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Crime Prevention Program Adopted by Police Force in Australia: Police in Schools Program

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 3666 words Published: 18th May 2020

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Crime Prevention Program – Police in Schools Program

The Police in Schools Program functions as a joint community, social institution and law enforcement agency crime prevention strategy. Although representations of the program vary moderately both nationally and internationally, the program generally involves the permanent placement of a local police officer in a school environment. As a part of the school community, the School Based Police Officer (SBPO) conducts investigations of offences committed during school hours, participates in the development and delivery of educational materials, and liaises with relevant agencies regarding youth welfare (Murphy, 1998).

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The Police in Schools program operates in a number of Australian schools nationally.  A leading objective of the program is to improve the relationship between police and young people by encouraging positive relationships with law enforcement officers, where the SPBO facilitates opportunities for police and young people to interact in an informal and predominantly positive context.  The expected outcomes of a successful school based policing program include a reduction in crime both by and against young people; the provision of a safe environment and a community-wide support system for young people which promotes co-operation and care; an increase in students’ knowledge of the law and the function of police in society, and the development of positive relationships between young people, members of the school community, and the police in general (Murphy, 1998).

Rationale and Empirical Evaluation of Police in Schools

Although there is a distinct absence of police jurisdictions in Australia which have institutionalized community policing as the dominant organizational paradigm (Putt, 2010), a number of police programs and initiatives have been initiated nationally which are strongly associated to the rubric of community policing. Current evidence-based approaches encourage community policing and government youth strategies to provide a more objective and holistic response to policing young people (National Youth Policing Model, 2010). The Police in Schools program introduces adolescents to empirically supported community-police partnership models, anticipated to inspire trust between community members and police officers, encourage respectful behaviour, and explicitly promote collaborative processes between law enforcement officials and the community sector (Murphy, 1998). The program also presents an intervention and prevention strategy during key developmental stages for youths that aim to reduce risk factors and enhance protective factors for crime, which clearly relates to and forms the premise of developmental theories of crime. The current essay will explore and discuss the theoretical rationale which guides the Police in Schools Program, and will critically evaluate the programs’ effectiveness. It will begin by exploring how the developmental perspective of crime and crime prevention offers a theoretical foundation for the program. It will then examine the role of the School Based Police Officer (SBPO) and the effectiveness of program in reducing truancy, increasing collective efficacy (CE) and lessening the frequency of bullying in school grounds as a protective approach against life-course persistent anti-social behaviour. Lastly, it will examine evaluations of effectiveness nationally and internationally and will discuss potential improvements to the current program implementation.

The Police in Schools program is theoretically grounded and guided by the developmental perspective of crime. Researchers have argued that understanding both behavioural development and the development of crime and anti-social behaviour across the lifespan require a holistic-interactionist perspective of the synergic relationship between biological, psychological, environmental and cultural determinants (Morizot & Kazemian, 2015). Developmental crime prevention is based on the idea that early intervention during critical junctures in a young person’s developmental course produce significant protective effects, especially in the early intervention’s ability to navigate young people away from a path of future offending (Morgan, Boxall, Lindeman & Anderson, 2011). Developmental models emphasise the significance of important social domains in individual development, particularly as young people begin navigating socially beyond the immediate family (Payne & Welsh, 2015). Specifically, a number of developmental models posit that school approaches and practices directly interact with an individual’s predisposition to certain behaviours and can either increase or reduce the likelihood of deviant and anti-social behaviour developing (Payne & Welsh, 2015).

Although the role of the SBPOs is multifaceted and varies significantly between participating schools, the role commonly merges responsibilities of law enforcement, which includes reactive, disciplinary and crime preventative actions; educating students; mentoring and counselling young people, and acting as a liaison between law enforcement agencies, schools, families and the community (Brown, 2006; McKenna, Martinez-Prather & Bowman, 2014). Instructions and guidelines regarding how these responsibilities and duties are to be implemented within the school environment are fundamentally missing. In an earlier program evaluation with participating schools in Queensland, it was reported that although there was overwhelming support for the program from both SBPOs, teachers and students, a clarification of role and daily responsibilities of the assigned SBPO has not only been missing, but is moreover difficult to delineate (Murphy, 1998), which is a constant and overarching theme featured in current literature regarding internationally equivalent programs (McKenna et al., 2016; Coon & Travis, 2015). In a recent study, it was posited that the different backgrounds and training provided to police and teachers may result in drastically different approaches used to achieve the goals of police school programs, and furthermore, the program efficacy is compromised when role expectations are not discussed prior to police placement and when there is an absence of ongoing discussions, reviews and evaluations (Coon & Travis, 2015). Undefined roles and expectations may have a detrimental effect on the Police in Schools program efficacy on a number of levels, including an overemphasis on the law enforcement element of the SBPO role, which is inconsistent with the developmental perspective of crime and crime prevention.

