‘Soft’ Policing: The Collaborative Control of Anti-Social Behaviour (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) – a reflexive review by the author

By Daniel McCarthy

In recent years we have witnessed many challenges to the core ideologies and functions of the police in England and Wales. One such agenda, which this blog posting analyses, is the emphasis of the police on trying to support children and young people on the fringes of offending. These strategies are referred to in my book as ‘soft policing’ – where the police take on a mandate which involves a more social service or social work emphasis, but at the same time continue many of their existing law and order roles and perspectives. Despite the police’s involvement in various social service activities since before the Metropolitan Police Act 1829, the recent focus of the police to work more collaboratively with various community agencies to help support and divert young people from offending has grown. In practical terms, these collaborative operations have been challenging for the police to engage with. Inter-agency tensions between the police (with their focus on enforcement of the criminal law) and the welfare-orientated of other agencies and services, differences within the police organization regarding what constitutes ‘proper’ police work, cynicism regarding the genuine ability of the police to balance its law enforcement mandate with a welfarist one, along with a host of other factors, have all been put forward to explain the implementation gap associated with these ‘soft’ policing practices.

In my recent book, ‘Soft’ Policing: The Collaborative Control of Anti-Social Behaviour, I examined the practices of the police working with other community agencies to respond to low-level antisocial behaviour. Emerging out of the New Labour government from 1997, ‘soft policing’ has been connected with transformations in the spheres of inter-agency working through the Crime and Disorder Act (1998) and the Neighbourhood Policing agenda which attempted to establish, amongst many priorities, a closer working role in local problem solving in responding to anti-social behavior.

The book was comprised of observation of case deliberations during which different community agencies met and discussed selected children, young people and sometimes entire families who were identified as possessing particular risk factors or warning signs of offending, or otherwise involved in various forms of antisocial behaviour. I spent two years attending these case conference meetings in two areas in England, where I became interested in two particular themes; Firstly, the ways different ways that cases were constructed by the practitioners meeting in these forums. In particular how they determined what ‘risky’, ‘antisocial’ or ‘warning signs’ meant, how these constructions varied between the gender, age, ethnicity and social class of their ‘clients’, as well as the ways these judgements established certain expectations regarding the types of interventions which were formulated (such as various informal support resolutions such as attending youth groups or counselling services, right the ways to the use of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders). Secondly, I was interested in the professionals and agencies they were representing, as well as the group dynamics of such case deliberations. As an academic who has always been influenced by symbolic interactionist sociology (especially authors like Jack Douglas, Erving Goffman and Robert Emerson) I became interested in the ways that different normative structures of these case meetings were established. This included the ways that the police, who were by far the most represented at the case conference meetings, ‘stage managed’ many of the meetings with a clear agenda, focus and structure, especially the ways that any conflict or disagreements were dealt with both in and outside of the case meetings.

For the most part, the police actively supported the emphasis on preventive, support-orientated work directed at children, young people and families. Most police officers, and indeed other agency practitioners, all valued the philosophy and benefits of collaborative working. Having worked for many years with one another there was a clear build-up of trust, from what started out as a period of suspicion of each agency’s agendas. One angle which became apparent was that the gendering of many of these ‘soft’ policing activities. This was not solely the product of the higher number of female compared to male officers involved in such forms of policing, but also the language and ideology of the work they delivered. Terms such as ‘pink and fluffy’ were used to regard certain attitudes and responses regarded as contravening typical images of policing – a classic theme associated with police occupational culture. Here the attribution of certain forms of policing as having feminine connotations served as a way for police officers to symbolically distance themselves from being ‘too soft’, although this did not prevent the embracing of ‘soft’ policing altogether. Instead officers emphasized the pragmatic purposes of ‘soft’ policing as a set of tools which could help steer children and young people away from crime, thereby overriding the ‘pink and fluffy’ image.

A further dimension was the dynamics of the actual meetings. Direct expressions of conflict and dissent in case conferences were rare. Following Goffman and his observations on group presentations and performance roles, it became clear that the case conferences followed certain established routines which set expectations about what could and could not be said. It was common, for example, to find that rather than presenting an opportunity for the case meetings to provide an environment for dealing with any conflict in a productive way, conflicts were regularly dealt with outside of the meetings thereby establishing what appeared to be a rather illusionary surface impression of group cohesion.

Finally, the study also identified that the ‘clients’ referred to such groups were commonly referred for reasons associated with their moral status, such as their class and gender respectability, rather than always the result of actual ‘risks’ or involvement in antisocial behaviour. The focus on offering ‘support’ and ‘diversion’ through such ‘soft policing’ interventions therefore teeters close to a contemporary form of ‘child saving’ aptly described back in the 1960s by Anthony Platt.

Reflecting beyond the findings, considerable changes are currently taking place to many public service agencies. The fieldwork for the study finished in 2008 – the same year as the global financial crisis took root. Although I regard many of the findings as reflecting common working practices and cultures (note Michael Lipsky’s 1980 book ‘Street Level Bureaucrats’ and Robert Emerson’s 1969 book ‘Judging Delinquents’, both of which indicate many overlapping findings to my text), it remains to be seen how far the culture of austerity will alter the ideologies and working practices of the police and other community agencies such as Youth Offending Teams and Children’s Services. Watch this space…..


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