An account of our 37th Annual Police Conference, by Cumberland Lodge Scholar, Mahmood Ali
‘Liberty and security are often in direct confrontation and must be balanced in a way that protects us, without destroying what is worth protecting.’ Charles B. Rangel
In its 71st year of stimulating critical thinking and multidisciplinary engagement to address society’s most pressing issues, Cumberland Lodge formed a fitting backdrop for a series of discussions around the relationship between our freedoms and security, particularly in the context of policing.
Spread over two days, this conference brought together thought-leaders from academia, politics, policing and beyond, to share their views on a variety of issues including domestic abuse, vigilantism, and counter-terrorism. With each presenter bringing with them a unique perspective on these topics, to my mind, the overall content of the conference could be distilled into three broad themes; social changes, technology, and relationships.
On the theme of social change, the gradual fragmentation of old communities and their replacement with transient populations was a key subject explored by many of the presenters. This, combined with the gradual erosion of community facilities, as well as a widening inter-generational gap was seen to be contributing to a sense of increased fear and fragility, often fuelled by media sensationalism, independent of the actual level of risk in society. One presenter in particular spoke of the gradual disempowering of informal adult authority and its link to teenage delinquency and rising antisocial behaviour. Drawing parallels to a time when communities were closely knit and strangers were easily identifiable, several presenters remarked on how anonymity was increasingly seen as a right and cities were often seen as the places to exercise that right.
Closely linked to the idea of anonymity are the technologies that make it possible to be anonymous online, and those that strip anonymity in the physical world. Several presenters spoke of the evolution of technology and the benefits and risks that this brings to the balance between our rights and freedoms, as well as questioning the need for separate legislation for online and offline crimes. One of the presenters introduced the concept of ‘datafication’, whereby digital tools are becoming increasingly integrated in our lives, with smart tools capturing data points and evaluating us as individuals to predict our future activity.
‘Data is the oil of the 21st century, and we are the pipes that carry it’
In contrast to the way that data analytics is currently being used as an evidence-base in almost all walks of life, several presenters argued that such data was socially constructed, and its usefulness in informing a decision was inherently linked to the nature of the question and who was asking it, as well as who was undertaking the analysis. Furthermore, the use of algorithms and machines in aiding decision-making is often seen as ‘objective’ and ‘fair’, but in reality, several presenters spoke at length about how such algorithms were unintentionally flawed to reflect social biases; far from being unbiased, algorithms usually act as amplifiers of societal prejudices. It was argued that there was a clear and pressing need to correctly estimate the strengths and weaknesses of technology in decision-making, whilst leveraging its use to better engage with communities, particularly young people. It was also noted that it is essential to ensure that the outputs of data analytics by artificial intelligence are filtered through the lens of human judgement.
The evolution of technology has also changed the nature of the threat from right-wing and Islamist terrorism. Where, in the past, radicalisation has occurred face-to-face and often employed physical paraphernalia that left a footprint to be investigated, the developments in communication technology have changed this dynamic. In a way analogous to the question on the need of separate legislation for online and offline crimes, it was argued that existing common-law legislation should be wielded to its fullest extent against the perpetrators of terrorism as:
‘terrorism does not deserve nor need a named way of bringing the criminal activity to justice.’
Terrorists have become increasingly independent lone agents and thus much more difficult to identify and track. It was recognised that in the face of such evolving threats, community engagement and interpersonal relationships are more important than ever to report, track, and catch would-be criminals.
Although technology appears to make risk assessment an equivalent to risk prediction, by the very nature of both the technology and the risk itself, this is not the case. Throughout the conference, various presenters reiterated the importance of recognising what technology can and cannot do, and that the importance of human judgment, though often understated, should never be underestimated.
In a memorable example to illustrate the above point, one of the presenters shared a story about a decision-making body in one regional area that had some unused expenditure at the end of the fiscal cycle. While those convinced of the value of relationship building in the community did their best to press for the investment in more Community Liaison Officers, the decision-makers ultimately decided to buy more armour:
‘not realising that it is not the armour that protects us, it’s the relationships that protect us all, and the only way to deal with threats is to get to know the person threatening you, because they too are probably scared.’
The above quote summed up the third theme from this conference. Revisited by a number of the presenters, either in the context of social changes or around technology and the human lens through which to view its outputs, the key point was the deep entrenchment of our security in the quality of the human relationships in our society, permeating all the way from family ties, through the community and into wider society.