FEATURE3 July 2009

Smarter policing through social science


As head of the Strategic Research & Analysis Unit in the Metropolitan Police, Professor Betsy Stanko leads the organisation in its mission to make the best use of social science in support of organisational policy development – and the direction of policing in London.


What does your work involve?

Public confidence in policing is now the overarching statutory performance indicator for police in England and Wales. Research tells us that people who have contact with the police have less confidence in them than those who don’t. That’s a real dilemma – without confidence in policing you can’t promote law-abiding behaviour. 

My unit, which is around 20-strong, is concerned with strategy development and research, both qualitative and quantitative. In house we have a survey involving interviews with 20,000-plus residents of London on how they feel about policing. It’s second only to the British Crime Survey in size, and has led cutting-edge analysis which allows the 32 London boroughs to think about how they are delivering confidence – what does it mean to local residents and how can it be improved? We also conduct a survey of about 18,000 victims of crime that has a similar kind of function. So both surveys are about how people’s voices are used to improve public services.

How would you describe your approach?

Over the last 15 years I have become an expert in using information that institutions hold but don’t use in a way that enables them to think differently. For example, in the Met one of the things we look at concerns who reports crime and how they differ from the population at large. If there is a concentration of need for police help, it may be important to think differently about exactly what it is people are asking for. You also need to think about harm differently. Is it the result of a lot of things happening in one place, or because very bad things happen to a few people?

How does that depart from conventional thinking?

The conventional thinking is that each crime is treated separately – there are events, and police are deployed.  There are some specialisations but, by and large, the information that the Met holds may give an account of how many crimes happen, but it doesn’t necessarily portray them in a contextual, story-telling way that enables an approach to partnership working to be sparked differently.  For example, you can take information about who calls you for help with domestic violence to a domestic violence forum and the partners around that table might say, “That’s interesting, because people who call us are not the same as on your records.” That’s when you start to get a more complete record about need. If you are committed to ensuring that you offer policing to the widest audience possible, that may require you to find a way to make your services accessible to certain populations through, say, a voluntary organisation connection.

If you’re going to try to deliver the best protection for Londoners, you need to create a whole system. The encouraging thing is that we’ve got our information inside policing to a much better-attuned level than existed five years ago.

What kinds of evidence does the Met tend to find compelling?

The culture is one that looks at numbers, but if you can get a handle on the narrative you can think differently about how you prevent something. One of our successes has been around youth crime. The Met deployed officers and special constables to be ‘street-present’ at the end of the school day, and to be in particular places such as transport hubs. It’s important to understand the phenomena. You can look at a clump of dots on a map, but you need to know what they mean. If it’s a particular population you want to affect – or you want to disrupt robberies – then you need to think about deployment in particular places at particular times. In thinking about reducing robbery of schoolchildren as well as trying to reduce knife crime – put them together and you get a bigger hit, as with Operation Blunt.

While an operation like that is ongoing the unit can present information back to the commander in such a way that they see the narrative of the problem and so develop potential disruptive tactics. As a commander you can then be more efficient about your resources and about what you ask your officers to do. Rather than just go out on the street, you can have them on this street at a particular time for a particular purpose. Your policing can be smarter.

Do you need to give a particular kind of thought to the kinds of information you seek and how you present it?

Absolutely. We’re bringing a criminological perspective into an organisation that, perhaps strangely, doesn’t always use such evidence to consider its tactical options.

Because police officers work in such a way that they have accumulated certain kinds of ideas about what works through their job, they haven’t always challenged that through information. I’ve brought in ways of taking a more systematic look at crime and public opinion, so that it helps promote a better way of serving the people of London.

Is there something in the sensibility of individual officers that you can inform?

Part of what we do is to help commanding officers get a handle on the texture of what they are facing.  For example, the Met is now rethinking its approach to serious sexual assault informed by work we did a couple of years ago. This demonstrated that allegations of rape in London are overwhelmingly from a more vulnerable section of the city’s population – not because of who they are demographically, but because a large number are alcohol- or drug-related incidents, and there is a small but significant proportion of people who have mental health problems.

So we talk about ‘risk clusters’ – a way of thinking about responding to rape and sexual assault that is distinct from assuming that it is a ‘lightning strike’. What I’m suggesting is that the victims are telling us they were targeted by the offenders, which suggests a very different approach to investigation. 

Is it easy to get traction for social research perspectives?

Some of the things we’ve been demonstrating and arguing over time have created a conversation that is now fairly robust – about improvement, transparency and communicating with the public, and lots of things that we are beginning to publish externally but promote internally. 

Part of my approach is that the work I promote on the inside ought to be academically proofed on the outside. Over the course of my academic career I’ve learned to have conversations with other academics as well as with policy-makers. These tend to be different conversations, but if I feel that I have confidence in the findings and the direction of the work, then that is what I use to argue for it internally.

There are people in the Met who are extremely supportive and are willing to move out of their comfort zones to listen to the kinds of evidence that we put forward. Other people are less comfortable doing so. Sometimes it is extremely hard to get traction, and then there are other times when the door opens and I fall on the inside.

Is this reality peculiar to policing?

Not really. Change is sometimes slow within institutions, and this is consistent with my experience in Whitehall.  At the top policy level there is a lot of turnover of people, and to me the evidence base, and the external siting of the evidence, is especially important because it allows the conversation to survive such changes.

There’s a whole new institutional structural change on the way. Partnership working is becoming both financially and geographically based. We’re going to have 32 different partnership arrangements for London, but we’ve got just one police service. It’s going to be a huge challenge. We have very different historical and demographic profiles in 32 different places. Our unit is tiny, but the organisation is huge and the conversations are at a high level. We’re trying to change a very, very big beast.