Crime, policing and social order: on the expressive nature of public confidence in policing

Published: December 2009

Public confidence in policing is receiving increasing attention from UK social scientists and policy-makers. The criminal justice system relies on legitimacy and consent to an extent unlike other public services: public support is vital if the police and other criminal justice agencies are to function both effectively and in accordance with democratic norms. Yet we know little about the forms of social perception that stand prior to public confidence and police legitimacy. Drawing on data from the 2003/2004 British Crime Survey and the 2006/2007 London Metropolitan Police Safer Neighbourhoods Survey, this paper suggests that people think about their local police in ways less to do with the risk of victimization (instrumental concerns about personal safety) and more to do with judgments of social cohesion and moral consensus (expressive concerns about neighbourhood stability, cohesion and loss of collective authority). Across England and Wales the police may not primarily be seen as providers of a narrow sense of personal security, held responsible for crime and safety. Instead the police may stand as symbolic ‘moral guardians’ of social stability and order, held responsible for community values and informal social controls. We also present evidence that public confidence in the London Metropolitan Police Service expresses broader social anxieties about long-term social change. We finish our paper with some thoughts on a sociological analysis of the cultural place of policing: confidence (and perhaps ultimately the legitimacy of the police) might just be wrapped up in broader public concerns about social order and moral consensus.

Authors / Editors

Research Themes

General Resources

Gender, Crime and Criminal Justice

Criminal Justice Process and Institutions