Written by
Lorna Hardy

Over two days a wide range of eminent figures in policing and crime, including academics, government officials, policy-makers and journalists came together to answer two key questions:

1) Is Britain as divided a society as the media portrays? More specifically, are subsections of our society irreconcilably opposed on the basis of their attitudes, values or beliefs?

2) What challenges does policing face in this divisive environment? 

A key thread running through the conference was the idea of policing by consent. Policing by consent is a fundamental principle of British policing, introduced in 1829. When policing by consent, police power ‘derive[s] not from fear but almost exclusively from public co-operation with the police’. This can be promoted by police behaviour which ‘secures and maintains for them the approval, respect and affection of the public’ (Reith, 1956). Crucially, the power of police is only with the consent of the public.

We were introduced to the concept of policing by consent with reference to The Troubles in Northern Ireland: a situation in which the consent required for effective policing had been largely absent. This led to hostility towards and distrust of the police, and an overall sense of ‘strangers policing strangers’ rather than of a shared community of which police formed a necessary part. A key lesson was that the police should strive to connect with the community they serve and represent them: as the public changes, so should the police. Indeed, this idea echoes a quote by Sir Robert Peel repeated by a number of speakers over the two days: ‘the police are the public and the public are the police’.

But can we say that the police truly are the public?

This proved a crucial question in the conference. We learnt that, while some communities are composed of around 30% black and minority ethnic (BME) individuals, the police they are served by may be composed of only around 10%. This discrepancy between community and police composition is reflected in differential trust of the police: while around a third of the general population express distrust of the police, this proportion is significantly higher in BME individuals. It is important to note that this effect is not limited to ethnicity – individuals who experience economic disadvantage are also more likely to feel distrust of a force who, they may feel, does not represent them.

This brings us back to our initial definition of policing by consent, and the challenges that the police may face in receiving cooperation, or indeed approval, respect or affection, from communities who do not trust them. But what can be done to tackle this problem? A common solution amongst speakers encouraged a more community-based model of policing. Police Community Support Officers can have a critical role as a familiar presence, and form productive links with businesses and local groups, allowing them to work from within the community rather than from outside it. Evidently this approach needs to run alongside current initiatives to enhance the diversity of the force if the police are truly to represent the public.

Policing by consent arose in more concrete terms when speakers discussed interventions such as Prevent – the counter terrorism strategy which aims to prevent radicalisation of individuals into extreme ideologies. In practice this intervention largely addresses extreme Islamic ideologies. Given that a number of both Muslim and non-Muslim communities and academic circles have spoken out against this intervention, is it fair to say that the police have the consent of the public to undertake it?

There seemed to be a divide in opinion amongst delegates and speakers as to whether Prevent was a necessary program to ensure public safety, or an unwanted intervention acting to undermine the very cooperation it was meant to encourage. This division highlights the difficulty of policing by consent within a society itself divided in opinion. 

Ultimately, we can conclude that successful policing can only occur with the cooperation and approval of the public, an entity which will inevitably comprise conflicting values, attitudes and beliefs. The challenges of policing in this arena seem unlikely to disappear, and require careful consideration of the sort shown in this conference.


Reith, Charles. "A new study of police history." (1956): 624-626.

Further information about the conference is available here.

Resource Type
Published Date
23 May, 2016