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UT research advises police on citizen participation

It’s impossible to imagine our country without citizen participation: residents want a safe and friendly neighbourhood, and are happy to make their contribution. Wendy Schreurs, who just recently obtained her doctoral degree from the University of Twente, advises police officers on the right way to communicate with citizens, in particular those who want to help with police work. Participation can be separated into four categories: collaboration, detection, social control and responsive participation. 

Schreurs investigated what motivates citizens – working together and with the police – to make their area or neighbourhood safer by dealing with and preventing petty crimes. “Police forces want that too, but often cannot figure out why local residents only sometimes take action in the event of incidents in their living environment.”

“One of the objectives of the research was to advise police on how to communicate effectively with active residents in the neighbourhood so that their help really contributes to solving and preventing crime and disturbances, and does not backfire for some reason. My research looked at what drives local residents to take action – to participate in the domain of policing – from a psychological perspective.”

Four categories of participation

“Two categories have rational drivers. One of them is collaborative participation, which includes, for example, attending a local meeting organised by community police. The second one is detection, which includes actions such as becoming a member of an initiative like Burgernet (citizen network) or a neighbourhood WhatsApp group. The other two categories are dominated by emotions: social control and responsive participation. Everyone knows how social control works – you watch out for each other and discuss anything peculiar that happens in the neighbourhood. Responsive participation refers to local residents reacting to something that they see happen before their eyes – theft of a bicycle or vandalism of a bus shelter or waste bin, for example. This kind of thing triggers a strong feeling of injustice, it damages moral values, and prompts a person to take action. People then get the feeling that they have really made a contribution, that they have been useful. These are really strong motivators.”  

Net gain for the police

“If you want to motivate people to e.g. participate in neighbourhood surveillance, because this yields information for the local team of police on how disturbances are handled in the neighbourhood, then your message has to be formulated correctly. Whether residents participate comes down to a rational consideration: what is it going to do for me? A kind of cost-benefit analysis. But if you as the police team would rather that citizens not participate in a police action because this would actually make police work more complicated – for example, searching for a missing person – then it’s good to realise that emotional drivers play a role in such a case. That’s when it’s crucial to clearly communicate that the police are aware of these emotions.”      

What next?

“We know what the different kinds of citizen participation are and what motivates citizens to participate in police work. What still has to be investigated is whether – and if so, how – citizen behaviours can be influenced. How can you ensure that what citizens offer contributes (even) more to community policing goals, such as keeping the area safe? I have already done quite a bit a research on this topic, but there is still a great deal more that could be done. Right now I’m working at the Police Academy as a researcher investigating predictive policing. Predictive policing means you use existing data from police databases to predict where crimes could be committed.”     

Wendy Schreurs obtained her doctoral degree as a member of the research group Psychology of Conflict, Risk and Safety. Her supervisors were Professor J.H. Kerstholt, Professor E. Giebels and Dr P. de Vries of the Behavioural, Management and Social Sciences faculty. Schreurs is currently working as a researcher at the Police Academy in Apeldoorn.

drs. J.G.M. van den Elshout (Janneke)
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