A £10m fund from 2015 brought together 39 police forces and 30 academic institutions from across the UK. 14 different projects covered a wide range of topics. This funding highlights a number of problems for academics collaborating with the police.
As part of our #ResistBigBrother series, we’re keeping a close eye on the links between academics and police forces. There’s nothing inherently wrong with research on police strategy – that’s not the issue here. The issue is where the funding for the research comes from. The Police Knowledge Fund that we’re looking at was:
supported by the College of Policing with funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Home Office
This has obvious implications for the independence and value of all the research carried out under its umbrella.
When approached by The Canary for comment, a College of Policing spokesperson said:
The Police Knowledge Fund (PKF) was established to increase evidence in priority areas of policing and help to embed an evidence-based approach across the service.
The College of Policing, in collaboration with the (then) Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Home Office, supported the PKF and all successful bids for research funding were subject to review and approval by both a selection panel and an Independent Advisory Board.
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All work carried out by academic institutions is independent and subject to their own governance structures to ensure appropriate scrutiny and integrity when conducting research. The College does not limit the capacity of academic institutions in their critique of police tactics and strategies in the UK.
The Police Knowledge Fund was founded on evidence which demonstrated the value of police-academic collaboration in supporting policing to use and apply independent research evidence. This ensures research has the potential to challenge and influence operational practice and decision making and supports the police and partners to prevent crime and protect the public.
The concerns of independence of research are, however, much broader than this. Individual universities may well have been able to maintain rigorous research practices. But academics receiving funding from the police is problematic as Kevin Blowe from the Network for Police Monitoring highlighted:
Collaboration between universities and the police is now so ‘normal’ that in many sociology, law and almost all criminology departments, it is expected that academics will work with the police and invariably teach officers too. The problem is that swathes of academic research is more interested in “efficiency” and very often expansion of coercive police and state powers.
Do you trust the police?
The Open University received a large chunk of funding, £1.36m, for its National Centre for Policing Research and Professional Development. It used its funding to consider a number of areas in policing, including improving police social media use, transforming research into practice for police forces, and looking at who engages with the police.
These projects cover a huge range of topics and the full list can be downloaded here.
One such project is the question of why some citizens don’t engage with the police. An online survey involving 824 people asked if they would be willing to call the police if they witnessed a crime. 29% said they would not report that crime to the police.
Mistrust of the police is something that strikes a chord with – very broadly speaking – non-white populations. The infographic itself acknowledges that ‘non-reporters tended to be younger, non-Caucasian ethnicities’. Minorities in the UK have their own turbulent history with policing in the UK, and the renewal of Black Lives Matter protests in the UK over the summer of 2020 shows continuing divides across communities.
Blowe stressed the “real world consequences” of this type of research:
Increasing the so-called effectiveness of stop and search, or developing new intelligence gathering techniques, or finding more sophisticated ways to identify “extremists” (a severely contested term) has real world consequences for communities who are profiled and disproportionately targeted by what is a deeply conservative institution with a long history of racism. Ignoring this is akin to taking defence funding to make a more efficient bullet and not thinking too closely to where it might end up.
Even senior figures in police have admitted that the BLM protests in 2020 have shown the problem of mistrust in police from minority communities as the Guardian reported:
Deputy chief constable Phil Cain, who leads on workforce representation and diversity for the National Police Chiefs’ Council said recent opinion polls showed big majorities of minority ethnic people, especially black people, believed policing was biased.
Cain said: “These figures are saddening for a modern police service. We are 27 years on from the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the Macpherson report that followed. And yet many of our ethnic communities still feel that the police is biased against them in some way.”
Clearly, there are huge rifts in public perception of the police. Research projects like that of The Open University are in a position to address this, but the issue of funding is hard to get away from. Repeated failures from police forces to react to the concerns of minorities, and particularly Black communities, were part of what led to widespread BLM protests in the UK.
Professor Jean Hartley, academic lead for The Open University’s PKF project, told The Canary:
The Centre for Policing Research and Learning (CPRL) at The Open University is intellectually independent of the police. Some funding is directly from the police, together with internal OU funding and other external grants. We work on difficult, contentious and challenging issues in an evidence-based way to improve policing for the good of society. This work is supported through CPRL’s governance structures which include university accountability and also accountability to a board which includes senior academics and senior police, other public services and the voluntary sector including those concerned with human rights and institutional racism. We have diverse representation on this board, and we work regularly with under-represented groups in our research projects.
However, scepticism towards the police can also, with good reason, be turned towards academics. Inclusion and diversity politics is one small part of the conversation on racial inequality but both these institutions – the police and academia – are overrun with racism.
While academics struggle to find research grants, given the concerns of bias and racism in UK policing, funnelling huge amounts of money towards research projects that link the police with academia is troubling.
