Theme: Law & justice | Content Type: Digested Read

Vulnerability and Policing: Rethinking the Role and Limits of the Police

Adam Crawford



| 7 mins read

Recent decades have seen an increasing range of social problems become cast as ‘police problems’. Driven by social, cultural, environmental and technological change, new harms and social problems have been added to the long list of police tasks. In addition to ‘traditional’ crimes and ‘new’ types of crime—for instance modern slavery—police work entails large volumes of non-crime incidents. These range from mental health issues, neighbourhood nuisances, anti-social behaviour, public protection, safeguarding, missing persons, diverse types of vulnerability, public safety and welfare activity. Police have, therefore, come to constitute a default public service of last resort for all manner of problems. They are called upon when social, welfare, health, preventive and protective services go awry, without necessarily considering whether they are truly best placed to respond to such incidents.

Right care, right person

The recent debate about the appropriateness of police responses to calls for service in relation to people with mental health reflects this concern and has resulted in the National Partnership Agreement 2023, which sets new parameters for police response to mental health-related incidents and requires local partners in England to take responsibility for individuals detained by police within one hour of that person arriving at the appropriate facility. This ‘Right Care, Right Person’ (RCRP) approach seeks to limit police involvement by introducing a threshold for determining whether police should be involved or not—namely whether the police are needed to investigate a crime, to protect people, when there is risk to life, or potential for serious harm.

Positively, it reflects the importance of a partnership approach to problem solving where multiple actors and agencies can address the needs of the vulnerable more holistically. In Humberside, for instance, the force established a multi-agency partnership ‘task and finish’ group with senior representatives from local authorities, mental health service providers, hospitals, Commissioning Groups and Ambulance Trusts. However, it is worth noting that the strategy was initiated on the basis of legal advice that Humberside Police sought to clarify the limits to their duty of care responsibilities. This advice was used as a basis to support the development of the RCRP initiative, rather than a concern for vulnerability. The subsequent national agreement was also signed against a wider background of explicit threats by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Mark Rowley, to stop attending emergency calls related to mental health incidents. A genuine partnership approach initiated from the perspective of vulnerable people in need of support might consequently look very different.

Vulnerability, policing, and networks

Whether by default or design, the introduction of RCRP has reinvigorated long-standing debates about what role, if any, the police should play in responding to vulnerable people with mental health emergencies. The development of RCRP highlights the value of a place-based and problem-oriented partnership approach to restructuring and clarifying the role and contribution of diverse partners in securing public safety and minimising harm. The RCRP experience also warns against the dangers of structuring interorganisational dialogue and relations around the unilateral demands or requirements of a particular, powerful agency—in this instance, the police—with less regard to the interests and impacts on all partners and the wellbeing of the vulnerable groups themselves.

In response, Fleetwood and Lea advocate placing the control of responses to an array of social problems in the hands of a new third-party agency that is independent from the police. This ‘controller’ authority would serve as the de facto network coordinator of ‘a diversity of specialist welfare and other agencies’. It is their contention that in every case, the necessity of police intervention should be assessed by welfare agencies rather than the necessity of welfare intervention being decided by the police. The value of such a proposal lies in that it addresses some of the operational issues that derive from particular incidents and drive decision making on the ground with regard to who serves not only as first responder, but also who has the discretionary power to frame mental illness, drug/alcohol use or homelessness as crime problems rather than welfare issues.

There are, of course, challenges to this model. Networks, by necessity, comprise mutually dependent, but operationally autonomous entities that interact through often conflict-ridden negotiations. This requires an institutionalised framework of rules, norms, shared knowledge and exchange which has yet to be established, though research suggests that beneficial norms of interorganisational and interpersonal trust and reciprocity are more likely to circulate through place-based, bottom-up initiatives, and potentially enable professions to work together without consensus.

Vulnerability as a lens

The intent of this model is to put vulnerability at the heart of the response. The College of Policing suggests that: ‘a person is vulnerable if as a result of their situation or circumstances, they are unable to take care or protect themselves or others from harm or exploitation’. Despite criticism that vulnerability could undermine individual agency, it can also call into question dichotomous representations of ‘ideal’ victims and ‘dangerous’ offenders. Most radically, it can serve to highlight those people whose vulnerability derives from their peripheral or problematic relationship with the police as an institution, namely those who, owing to their social disadvantage, marginalisation and deviant or transgressive lifestyles, are often the traditional ‘objects’ of police attention.

As such, vulnerability provides a valuable lens through which to interrogate the future of policing as a public good and explore how it might be differently refocussed, prioritised and delivered. It centres on harm, abuse and exploitation in a way that aligns with public health approaches to policing and decentres criminality. It affords a perspective from which to understand the interactions and gaps between various public services, as well as from which to redesign whole-system responses to public safety that incorporate public, private and third sector organisations and to clarify the role of the police within that system. In many ways the police have become, what David Thacher calls ‘the responsible custodians of institutional breakdown’. While this affords them a unique perspective on institutional failings, it also draws them into crises situations that lie beyond their competencies. By focusing on vulnerability, we might be able to re-think limits to the role of the police and better enable the ‘policed’ to get access to the network of services that they so require.

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    Adam Crawford

    Adam Crawford is Co-Director of the ESRC Vulnerability and Policing Futures Research Centre, University of Leeds & University of York.

    Articles by Adam Crawford
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