The Public are the Police

I once had a police partner who quoted former UK Prime Minister Robert Peel: “The police are the public and the public are the police.” I have been giving this statement a lot of thought lately as I reflect on new approaches to crime prevention. In a city where our population is growing and resources are stretched, I think this statement is increasingly relevant. Unfortunately many people tend to believe that the responsibility for crime prevention rests solely in the hands of the police. I would argue that the police really should be our last option. There are many more and much more effective ways to prevent crime that doesn’t involve formal authority whatsoever.

Social norms and value systems have a strong and broad influence over behaviour. They provide order to society and guide us toward expected or appropriate behaviours. Have you ever walked on the left side of the sidewalk as someone was approaching you? What happened? Did you receive a strange glare followed by an awkward dance with the person as you each attempted to establish the side you were going to choose? The next time, did you choose to walk on the right side of the sidewalk? This silly example shows the impact that norms can have. They are very influential on behaviour yet there was not a police officer imposing sanctions on the behaviour. It is our values and desire to conform to norms that keep our behaviours in line with society’s expectations.

When we are present and engaged in our community, we are conveying values and norms to others and to those who may be passing through. Even our simplest actions, such as saying hello or keeping your property tidy, model what behaviours are expected in a community. Having a physical presence such as enjoying your front yard or walking your children to school also provides opportunities to build connections with others and positively impact perceptions of safety and increases our comfort.

It may seem strange to equate saying hi or going for a walk with crime prevention however these small steps help build community. The more individuals that convey the message of what is expected and appropriate, the greater the impact will be. Getting to know our neighbours is actually a highly effective crime prevention strategy. Not only is our sense of comfort and security increased but we then also know who should and should not be in an area. A community’s collective actions can be far more influential, supportive and positive than enforcement-led crime prevention.

If you are interested in connecting or getting involved, community leagues are always a great starting point. They are generally hubs of activity and tend to know what is going on.