Redesigning the contribution of police to public safety

  • Guest Feature
  • Law
  • Living standards and Levelling up

Professor Adam Crawford, University of York & University of Leeds 

In this piece, Professor Adam Crawford, University of York and University of Leeds, discusses the need for a re-evaluation and redesigning, based on social science evidence, of the contribution of the police and partner services to public safety.

Police are increasingly called upon to manage a host of social problems and vulnerable people, often filling gaps left by the withdrawal of other public and third sector services. Yet, there remains a distinct lack of critical assessment of what problems the police are expected to solve and whether they are the most appropriate agency to solve them. Contemporary politics has seen an expansion of police authority against a background of serious erosion in trust and confidence prompted by a series of scandals disclosing institutional racism, sexism, homophobia and corruption within the British police. Informed by recent debates about the appropriate limits of police involvement in response to mental health-related problems, this guest feature demonstrates the need for a re-evaluation and redesigning, based on social science evidence, of the contribution of the police and partner services to public safety and support for vulnerable people. Social science research suggests the following:

  • An urgent need to redesign a whole-system approach that harnesses the roles of diverse public, private and voluntary organisations and clarifies the role of the police.
  • An ethical commitment to providing appropriate care by individuals possessing the skills, training and competencies to best address the needs of vulnerable populations.
  • A need for a major review of the coordination and governance framework and funding of public safety focused on harm prevention.

Police serve as a ‘spill-over’ institution, intervening in crises where other institutions falter. Much of the police’s mandate is shaped by the limitations of other organisational practices, affording police a distinctive perspective and experience of system failings and positioning them as the guardians of institutional breakdown. Their unique contribution often lies in their authority to enforce solutions in urgent situations. In Bittner’s terms, police routinely intervene in situations where ‘something-that-ought-not-to-be-happening-and-about-which-someone-had-better-do-something-now!’ What unites most of the incidents to which the police are routinely summoned is that they might benefit from the presence of an officer with legal authority legitimately to impose a solution as a recourse of last resort. Good policing, as Neyroud and Beckley assert, however, involves minimal intrusion and carefully controlled use of force.

Our deliberative focus groups and national survey findings highlight that there is considerable social consensus on what service police should provide and on the minimum standards to which police should adhere. People take a very process-based approach to questions about ‘what the police are for’. They are less exercised about the outcomes police might achieve than the processes through which policing is conducted. People feel very strongly that, as a desired minimum, police should be responsive, fair and respectful, as well as engaged and ‘present’. The public are clear on the distinctive need for police as a service to respond effectively in moments of danger, risk and uncertainty. As such, the public are instinctive Bittnerians, seeing the police as the organisation that can rapidly respond to incidents and deploy appropriate force where necessary to provide proximate solutions.

Yet within British political debate, these foundational aspects of police work are inclined to be ignored. Rather, there is a tendency to conflate policing as a process and public good with the police as a particular public service. This places police, inappropriately sometimes, centre stage. While police are called on to manage social order, they do not create it. Additionally, our dominant conception of policing tends to conflate the police with crime control. This blinds us to the fact that the levers that might reduce harm and crime lie far from the reach of the police. Much of what the police actually do is not about crime – estimates suggest that up to 80% of calls for service are non-crime related. Exacerbating this, police effectiveness is measured in narrow crime terms that fail to attend to the role police play in maintaining social order. Consequently, our conception of what the police should do differs radically from what they actually do and obscures what they could do to enrich the quality of public safety in collaboration with others.

The National Partnership Agreement signed in July 2023 in relation to police involvement in mental health incidents has brought into sharp focus both the urgent need for systemic reform and the challenges that attend to delimiting the police role. This ‘Right Care Right Person’ (RCRP) approach sets the parameters for a police response to a mental health-related incident: to investigate a crime that has occurred or is occurring or to protect people when there is a real and immediate risk of death or serious harm. Informed by an earlier local arrangement in Humberside dating back to 2019, the National Partnership Agreement was struck against a background of explicit and well-publicised threats by some senior police officers – including the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Mark Rowley – to withdraw altogether from attending mental health-related emergency calls. Announcing the Agreement, the National Police Chiefs’ Council proclaimed: ‘1 million officer hours saved with new approach to mental health’. In late 2023, the Health and Social Care Select Committee highlighted the ‘total lack of evaluation in terms of health outcomes or services’ and called for robust monitoring and evaluation to be put in place ‘to ensure patient safety, consistency and that people don’t fall through the cracks’. Given the pace and unevenness of the national implementation considerable concerns have been raised about resource allocation and coordination, the welfare of those in mental health crises, the failure by the police to attend when required and the scale of transferred mental health-related demand. Not only was there little evaluation of the impact of the Humberside pilot on health services but additionally the Home Office evaluation of the national rollout has only focused on police-related impacts, other wider implications have been left to the Department for Health and Social Care and local healthcare trusts to monitor.

At the heart of RCRP is a fundamental ethic which undoubtedly should inform public safety, namely that a redesigned system should ‘ensure that people of all ages, who have health and/or social care needs, are responded to by the right person, with the right skills, training and experience to best meet their needs’. This ethos might equally apply across a wide range of areas of work where the police are drawn into to dealing with, managing and responding to vulnerable people in need of care, support or protection rather than criminalisation and control. Whilst, the RCRP initiative highlights the value of a place-based and problem-oriented partnership, it warns against the dangers of structuring inter-organisational dialogue and relations around the unilateral demands or requirements of a particular, powerful agency – in this instance the police – with less regard to the interests and impacts on all partners and the wellbeing of the vulnerable groups themselves. A preferable premise would be to decentre the police from such deliberations, as a starting point, and rather to centre on the nature of the harm problem in response to which the resources, knowledge and capacity of a diversity of actors (state and non-state) might best be harnessed. Ensuring the voices and lived experiences of those vulnerable groups that are the subjects of interventions are listened to and acted upon would then afford opportunities to restructure public services in ways that construct citizens not as passive consumers but rather as active co-producers of services.

To break the cycle of reactive policing and increasing demand, a shift towards holistic prevention strategies is necessary. Instead of burdening the police with additional social problems, we must assess what contribution the police can make – given their limited capabilities, skills and resources – in helping resolve harm-related problems and whether others might be better placed to solve them. This entails fostering partnerships that prioritise the needs of vulnerable groups and provide timely access to appropriate care and protection. The challenge for public safety and policing is not simply to manage need but also to create capability and foster genuine problem-oriented partnerships that address the needs of vulnerable groups through the right care and protection at the right time, from the right people and services.

This guest feature develops upon ideas published in an article for The Political Quarterly.

About the author

Adam Crawford is Professor of Criminology & Criminal Justice and the co-Director of the ESRC Vulnerability and Policing Futures Research Centre at the Universities of York and Leeds. He is a member of the new Police Science Council, which provides independent advice to the National Police Chiefs’ Council in the UK on science, technology, analysis and research matters relevant to policing policy and operations. Adam was the founding Director of the N8 Policing Research Partnership (2013-2020), a collaboration between the eight research-intensive universities in the north of England (including York) and 12 northern police forces and partners.


Image credit: James Eades, Unsplash