On the fourth weekend of April 2018 around 60 delegates arrived at Cumberland Lodge for the 37th annual Police Conference, which this year looked at the intersection between public protection, risk and policing, and at how societal and individual freedoms can be upheld at a time of growing fears and anxieties. An impressive range of institutions were represented at the conference; from government department and charities, to police forces, several Police and Crime Commissioners, and academics. The breadth and variety of participants ensured that diverging opinions and perspectives were all heard, and the conference provided the ideal venue where stimulating and challenging conversations could be had.
System of Public Protection
At its most theoretical, the conference was essentially concerned with issues of risk and uncertainty, and speakers touched upon many relevant issues with regard to this. Looking at the recent development of the system of public protection in England and Wales, its scale, depth and reach are impressive; almost 77 thousand offenders are currently subject to Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA) in England and Wales, with an average annual increase of about 7% since 2007 (Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements Annual Report Ministry of Justice Statistics Bulletin 26 October 2017). Faced with these figures, it is fair to question whether the system is too inclusive, how effective it can really be, and to what extent it can legitimately say to keep people safe. Delegates at the conference dissected these claims one by one, and interesting connections were made between the quest of the authorities to reduce danger by way of risk assessment and risk management, the aspirational character of safety, and the mental health epidemic now disproportionately affecting young people across all social groups.
On a more practical level, the conference very clearly showed the complex challenges that authorities now have to face, and how practitioners routinely have to make difficult decisions to respond to them. In the course of a hands on session, delegates were presented with real life cases of safeguarding and tasked with making a decision – just as a police officer would do in their day to day job. The range of issues to take into account, the vulnerability of the people involved in these cases and the heavy, long lasting impact any decision would have on them, left many of the delegates with no direct involvement in police work speechless at the arduous decisions officers have to make day in and day out.
Proportionality and Appropriate Response
The need to develop responses finely attuned to the complexities of each situation is also something that resonated across the sessions dedicated to counter terrorism policy. Here, conversations often revolved around the issue of proportionality, and what an appropriate response to terrorist threats looks like. While other countries have decided to employ emergency legislation in response to recent attacks, and have given increasing powers to law enforcement and security agencies, delegates all agreed that the response of the United Kingdom has been less emotional, and more nuanced. As was mentioned several times in the course of the conference, after the attacks in Manchester and London the threat level was raised from severe to critical, but it was only kept there for a limited amount of time; 96 and 48 hours respectively. This cool headed approach to terrorism was also reflected in the consensus, evident across delegates, that we cannot prosecute our way of terrorism, and that rather than aiming to develop ever newer laws to deal with terrorism, we should strive to use effectively the good ones we already have.
Legislation and Technology
The role of legislation also resonated across the discussions revolving around the role of technology. Undoubtedly, technology can facilitate criminal behaviours in significant ways, from the sharing of child pornography to the planning of terrorist attacks. While there was a sense among delegates that technology can also be part of the solution, there was also a degree of uncertainty as to what this solution might look like, and who should be part of it. While some thought that tech companies should do more to curb illegal behaviour happening on and through their platforms, concerns were also raised that increased vigilance on the part of providers might result in people moving to the dark net, and becoming less visible and harder to intercept in the process. Another point of contention was the difficulty that the law has in keeping up with technological developments, and whether or not we should aim to legislate ad hoc every time a new technology is introduced. While an alternative argument was advanced for laws that are principle-based, rather than technology-oriented, both sides agreed that the lack of tech literacy among our policy makers remains a cause of great concern.
Solutions but with Limits
The conference was not just interested in problems, but in solutions too. While it may sound obvious that complex, multi-faceted problems require joint working on the part of a number of different agencies, the challenges of partnership working were mentioned more than once in the course of the weekend. While the legislation to allow the sharing of data exists, the actual practice remains a point of concerns for agencies working in public protection, and difficulties in circulating information in a timely manner can have wide ranging consequences for the public. At the same time, austerity and police cuts also emerged as complicating factors, and while some were cautiously optimistic on the possibility of using technology to counter these pressures, it was not clear if, and to what extent, technology could be successfully employed to fill the ever widening gap between available resources and public expectations. As all delegates agreed at the end of a challenging and productive weekend, the unpalatable truth is that the management and containment of all risks is an illusion, and the time cannot come soon enough for the police and the public to come together and discuss openly and frankly what can, and cannot, be done, and why. The experience of the Police conference shows that these conversations can take place, and profitably so.