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Policing, Culture and Community: WM Police as City of Culture Partners

A blog by Professor Jackie Hodgson and Dr Rachel Lewis, School of Law

It may feel reasonably familiar to think of the police working with a football club to set up an initiative in a community, or perhaps even kicking a ball around with a group of young people.

But it’s rather less typical to think of police officers performing poetry, dancing in flash-mobs, or acting in theatre productions. However, over the last 18 months, West Midlands Police officers have taken on exactly this sort of involvement in Coventry City of Culture. And in fact the relationship between West Midlands Police and the City of Culture Trust runs much deeper than this; indeed, the police force has entered into an unprecedented partnership with the Trust, with the two organisations collaborating closely throughout the duration of the festival.

Through this partnership, West Midlands Police are aiming to see if arts and culture can be used in a similar way to sports/sporting events, with three key focus points for the force:

  • Crime reduction

  • Connection with and protection of communities – particularly vulnerable people and those at risk of exploitation

  • Diversity in police recruitment.

Their overall aim is to build bridges with communities, increasing public confidence in policing and improving police-community relations, both during the City of Culture and beyond. Ultimately, the intention is to bring the benefits of arts and culture to the attention of other police forces beyond the West Midlands, normalising the use of more creative practices as a tool for engagement and relationship building.

One example of the type of initiative this partnership has produced is the artist-in-residence scheme in which artist Kay Rufai spent time with both young people and WMP officers, asking both to reflect on their experiences with and perceptions of one another, to think through the ways in which policing is enacted, and to consider the potential impacts of police practices on communities in the city. Kay recently exhibited this work at FarGo village and has shared his thoughts on the complexities and benefits of this collaboration widely.

The research

We’re now entering month 6 of our 15-month project researching this WMP-Trust partnership, funded by the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account, the City of Culture Trust and West Midlands Police.

Led by Professor Jackie Hodgson (School of Law, Director of Centre for Operational Police Research (COPR) working with Dr Rachel Lewis (School of Law), the research involves semi-structured interviews with a wide range of people in Coventry in order to examine the nature of the partnership, and to consider its benefits, its challenges, and its limitations.

So far, we have conducted over 50 interviews with individuals from WMP, the City of Culture Trust, Coventry city council, and a broad range of organisations in the city including arts and culture organisations, schools, charities, youth organisations, and community support groups.

For the next phase of our research, we’re conducting interviews and focus groups with members of the Coventry public, including those from seldom-heard groups whose experiences with and perceptions of the police may be challenging or complex. We aim to engage with as wide a variety of individuals as possible in order to construct a detailed picture of organisational and individual responses to the partnership.

Later in the project, there will be a quantitative element, led by Professor Neil Stewart (WBS) working with Dr Gonzalez Iraizoz (WBS) to track how counts of crimes and incidents have changed over the City of Culture year.

Key research questions

Our research so far has raised a number of particularly interesting questions and challenges.

For a start, this partnership has been constructed and enacted within the context of a global pandemic which has inevitably precipitated enormous shifts in terms both of event planning and also working practices. How then can new and unfamiliar partners build close and mutually supportive relationships when remote working is required and when events are subject to frequent, and at times last-minute, alterations?

Secondly, the stated aims of WMP for this partnership are both challenging and difficult to measure – reducing crime, connecting with more vulnerable communities, and promoting diversity in their own recruitment are all complex to assess, particularly in the short term. And if the police are going to effect long-term changes in their own institutional practices, then how do the architects of the partnership show demonstrable benefits, both to those in positions of authority in WMP, and also to wider force colleagues?

And finally, while the police may be aiming to reach more vulnerable and/or marginalised communities through the partnership, there are unsurprisingly some within these communities whose relationship with the police is distrustful at best. To what extent then are people even willing to engage with initiatives in which the police are involved?

These are just some of the key challenges raised so far during the course of the research, and we’re looking forward to engaging further with these issues as the project unfolds.

Find out more about the project