And as Blowe commented, it can put limitations on the scope of research:
It is rather more difficult to secure funding to listen to people who experience police powers as harmful or violent and even then, such research is more likely (for example, on issues such as crowd control or mental health) to focus on mitigating the impact of oppressive policing rather than removing it completely. That is hardly surprising when the police are directly involved in deciding what “best practice” means.
Another significant project is run by the University of Sheffield which saw roughly £337,000 in funding from the Police Knowledge Fund. This project focused on restorative justice which it defined as:
a process that brings those harmed by crime and those responsible for the harm together, into communication, enabling those affected by an incident to seek to resolve how best to respond to the offence and repair the harm done. Where delivered in accordance with evidence-based principles, RJ affords considerable benefits to victims of crime, as well as offenders.
Restorative justice may be admirable, but it can bring its own concerns. Plenty of examples spring to mind where it is difficult to imagine restorative justice as useful or equitable. Grenfell, in particular, is relevant here.
The Grenfell fire and the following inquiry is still rumbling on as the government and a number of other institutions fail the victims and survivors repeatedly. Grenfell speaks to who modern Britain is – a deathtrap engulfed with flames while Black and Brown people burn inside. Its residents have been thoroughly abandoned by a useless and craven inquiry process.
The fumbling of the inquiry process, and Grenfell itself, speaks to the racist structures that make up modern institutions. It shows the shambolic nature of what justice can look like in the UK. But restorative justice requires a functioning justice system that does not discriminate against minorities. Whether it is the tragedy of Grenfell or the daily experiences of people stopped and searched because of the colour of their skin, deconstructing the concept of what justice looks like in modern Britain should be a fundamental part of research into restorative justice.
Restorative justice can work. But it can also require an ideal world which is not the reality for many.
Limits of projects
The Canary reached out to the academic lead for the University of Sheffield project professor Joanna Shapland:
The project involved trying to improve the ability of the police to offer the possibility of thinking about participating in restorative justice to victims and offenders, which is a statutory requirement on the police stemming from the Victims Code 2015, but for which provision is still patchy, as commented by the Victims Commissioner. Restorative justice involves asking victims and offenders whether they would like to communicate and is entirely voluntary and delivered by trained facilitators…[T]he project itself was not restricted in any way in its ability to criticise policing.
When asked if the project engaged meaningfully with the possible limits of restorative justice in relation to an institutionally racist police force, Shapland responded:
If you are calling into account…the veracity of the specific research, then you are calling into account my professional research values and abilities and those of my colleagues, and our ability to take a critical stance.
In relation to restorative justice, I think you need to look up the values of restorative justice, where you will certainly find they include being sensitive to and taking into account the identities (including ethnic and racial identities and intersectionality) and social contexts of participants.
Sensitivity to identity is not exactly a robust framework. The example of Grenfell is one that highlights a broader problem in UK policing. When Black and Brown people are routinely abandoned and targeted by police, it is imperative that academics hold power to account.
The Canary also spoke to Adam Elliott-Cooper, author of Black Resistance to British Policing, who said:
It is clear that the police will hold greater power of academic research if it is [in] charge of funding. This public money should be in the hand of independent funding bodies, not institutions which require serious scrutiny.
Once again, the fact that the College of Policing and the Home Office are involved in funding these projects is a cause of great concern. Independent research is a must, even more so when the College of Policing is responsible for training officers before sending them into an institutionally racist service.
The maintenance of the status quo will never bring about justice or liberation for those who so desperately need it. The Canary spoke to Dr Remi Joseph-Salisbury, a researcher at the University of Manchester, about the Police Knowledge Fund.
Universities were quick, this summer, to put out weak and hollow Black Lives Matter statements. Those protests urged us think more critically about the police, and brought the prospect, and urgency, of defunding the police into the political mainstream.
For universities to move beyond rhetoric to action, there really needs to be a severing of ties to the police, whether that’s in relation to training future police officers, housing former police officers, or conducting research for the police. This includes, too, the receipt of, and giving of, funding.
Historically, and contemporarily, the police force is steeped in institutional racism. We see this at all levels of policing, from use of force, to racial profiling, to stop and search. As long as universities and academics, have close ties to the police, they will be complicit in the disregard for Black lives.
Our task as academics should be to strive towards social justice, and hold power to account. That necessitates critical independence from the police.
Holding power to account is central to making sure that we’re not allowing the violent targeting of Black communities. Academics have a duty to think critically and to see police funding as the scandal that it is. No matter how scarce funding is, we can’t abandon principles and humanity just for a seat at the table.
Closer ties between academics and the police serve racist institutions, not the people.
Featured image via Flickr/Yukiko Matsuoka
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