Visible Policing: the Affective Properties of Police Buildings, Images and Material Culture

Lead Research Organisation: Northumbria University
Department Name: Fac of Arts, Design and Social Sciences


Over recent decades there has been what many have called a 'visual turn' within the social sciences. Within visual criminology important research agendas have developed on prisons and community punishments, the fear of crime and punitiveness, and media representations of crime and deviance. Against this context, it is difficult to understand why policing has not also been more significantly subjected to research that is theoretically and methodologically informed by the visual. One of the reasons why this lacuna is particularly puzzling is that there is a long-standing body of work within the sociology of policing that emphasizes the significance of symbolism, that police embody state sovereignty, and that there are strong performative and communicative dimensions to police activity. Police uniform and patrol cars, for example, together with ceremonial flags and regalia, are considered significant to public perception, trust and legitimacy. Analysis of these is further developed in this study but wider dimensions of visibility are also included. The location, design and architecture of police buildings, material cultural representations of policing in children's toys, and social media imagery of policing are among the novel dimensions of police visibility considered in this research. No previous study has considered these broad terms or tested public perceptions of these different dimensions using visual research methods.

In policy terms, visibility in policing has been primarily addressed in narrow terms regarding the potential for patrol officers to provide reassurance to anxious publics. In the context of recent policy debates about future deployment of diminishing resources there have been frequent commitments to the provision of visible frontline policing. Against a background of funding cuts imposed in the years after 2010, government ministers have tended to claim that such reductions could be focused on aspects of policing that would not reduce visible police presence. Opponents, however, have argued that spending cuts ought to be reversed in order to preserve frontline services. From whatever side of the debate, the provision of visible patrols has been presented in terms of staff on foot or in vehicles as a physical presence in public space. Building upon an emerging body of research in sociology, criminology, media, cultural studies, and human geography, this project examines the nature and impact of visible policing through the study of a wider range of activities and material practices that increasingly shape perceptions of policing, but have been neglected in research terms. Three strands of visibility are identified:

1. The symbolic power of police stations. This is particularly important since the architecture of the police estate changes as new properties (often in new locations) adopt contemporary forms and as pressure on resources leads to co-location with other agencies in shared premises.

2. The symbolic properties of police material culture, including ceremonial uniforms, flags, badges, tourist souvenirs, and children's toys. This strand will incorporate analysis in terms of the organisational and professional identity of police staff as well as public perceptions of legitimacy.

3. Police visibility in social media, incorporating official police accounts as well as those owned by individual officers, staff associations and other networks. These will be considered in terms of their impacts on the public, including whether the police play an online role analogous to real world patrol, for example, in providing for public reassurance.

Photo elicitation and photo narrative techniques will be used to generate data that will address the key research questions and also provide a body of visual material that will inform focus group discussion. Visibility will be enhanced through the dissemination of findings via a dedicated website, a public exhibition and via production of a documentary film.

Planned Impact

This application has been developed over an eighteen-month period with and alongside representatives of the police service and various expert commentators. It responds to, among other things, mounting public concerns over the availability and visibility of police resources, increased questioning of the extent to which a visible police presence ameliorates or heightens public anxieties, and growing consideration of the risks and benefits of social media use by Police forces and other policing bodies. It also resonates with debates over the types and style of police uniforms, and indeed 'appearance standards' more generally, as evident in responses to police wearing body-cameras and increasing deployment of firearms officers.

Its design represents the outcome of an extensive consultation with chief officers, senior managers and front line officers both in the UK and overseas, as well as preliminary research carried out over the past few years. This highlighted a general need for detailed empirical study of the importance of the visual to policing, and a specific need to understand those three strands of visibility identified in the Case for Support; namely: 1. the symbolic power of police stations; 2. the ceremonial properties of uniforms, flags, badges and public gatherings; and 3. the content and tone of social media postings. These discussions will continue throughout the award period, both in the context of the proposed Project Reference Group meetings and in the context of regular and ongoing dissemination efforts; for instance, by means of presentations at meetings of the British Society of Criminology (including its Policing Network and blog) and European Society of Criminology (including its Working Group on Policing).

Selected conference papers will be developed for publication in three journals (Crime, Media, Culture; Policing and Society; Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice), the latter two of which in particular boast a notable readership of Police analysts and practitioners. At the same time, a series of dedicated briefings on project findings will also be developed. Co-produced with analysts at the College of Policing (CoP), these will take the form of ten-page glossy leaflets and be launched at a dedicated practitioners' event at the ESRC-funded What Works Centre for Crime Reduction. Impact will be further enhanced through the CoP offering to host blogs about the research, include details of the work on the Police Research Map, and share findings with police practitioners via College events, the National Police Library and POLKA (the Police On-Line Knowledge Area). A dedicated website, to be developed and launched in the project's opening months, will enable dissemination to the general public.

A series of shorter popular articles and opinion pieces will also be authored for the likes of The Conversation and Policing Insight. Public engagement, more generally, will be fostered through two key channels. First, a short documentary film - structured around the three project strands - will be developed with the production company, Shoots and Leaves. Lasting approximately 30 minutes, this will feature interviews with members of the project team, behind-the-scenes and archival footage of police ceremonies and functions, and reflections on police visibility by members of the public. The film will be made available via the project website, but also submitted to broadcasters and film festivals. Second, a curated exhibition of stills, images and memorabilia relating to the project strands will be curated. This will tour to venues in all four countries of the UK. Candidate venues include the network of Police training colleges and the new premises of New Scotland Yard, police museums, conferences, and at educational institutions. The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue, complete with essays by leading experts and a transcribed discussion between the project team and selected stakeholders.


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