Written by Dr Liz Turner, University of Liverpool
The University of Liverpool is responsible for the public engagement activity strand of the N8 Policing Research Partnership’s Catalyst Project. A key objective for this activity strand is to create new knowledge about public perspectives on how university research can and should inform policing.
Earlier this year, as part of this activity strand’s work, an online survey of 1072 adults living in the North of England was carried out to capture their views on police and universities working together. Respondents were asked to indicate the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with a number of statements. The data indicate strong public support for independent research on the police but also reveal some public uncertainty about the extent to which universities can help to improve policing. More than 40% of respondents indicated that they either disagreed or did not know whether universities produce knowledge that can be used to improve policing. On the other hand there was clear support from some for police and universities working together to make policing more effective. However, it is worth noting that only 41% agreed that police should be able to set research priorities for universities.
Initial analysis suggests that gender, age and educational background all affect respondents’ views on the relationship between police and universities. Women were more likely than men to agree that the police know best and less likely to agree that universities can produce knowledge to improve policing. However, it was not that women were less likely to explicitly disagree with these statements, but rather that they were more likely to say they did not know. It seems, then, that women are less certain about the contribution universities might make to improving policing. Respondents in the 18-24 age bracket were less likely to agree that the police know better than anyone how best to do their job, but also less likely to agree that independent research on the police is essential in a democratic society. Under 45s were more likely to agree that universities can produce knowledge to improve policing (but this is likely associated with the fact that they are much more likely to have attended university). Unsurprisingly, respondents whose highest qualification was at least a teaching or nursing qualification or university diploma were much more likely to agree that universities can produce knowledge to improve policing and that police and university researchers should work together to make policing more effective. Those with this level of qualification were also less likely to answer ‘don’t know’ to any of the questions. However, all of these factors are likely to interact with one another, and with trust and confidence. As such, further multivariate analysis will be necessary to untangle the relationships between these variables.
All respondents were asked whether they trusted the police in their area to treat people fairly, and whether they thought the police in their area were doing a good job. 78% of respondents indicated that they trusted the police in their area ‘a lot’ or ‘a fair amount’ to treat people fairly. 50% indicated that they thought the police in their area were doing a ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ job. There were some significant differences between those respondents expressing trust and confidence in the police and those expressing a lack of trust or confidence when it came to expressing a view on the role of police and universities in improving policing. Respondents who indicated that they trusted the police ‘a lot’ or ‘a fair amount’ to treat people fairly, or who thought their local police were doing a ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ job were significantly more likely to agree that ‘the police know best how to do their job’. And those respondents who indicated that they trusted their local police ‘not very much’ or ‘not at all’ to treat people fairly, or who thought they were doing a ‘fair’, ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ job were significantly more likely to disagree that ‘the police should be able to help set research priorities for universities’. Interestingly, trust and confidence made little difference to whether respondents agreed that universities produce knowledge that can improve policing, police and university researchers should work together, and independent research on the police is essential in a democratic society. The last of these is particularly interesting as it indicates high support for independent research on police even amongst those members of the public who trust the police to be fair and believe they are doing a good job.
Overall the data suggest that whilst a significant proportion of the public are open to the idea that universities might be able to help improve policing, many are uncertain about the role that universities can and should play in improving policing. There is also some scepticism about the level of influence police should have over the research that does take place. This is particularly true amongst groups who lack trust and confidence in the police. Furthermore, regardless of their level of trust and confidence in police, the majority of people think that independent research on the police is essential in a democratic society.
The findings from this small study suggest that the public are generally supportive of initiatives like the N8 Policing Research Partnership, but that some people are uncertain about whether universities really can help the police to improve the way they work. It also seems that for initiatives such as the N8 PRP to be seen as legitimate in the eyes of the public, particularly amongst groups who lack trust and confidence in police, it is important that university researchers maintain their independence from the police. If partnerships between universities and police are perceived as being police-dominated there is a risk that researchers, and the work they undertake, could lose credibility in the eyes of the public.
Following on from this small-scale study, a further piece of research has been carried out over the summer. This has involved carrying out face-to-face interviews with over 2000 people at 22 locations across the North of England (2 locations in each of the 11 force areas involved in the N8 PRP). This research will help to pinpoint key issues which matter to the public in the North of England where they think that universities may be able to contribute to helping the police to be more effective. Analysis of the findings from this second study will be available later in 2017.
Liz Turner, University of Liverpool