Labelling theory proposes that harsh restrictions and punishments may increase criminal and delinquent behaviour (Brown, 2006). Undefined SBPO roles and expectations may unintentionally cause police to impose harsher sanctions for minor transgressions, and as a result, may have the undesirable consequence of diverting adolescents who are identified as exhibiting problematic and delinquent behaviour in the school environment into street crime and ultimately, into the juvenile criminal justice system (Brown, 2006). Researchers suggest that efforts should not only be directed towards clarifying and defining roles and responsibilities, but towards providing intense training regarding the theoretical underpinnings of the program to enhance program efficacy and improve research designed to assess program impacts and outcomes (van der Merwe & Dawes, 2009).

Earlier evaluations of the Police in Schools program in Queensland reveal truancy and physical violence as two of the most common types of reactive policing activities (Murphy, 1998). Truancy has been identified as a major public issue associated with a number of detrimental life course outcomes (Mazerolle, Antrobus, Bennet & Eggins, 2017; Bennet, Mazerolle, Antrobus, Eggins & Piquero, 2017). Specifically, researchers argue that truancy can function as conduit for young people to engage in a variety of other criminal and anti-social behaviour (Mazerolle et al., 2017). In a recent study of a police-school partnership program in Queensland, it was suggested the Ability School Engagement Program (ASEP) partnership program, which applies a restorative process in a student, police officer, family member and a school representative in a group conferencing model, are effective long-term strategies to potentially reduce truancy, increase willingness to attend school, and improve school attendance (Mazerolle et al., 2017). Although there is clearly a variation in the application of the underlying theory, both ASEP and the Police in Schools program highlight the perspective of developmental theories which emphasise the importance of early intervention to reduce truancy, and regard community-partnered police strategies as protective factors for youth crime trajectories.

From a developmental perspective, researchers maintain that interventions involving community and police partnerships promote positive life-course crime control outcomes and encourage CE, which is reflected in mutual trust and increased social cohesion (Sargeant, Wickles & Mazerolle, 2013). CE is broadly influenced by perceptions of police legitimacy, where positive perceptions assist in creating a shared responsibility between police and the community to upholding behavioural norms (Sargeant et al., 2013). It has been argued that police legitimacy, which includes normative and instrumental components, is fundamental to securing a community’s voluntary compliance with laws, rules and decisions (Sargeant et al., 2013). While instrumental components of legitimacy refer to the perceived ability of police to deter crime through detection and apprehension, normative components of legitimacy include the perception that police are procedurally fair in their interactions involving the community (Sargeant et al., 2013). The perception that police are fair is particularly important for adolescents.

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Owing to their increased visibility in public spaces and the fact that adolescents are more likely to engage in criminal behaviour than any other demographic group (Brown, 2006), negative perceptions of police legitimacy are particularly detrimental to adolescent’s attitudes towards police. Researchers suggest that police-school partnered crime prevention programs provide a platform for the promotion of police legitimacy through procedurally fair discipline approaches, where trust can be built and strengthened when respect is reciprocal and authority decisions are made with trustworthy intentions (Mazerolle et al., 2017). Accordingly, it could be assumed that in order for the Police in Schools program to be effective, SBPOs should be perceived as working co-operatively with the school and wider community, and equally importantly, that SBPO’s are perceived as fair and equitable in their management and approach to young people. Perceptions of police legitimacy, in turn, should be expected to correspondingly promote positive interactions between police and young people.

