Responding to Nick Fyfe on Scottish Police Reform: ‘reform’ or ‘change’?

Diarmaid HarkinGuest post from Diarmaid Harkin in response to Professor Nick Fyfe’s article Making sense of a radically changing landscape on the the key contours of police reform in Scotland (SJM1). Diarmaid is a final year PhD student at Edinburgh University conducting research into
police-public consultation forums in Edinburgh.

I don’t know what the precise difference between ‘change’ and ‘reform’ is; One difference at least, is that it appears it is easier to say ‘change is happening’, than ‘reform is happening’. ‘Change’ is observable and reducible to detail; ‘reform’, to the contrary, seems a more profound idea, and demanding of a higher standard of proof. ‘Change’ is maybe two-dimensional, while ‘reform’ is three.

The changes being brought about presently on Scottish policing have yet to prove themselves as ‘reform’ (although they have every chance to in due course). The point of departure for figuring out if ‘reform’ is happening, is to establish what are the right questions to judge reform by. As researchers and observers we must let the policy-titans make their play, and then decide on our own terms how we will judge what we are seeing.

The ‘details’ of Scottish Policing are changing: there’s now one force and not eight; A ‘Scottish Police Authority’ has emerged to take a chief role in governance and accountability, which, crucially, has membership appointed, not elected; new ‘Policing Principles’ are in play; a new Specialist Crimes Division has emerged; management structure has been shuffled around; a new relationship has been established between local authorities and the police; and even a new non-emergency contact number (101) has been launched. It is, of course, entirely appropriate to take seriously the idea that the ‘devil is in the detail’ and give considerable focus to the profound ramifications of such industrial adjustments.

But there is also another, entirely contradictory aphorism about being able to see the ‘wood for the trees’: Sometimes the details are the problem. Sometimes, the details distract our focus when they shouldn’t. Sometimes, the details need to be put in order and fall behind other considerations.

The big announcements, legislation, and structural re-organisations, are the easy part (despite what policymakers will tell you about how much hard-work and headache it involves), and it only matters if the small events change: If the encounters and interactions of the police that occur on a daily basis are performed differently today than they were yesterday – with both friends and foes.

National reform is hard and monumental, but it isn’t half as hard as changing how 17,000 officers think about their job, how they make decisions, and how they act in the field. Changing the uniforms, mastheads, and management structure, is a lot easier than changing the minds or behaviour of thousands of individuals.

We know police culture is resilient. And we know it’s important. Both act as barriers to reform. Classic sociologies of the police have been telling us for a long time: what happens in the frontline of policing is considerably disconnected from organisational mission statements; it has an unavoidable level of low-visibility and high officer discretion; and management control over the troops on the ground is limited and officers enjoy considerable autonomy. All these things have been shown to corrupt, distort, and resist the ambitions of reform in the past. Notably all these things appear to be permanent design-features in the format of professional policing – they’re entrenched in the very nature of the organisation allowing for the preservation of key traits of police culture: prejudice, conservatism, adversarialism, and a suspicion of all things softhearted.

But, the good news is, that despite how hard it is, change in the police appears to be possible: happens often, and mostly for the better. And not just ‘change’, but also ‘reform’. If we take the work of Wesley Skogan (2004a, 2004b) as any indicator, and his observations of the transformations of policing in American cities – territories with far more entrenched policing problems than Scotland – over decades the police have become more effective, less corrupt, and less inclined to hostility, antagonism, and irresponsible use of force.

So, does the top-down reshuffling of the police matter? Yes. Does top-down policing principles and agenda-setting matter? Yes. But, we also know it only matters so much, before it doesn’t matter any more than that.

We also need a reminder that ‘reform’ is never finished, and surely the Nationalisation project is just the beginning of a whole range of other ‘reforms’ yet to be even imagined or considered. It’s an entirely safe prediction to say, “more reforms are coming”.

So, to return to the issue at hand: what are the right questions to judge reform by? Well I think Nick is right in asking what the public response will be, and I would also add questions as to how this changes policing at the point of delivery. We might also need to consider questions such as ‘what’s not changing: What are the things that are resilient in policing despite monumental restructuring?’ As I pointed out at the outset it is important to consider two things: change isn’t necessarily the same things as reform, and figuring out how to gauge reform takes more conceptual elegance than a strict focus on the details.


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