Two policemen
Two policemen on foot patrol in Oxford Street in the heart of London
Credit: NZGMW /

Police: Symbolic and Effective Guardians?

What do the public want from a good police force, and how does that affect our approaches to managing policing in the medium term? Professor Bradford discusses his research into public attitudes to the police, and suggests some ways forward. 

Possibilities Seminar 1:

18 October, 2016

Toby Harris and Ben BradfordLord Harris of Haringey (left) and Ben Bradford

Chair: Lord Harris of Haringey

Former leader of Haringey Council and Chair of the Association of London Government, Lord Harris was the first Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority on which he sat until 2012. He authored the 2015 report into Deaths in Custody and is currently leading a review for the Mayor of London on the capital’s preparedness for a terrorist attack. 

Speaker: Professor Ben Bradford

Professor Bradford is Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Oxford’s department of criminology. His research focusses on issues of public trust of the police, and he has worked closely with the London Metropolitan Police, among others on research projects to inform their forward planning. 

Notes from the seminar

In this seminar, Dr Ben Bradford introduced and evidenced the idea that police are typically viewed by members of the public in highly symbolic or affective terms. Since the British police rely on the support and cooperation of the policed to function effectively, it is imperative that we understand the ways in which people experience, ‘read’ and react to police activity. Yet, the nature and diversity of attitudes and orientations within the public mean that reform efforts must attend to but not necessarily be dominated by public ‘wants’ and ‘needs’.

The questions below were asked by people attending the seminar. Responses, aggregated from the discussion, were given by Dr Ben Bradford, Lord Haringey and others present at the seminar.


There is a need for the police to interact with the public, especially when working to resolve antisocial behaviour and private crimes, such as domestic violence, modern slavery and antisocial behaviour.

Consultation shows that the public are aware that they have a duty to engage with the police and that they accept this role. However, there is a perception that people feel the need to be told what they need to do by the police – with the relationship being likened to that of a parent/child.

How do you feel that recent research and analysis can help us to move away from this model?


The last 200 years have been spent helping to convince the public that the parent/child relationship exists. This can be seen in some of the calls the police receive asking them to help with trivial domestic matters (such as retrieving pound coins from supermarket trolleys).

We are now beginning the long process of re-educating people to interact more proactively with the police. To assist with this it is important that the police stay visible to encourage face-to-face contact with the public.

In the USA the introduction of patrol cars led to the police effectively disappearing from their communities to the inside of the vehicles – resulting, it is thought, in a decline in public confidence.

Social media can assist with building communication links and making the police more accessible. However this digital method moves the focus away from traditional face-to-face policing and increasing the proportion of police-public interactions that are enforcement focussed. This, again, risks undermining trust in the police. Building and maintaining direct contact between the police and the public is essential.

Additional comment:

Social media is a valuable tool and enables the police to be more informal and to show humour.

However, where there are still dedicated ward officers patrolling neighbourhoods those officers are able to engage with the community in a different way – and become trusted members of the neighbourhoods they serve.

Police now carry far more equipment to protect themselves. As their equipment increases the more defensive the officers feel and the less the public recognise that the police are part of their community.

There’s a general awareness that the public want to be respected by the police, but what can be overlooked is that police officers also want to feel valued by the public. They want to feel respected and appreciated for running towards situations that instinct tells you to run from, for working unsociable hours and for missing important personal occasions to help keep other people safe.

Internal police surveys also reveal that the police actually have less confidence in their own effectiveness than the public have.


Do you feel that Stop and Search encounters are damaging for community relationships?


The manner that Stop and Searches are carried out has a huge impact on how they are perceived by the public. If community engagement is carried out beforehand to explain why the searches are being carried out, this can result in greater public buy in and the searches are then perceived as being a response to community feedback.

Further response:

Are Stop and Searches right? If, as a police officer, you feel that a search is justified then it very possibly is – but this needs to be clearly communicated to the person involved. Does stop and search have any effect on crime rates? If so it is likely to be marginal – searches have reduced in numbers but crime rates haven’t increased.

If you ask the public if searches are effective they tend to agree. However, if you ask members of the public if they would willingly consent to be searched regularly their answer is no. This is the kind of pressure that the police have to deal with – the policing people want for themselves isn’t necessarily the policing they want for others.

Further Question:

How can the historical legacy and institutional racism associated with Stop and Search be improved?


In the past the police have been reluctant to admit to mistakes as there is a perception that this undermines public confidence.

However, there is now more acceptance of the need to do this within the service, and people are more aware that the role of the police is actually picking up the pieces of other people’s mistakes – often deliberate ones and the results of failings from other government agencies. The police are becoming more open about processes and better at saying sorry. They also now feel that they have better backing from above when mistakes are made.

Interestingly, there is a widespread feeling that the police can’t be trusted to judge themselves – for example in complaints procedures – but, anecdotally, on conduct investigatory panels the police officers are always more critical of themselves than the lay members are.


Layers of policing have disappeared, villages no longer have officers patrolling as they did in the past and society is changing too. How do we get back to community policing and make people feel more confident?


We have to accept that there are changes and we are not likely to have as many police walking around neighbourhoods as they did in the past. There’s no magic wand to resolve this but we need to find new ways to engage with people that involve as much face to face contact as possible – and we need to move away from the idea that one size fits all. Above all, perhaps, we need to retain and build upon the ‘visible performance of police competence’.

Many officers don’t police in the area they live, and therefore the symbol of the local police officer does not exist anymore. The make-up of the Met has fundamentally changed.

Police engaging with people about things that matter to them and taking an interest in their problems will help build trust. An example of this is when universities were asked about extremist behaviours on campus. The students resented the ‘intrusion’. They questioned why the police felt they had resources to ask them about this, yet they weren’t interested when student belongings were stolen from dorms.

This highlights the need for visible community policing and neighbourhood investment so that the public feel the police force is there for them and not being visible when it suits them.


How can you convince officers that they have a role in community cohesion if they feel they have signed up to be crime fighters?


It’s a case of getting away from the ‘us and them’ perception, educating officers to look at themselves from the outside in and the need to build relationships with communities. Organisational justice has a role to play too. Police officers need to be supported in their ability to manage and talk to people. The way individuals are treated by their senior managers has an impact on the way they police.

If officers feel supported from above their confidence increases and they are more likely to make a positive impact on the other people they interact with.


How do body-worn cameras impact on trust and confidence in the police?


On the one hand, what’s not to like? Anything that increases the ‘visibility’ of policing is likely to bring positive dividends and help provide vital evidence. On the other hand this technology does not constitute a panacea. There are issues with the technology involved, for example, British Transport Police were wearing cameras that did not record the first 30 seconds of encounters, meaning that the crucial moments were not recorded. There are also questions about how best to store footage and how long it should be kept etc.

Further response:

There are other cameras which can very cleverly record the 30 seconds before an officer pushes a button – which can help provide vital evidence. The numbers of police assaults do increase when cameras are worn, probably because officers feel that they have the crucial proof necessary to proceed with an allegation and are less likely to let things go.

Another positive outcome is that some police officers have been honest enough to admit that when recording they are more conscious of their own behaviour. On the whole the public are in favour of recording and often feel that there is a conspiracy if an officer forgets to record.