A key objective of the Police in Schools program is to improve the relationship between police and young people by creating positive interactions and relationships with law enforcement officers (Murphy, 1998). Research has indicated that allowing opportunities for positive police interactions in an informal context increases subjective satisfaction with police more than in formal contexts (Hinds, 2009; van der Merwe & Dawes, 2009), and the school locale provides an ideal informal environment to create positive exchanges. Based on developmental models, it could be argued that the significance of informal, positive contact between police and young people is that positive contact enhances police legitimacy and boosts associated positive effects of young people’s willingness to cooperate with police officers and comply with the law. However, according to rational choice theory, young people are less likely to report crimes or victimization to the police because the perceived costs are too high (Leroux & McShane, 2016). It has been argued that peer alienation and stigmatization acts as a powerful crime reporting deterrent for adolescents (Leroux & McShane, 2016). As a result, it is possible that despite the fact that the Police in Schools program provides an opportunity for adolescents to develop positive attitudes toward the police as is predicted by the developmental model, the social risks associated with assisting the police in a peer environment may outweigh potential benefits. If the risk associated with assisting police outweighs potential benefits for young people, the overall efficacy of the Police in Schools program would certainly be compromised, particularly because collaborative management of crime prevention represents one of the key concepts underlying developmental theories. According to the developmental perspective, the prevention of violent behaviour and bullying in the school environment is similarly reliant on cooperative efforts between the school community and law enforcement agencies (van der Merwe & Dawes, 2007).

Developmental theorists suggest that violent behaviour is determined by individual, social and environmental characteristics, and researchers have argued that young perpetrators of physical violence and bullying in the school context are more likely to commit crimes later in life (Azerdo et al., 2015). In a recent systematic review of contextual-level risk factors for school bullying, a significant negative association was reported in schools with clear and established rules; with organised approaches to the management of bullying behaviour; in schools with the capacity to intervene against violence, and in schools displaying CE (Azerdo et al., 2015). Similarly, a recent study which assessed relational climate of schools through CE, social structure and social cohesion among students and teaching staff revealed that social cohesion, trust and informal social control were significantly and consistently negatively associated with bullying (Sargeant et al., 2013). Survey results further indicated that collectively, less than half of the school community believed the frequency of physical violence in the school grounds was reduced by the presence of the SBPO. Although it is likely that the presence of an SBPO may deter perpetration of violence and bullying in the school by providing a permanently visible law enforcement resource, it is clear that the constant presence alone may be inadequate in achieving the program’s expected outcomes.

Both nationally and internationally, research regarding the effectiveness of the Police in Schools and equivalent programs are largely lacking and available results have been inconsistent, however it has been suggested that inconsistencies may reflect overall lower levels of scientific methodological rigor and lack of reliable objective outcome measures both before and after the program is introduced (Devlin & Gottfredson, 2012).  A previous evaluation of the program revealed frequent mismatches between common types of police reactive work and the educational content delivered by SBPO’s (Murphy, 1998). For example, recurring truancy and theft were recorded as the highest number of recorded incidents at a participating school, however seminars focusing on the police role and drugs represented the highest proportion of lectures conducted by the designated SBPO. Clearly, educational content delivered by SBPOs should be aligned to contemporary issues experienced within the specific school environment in order to reinforce school values and expectations, delineate collective discipline management, and to strengthen perceived CE, SBPO effectiveness and overall program efficacy. 

  In conclusion, a developmental approach to crime prevention is characterised by its recognition of the complex interaction between individual, environmental, and cultural determinants of crime during key developmental periods. The Police in Schools program represents a moderately successful crime prevention approach influenced by developmental perspectives of crime and crime prevention, and underpinned by a community-partnered approach which has been acknowledged as a protective factor for youth crime trajectories. Although lacking in empirical consistency, the effectiveness of the Police in Schools program is often measured by fluctuations in levels and frequency of school truancy, violent behaviours and bullying. However, a lack of clearly defined SBPO roles and responsibilities impacts program efficacy on a number of crucial levels including a lack of perceived CE and the risk of assigned police officers directing substantial efforts to law enforcement aspects of the role, which is contrary to the principles of developmental theories. The lack of clearly defined roles and responsibilities is also evident in the reported frequent mismatching of common SBPO work and educational content delivered in lectures. Efforts directed towards clearly defining both the expectations, roles and responsibilities of the SBPO prior to the placement would ensure that not only will more reliable objective outcome measures be identified, operationalised and measured, but will also greatly enhance the value of the program and its effectiveness.


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