When was the last time you saw a police officer on horseback in your neighbourhood? Indeed, when was the last time you had a pleasant chat with a police officer at all? And why does that matter anyway?

In the latest instalment of the Centre for Criminology’s All Souls Series, entitled ‘Experiments in Public Confidence and Police Legitimacy’, Dr Ben Bradford introduced us to his latest quantitative work investigating police visibility and public trust and confidence, based on two experiments conducted in England and Wales and Scotland respectively. Under the guise of the methodological though, what I think Dr Bradford really encouraged us to do was to cast our minds to the streets of Britain, to think about how policing in our neighbourhoods is ‘done’ and when we might trust in those that are doing the policing. It is to this point which I will return.

The first of the experiments- part of a larger project on the value of police on horseback- was investigating the link between police visibility and trust in the police: what effect would mounted police patrols (thought to be a highly visible form of policing) in neighbourhoods have on public trust in the police?

To measure the impact of the visibility of mounted patrols, a quasi-experiment was conducted across six geographical sties in England (quasi because the sample was not randomized). These areas were grouped in pairs based on geography, as well as characteristics such as crime and poverty. One in each pair was the test site, and received a ‘dose’ of mounted patrols over a month, whilst in the other control site non-mounted patrols continued as normal. This was also supplemented with structured social observations by research teams following the patrols, which proved important in explaining aspects of the finings. Before and after the experiment just over 1,000 residents in each of these areas were surveyed.

Mounted Police in London; Creadit: Richard Martin 

Overall, the findings revealed that mounted police patrols are associated with higher levels of visibility, trust and confidence in the police. Unpacking the results further, it was found that: 1) People notice mounted patrols (those in the test areas reporting that they had seen mounted patrols rising from 15% to 43%) 2) Mounted police is associated with higher levels of trust and confidence in the police 3) Whilst mounted patrols had no effect on trust in police effectiveness, they had a ‘buffering’ effect (the respective figures fell less in the test sites) on wider decreases in trust in police community engagement and overall confidence- on this point it is worth noting that mounted patrols generated more than 6 times as many engagements with officers than foot patrols.
 
If this was an example of a successful experiment- in the sense that its internal construction held form and the hypotheses were proven- Dr Bradford’s second experiment, as he acknowledged, was less straightforward. Sticking with the investigation of public trust and confidence in the police, this project moved away from the role of visibility and towards the impact of police officer’s behaviour in everyday interactions with the public on perceptions of the police. The experiment was a randomized control trial (RCT)- something still quite novel for this particular area of police research-which sought to replicate a similar RCT in Queensland, Australia by Mastrofski et al in 2013.
 
The research was carefully integrated into Scotland’s ‘National Festive Road Safety Campaign’. Drivers stopped by the police received different treatment depending on whether they were part of the control group, getting the business as usual service, or the test group, receiving a leaflet and a script delivered by officers, which was designed by the researchers to deliberately reinforce particular values, including respect, equality and dignity. The results of the experiment have proven to be a bit of curiosity for the researchers: despite officer’s espousing these values- which on the face of it, and in light of numerous research thus far, one would expect to improve public opinion- in the test sites driver’s perceptions of the officers doing the stop, as well as satisfaction with the stop itself, diminished relative to the control sites.
 
Immediate methodological questions arise across both experiments: In the case of the former, how long does the ‘buffering effect’ last? Did the impact come from the horse or the rider, or a hard-to-distinguish blend of both? In the latter experiment, was business as usual in control sites already enough to sustain high levels of public trust in the police? Did the police accurately deliver the script in manner requested by the researchers?
 
Aside from the puzzle of constructing social experiments though, and returning to my initial suggestion, what I really think is leading us through Dr Bradford’s seminar is the issue of how policing in Britain is done, and the premise that this rests upon.
 
No doubt much has changed in how policing is conducted since the creation of a modern police force- the services we see nowadays are heavily professionalised, specialised and managed, the products of much re-moulding and re-casting over the last century by local and national events, political agendas and ongoing advances in technology. The modern details of officers- armed with body-worn cameras, positioned behind computers- themselves equipped with the latest crime mapping software, governed by targets and corporate policies- would seem to clash with the romantic image of Dickson of Dock Green, the police officer on the beat, with the people and for the people; a citizen in uniform, no different from your neighbour.
 
Yet I suspect it is this idea of policing by consent, and even this idealised image, that provides some premise for British police organisations’ concern for, and the academy’s interest in, issues of public trust and confidence in the police today. The recognition of its continued salience finds its form in recent concern by politicians and police to measure, and then improve, public confidence in the police. Similarly, over the last two decades academics have engaged in more concerted efforts to construct such measures and to better-understand the public-police relationship, resulting in a large corpus of empirical work, collected under the theme of police legitimacy.
 
It is against this backdrop of changing police practices and the determination to measure and improve public opinion, but still charged by this historical notion of policing by consent and image of neighbourhood policing, that we should position the two research experiments and their findings discussed by Dr Bradford.
 
As demonstrated by the first experiment, and drawn out in the discussions that followed the seminar, for many of us- but certainly not all- seeing police officers in our area, on patrol, is a good thing- a reassuring sight. Further, to see them on horses- something we haven’t used as a primary means of transport for almost a century- isn’t archaic or inefficient, but rather an invite that lures us in to speak to the officer on top. Perhaps arousing a sense of nostalgia, a fondness for the animal, or maybe even an empowering symbol of authority harking back to victorious leaders (monuments of whom still decorate city streets) police on horses are generally welcomed on our streets.

Mounted Police in Oxford; Credit: Richard Martin

So too does the ‘how’ of policing in the neighbourhood setting underlie the thinking behind the second, Scottish experiment. Central to the intervention in the test area, but I suspect already heavily at work in the control area, is the idea of ‘procedural justice’- that we wish to be treated with respect and dignity in our everyday, mundane encounters by the police. This matter’s because, with time- and linking back to Dickson of Dock Green, the police have become a social group which represents a positive image on society/nation/state. As gatekeepers of this group, the ‘how’ of police work is central. Police officer’s treatment of the public in these interactions- the way they talk to us, their choice of words, their demeanour - lets us know whether we are valued groups members or merely rejected outsiders; whether we’re in or out. Admittedly, in this particular experiment, it may well be that for the public eager to get to their destination around Christmas time, and frustrated by a bureaucraticized road stop procedure, the insider/outsider signals of officer’s were read less eagerly.
 
With the shrinking of mounted units in the UK and the scarcity of first-hand police-pubic interactions, it is unlikely most of us will see police on horseback or have a friendly chat with police officers. Yet the how of policing matters continues to matter. For those that do have such encounters, or even vicarious experiences, it impacts on our perceptions of the police, a powerful authority which rightly requires a valid claim to legitimacy in seeking the public support which enables it to function most effectively. So too does the ‘how’ reflect the collective values of police officers - those that ought to be no different to our neighbours.