In 1961, a man named Clarence Kelley retired from the FBI and soon after took up the job of leading the Kansas City Police Department. He joined the department at a tricky time. Crime had started to tick upwards across the United States, and as the decade progressed, Kansas and other police forces had to respond accordingly: with more police and more patrols, particular vehicle patrols.
In 1972, however, once he had firmly established his reputation and relationships in the city of his birth, Kelley went out on a limb and made a confession. As he put it, “Many of us in the department had the feeling we were training, equipping, and deploying men to do a job neither we, nor anyone else, knew very much about”. Working with the independent research body the Police Foundation, Kelley decided to do something about this, embarking on one of the boldest experiments in criminal justice history. Over the course of a year, researchers tracked what happened when he entirely eliminated vehicle patrols from 5 districts, doubled them in five other districts, and left them the same in the remaining five areas.
Researchers were tasked with closely tracking what was happening to crime – and they introduced surveys of residents to augment the data recorded by the police. This data was intended to allow Kelley to reintroduce patrols if neglected areas collapsed into chaos. But, for two reasons, he never had to. First, Kelley had been poached to be the new FBI Director after J. Edgar Hoover’s precipitous fall from grace in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Kelley was replaced by Joseph McNamara, who agreed to carry on the experiment. Second, crime did not soar. In fact, the results were startling in their lack of drama. In the areas with double patrols, the areas with no patrols and those with stable patrols, crime trends were broadly the same. Vehicle patrols were not making the difference to crime rates most had hoped.
The easy conclusion to draw was that the police weren’t making a difference to crime. But in fact they do – as the wider experiments I share in my book Criminal reveal. What the experiment showed, however , was that this particular mode of police activity – random vehicle patrols – was grossly ineffective. The results of the experiment were both helped to encourage police departments in the US and internationally to gradually start following their own mantra: ‘Sir, madam. Get out of the vehicle’. And though it took several decades, the trial encouraged police to become more embedded in communities and more focused on targeted patrolling of specific crime hotspots.
The style of leadership exhibited by Kelley and McNamara is one that is open about the limits of our knowledge about ‘what works’; willing to experiment and take risks; eager to collaborate with those outside policing; and not in thrall to conventional wisdom. It is a style that recognises that success has many parents: McNamara and Kelley share the credit for the success with the Police Foundation, and the officers involved who are credited properly in the chiefs’ writing about the case. And it is a style that is much needed in the rapidly changing world of modern policing. UK police officers face a changing crime environment and ongoing pressure to be the service of last resort, responding to citizens demands for help when other public services are unable or unwilling to respond to issues such as mental health emergencies.
We, of course, already see these leadership styles in pockets at all levels of policing in the UK and internationally. The ground-breaking work Northumbria are doing, testing what happens to satisfaction levels and crime when some crimes (including car crime) are dealt with remotely via phone rather than by in-person visits is a fantastic example. But there are also harder to see examples of leadership: when team leaders credit junior officers for their inventiveness and hard work; when officers team up with local door staff to manage problem drinking; when conversations are opened up with industry about how to improve mobile phone security, for example.
Yet in truth, this kind of leadership is still too rare. There are, of course, many reasons for this but perhaps the biggest is the fact that policing approaches are heavily influenced by the political environment. The political culture of most democracies, and particularly the UK’s adversarial system, does not give much encouragement to would-be Clarence Kelley’s. It is a brave politician who admits they don’t know exactly how to tackle a particular problem, and who confesses that solutions are often best found through local experimentation, not top-down policy change. Risk is hardly encouraged when the focus of political debate is on who should get the blame rather than learning from successes and disappointments. And reduced budgets combine with an ongoing focus on police officer numbers to limit the resources available to invest in innovation.
As important, political leaders – like dramatists and documentary producers – can find themselves falling into the trap of promoting stereotypical images of policing. They focus on particular aspects of police work, in particular the physical and most visible aspects of the job – rather than some of the preventative approaches that have had such a major impact on reducing crimes such as vehicle or metal theft, and alcohol related violence. They still do not do enough to recognise the social safety net function that the police provide, responding to mental health crises or dealing with social isolation and loneliness, and stifle debate about whether and how the police could be relieved of some of these duties. When did a Home Secretary last open a speech to the Police Federation with praise an officer doing fantastic problem-solving crime prevention or comforting a victim – rather than the usual praise for officers ‘putting their lives on the line’? Such signals about the skills and attributes that are valued are important.
Better police leadership requires a different type of political leadership. At a national level, this means pausing before announcing knee-jerk national responses to high profile cases. Locally, police and crime commissioners – who the Home Secretary challenged to lead reform across policing at this week’s APCC and NPCC Partnership Summit – must also pause before acting. The media often respect politicians who pause before responding and are judicious in their use of blame and praise – and do often see an announcement of trials or experiments as a perfectly valid response to a problem. Of course, responsible journalism would help political leaders by better informing the public of the complexities and realities of crime.
Of course, police leaders can still learn from Clarence Kelley and evolve their leadership styles, without help from their political colleagues. They can strengthen their hand in debates about resources by building the evidence base regarding the difference various police activities make to crime, wider social issues and public confidence. They can open up to the public about the messy realities of policing. And they can embrace the collaborative, open and supportive leadership styles that really produce results. There is work afoot, both in forces, and led by the College of Policing to support leadership development across all levels of policing. For this to have the impact required, it needs to be carefully designed and matched by leadership development for police and crime commissioners, and national political leaders.
This is a version of an article produced for Police Oracle: https://policinginsight.com/analysis/political-environment-discouraging-police-officers-leading-well/ It is based on the presentation on police leadership that Tom gave as part of the annual meeting of England and Wales’ chief constables and police and crime commissioners, which took place this week in London.
The full story on where and how police activities affect crime rates is found in chapter eight of CRIMINAL: THE TRUTH ABOUT WHY PEOPLE DO BAD THINGS, available on Amazon here and on kindle here for £5.99.