to deal with a terrorist attack, or a more ‘ordinary’ armed criminal gang. The principles of relational policing apply equally to armed officers; they still need legitimacy in their exercise of force, they need to act with integrity on behalf of society in a way which enhances trust and confidence. The harm comes when they somehow think they are elite and above the citizen.

Societally shared values

The quality of the relationship between the public and the police is built on the public’s trust in the police. Do they believe that, on the whole, the police act with integrity, irrespective of the pressure individual officers are under? Do they feel that the police are “on their side”, acting on their behalf – and not as “the enemy” or an army of occupation? In many nations, where police work is marred by corruption, the relationship between police and population needs to be addressed as an urgent priority.


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1 thought on “Policing”

  1. Thank you for this piece. Police operate on the basis delegated authority from eg Parliament. It would be interesting to look at what impact the relationship between the delegator (Parliament) and the delegated (police) has on the way the public view the police. For example, in the “Plebgate” incident, the relationship between Andrew Mitchell and the police was clearly poor: this was not the first time that the MP had abused police officers; a police officer lied about his involvement in the incident. Neither party behaved well. How is the public perception of ‘authority/delegated authority’ affected by such incidents, especially the ‘authority’ they most come into contact with, namely the police.

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