Blue Line

Earning public trust – and Tasmanian zip-lining

March 27, 2013  By

There is nothing like travel to get you thinking. Travel advocates (and salespeople) argue that it opens your eyes and expands your mind. I just got off a cruise ship and found that it mostly opened my wallet and expanded my waist.

The experience did remind me that we can always benefit from exposure to a variety of perspectives and experiences that go past the end of our own noses. In that spirit, I am dedicating this column to “stuff we can learn from police in other places” – and am unilaterally deciding that the USA is not (in this context) an “other” place. We already spend too much time looking at what the Americans are doing.

Let’s look at OTHER other places – like Russia, Tasmania and England and Wales. The three articles I’m mentioning all deal, in one way or another, with issues related to public trust and confidence – highly relevant here in Canada. I think people will readily accept the notion that one of the most important measures of a police organization’s effectiveness is the level of public confidence it enjoys. Here are some snapshots of bits of research I found from these three quite different countries.

  • Coping with the failure of the police in post-Soviet Russia: findings from one empirical study (by Margarita Zernova, published in Police Practice and Research. 13(6), December, 2012)

The collapse of virtually anything associated with previous state institutions, along with an award winning combination of low pay, high turnover, poor accountability, inadequate training and inadequate funding – and no traditional respect for human rights – led almost inevitably to an increase in organized crime, pervasive corruption and general lawlessness in Russia. The statistics quoted about the amount of crime involving the police (or “militsiya,” as they are now known) are enough to rot your socks.

As you might guess, the relationships between the man (or woman) on the street and the militsiyamen is not exactly rosy. Many people do not trust the police and so will not report crime – and those who do report it have no expectation of a positive outcome. There is also a significant fear of crime. Interestingly, this is partly because the crime rate has gone up in recent years – but also because under Soviet rule, no one ever heard about crime. Even if things were not better before, everyone thinks it was. As we all know, there is nothing like a free press to make us all painfully aware of crime!

Overall, this paper is an investigation into the ways people cope when the police are both ineffective and corrupt. On the surface, it is hard to see any links between the situation there and here but there are a few vaguely disturbing undercurrents that do give one pause – like how police behaviour and effectiveness is intertwined with the broader role and institutions of government (e.g. if you don’t much like the government and see police as an extension of it – or worse yet, if the police really ARE an extension of government….) Of course here in Canada we never run into situations where the government interferes or dictates policing, do we???

People do take things into their own hands when they perceive they have to. The strategies Russians use are not dissimilar to those used by people in some Canadian subcommunities who do not trust or have confidence in the police. If nothing else, this study brings home the incredible importance of working on those community connections – no matter what an uphill battle it may seem at times.

  • Complaint reduction in the Tasmanian Police (by Louise Porter and colleagues, in Policing and Society: An International Journal of Research and Policy, 22 (4), December 2012.)

I have included a reference to this particular article partly because it gives me the opportunity to mention that I went zip-lining in Tasmania last year. It’s a great line to drop into conversation so I try to never miss an opportunity. Also, articles about complaints are always of interest because (as the article notes), “a prominent characteristic of policing is that it attracts large numbers of complaints.” This is apparently true even if you are not in post Soviet Russia.

You can argue that the number of complaints does not really reflect the quality of a police service and there is even evidence suggesting that the better your complaint system, the more complaints you will get. These factors might lead you to believe (correctly) that reducing the number of complaints is not a straightforward matter.

The Tasmanian Police service has some 1,260 officers to police the country’s half a million people – but the authors point out that, since everyone knows everyone, in some ways this smallness can actually increase the likelihood someone will make a complaint. However, the service has been able to reduce the number of complaints significantly in the last few years. How?

The article focuses on early intervention and early warning systems and talks about focusing training for new recruits and making sure to cover off in more depth the kinds of things likely to lead to complaints. The service has increased ethics training and, as a whole, systematically examined the patterns of complaints so it can identify both the high probability officers and the high probability situations – and attempt to intervene before the next complaint comes. Interestingly, they also talk about how to use the time freed up by having to process fewer complaints, which allows them to deal with complaints more quickly and effectively and focus on prevention. A very useful circle!

  • Can police enhance public confidence by improving quality of service? Results from two surveys in England and Wales (by Andy Myhill and Ben Bradford, in Policing and Society: an International Journal of Research and Policy, 22 (4), December, 2012).

While improving trust and confidence in policing is near the top of most everyone’s agenda, there is less agreement about how to achieve this. It seems much easier to sully a police service’s reputation than it is to improve it. There is a lopsided relationship between what people expect and what they conclude in their interactions with police. People with negative preconceptions of police are likely to evaluate subsequent interactions as being negative – but positive pre-existing views do not necessarily predict positive evaluations. Bummer; it is easy to make things worse but hard to make them better.

The article provides a nice overview of a whole bunch of research in the area – but the take home message really is that the key to increasing satisfaction is not necessarily solving crimes or even responding at the speed of light. The key seems to be the process-oriented variables. In other words, people really responded to how they were treated by police. Did they feel like they were heard? Were police respectful? Did they provide information about what was going to happen? Did they follow up and keep in touch? Did they actually seem to care?

Sure, people like you to solve the crimes and catch the bad guys but the process seems as important as the outcome. The authors also talk about the inherent difficulties involved in shifting the focus of police training from technical expertise to “soft skills.” They concluded that overall, what people really want is a police service that treats them with fairness, dignity and respect. Not exactly rocket science I guess – but worth remembering. If you are not convinced, I refer you back to the first article about policing in Russia.

All three articles point to the common problem of building trust between the public and police – and at the same time highlight different aspects of the solution – the need for trust in the government at the highest level, the mid-level need for good internal process and oversight and the critical role of the individual officer on the street.

The fact that Canadians generally enjoy good relationships with their police services points to areas of success at all three of these levels – but the fact not all Canadians have good relationships with the police all the time also points to the need for continuous improvement.

Good to know it is not just us facing these challenges – and by the way, did I mention I went zip-lining in Tasmania last year?

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