Making the ‘Visible’ Visible

The Communicative Properties of a Visible Police Presence in Community Engagement

Researcher: Dr Lisa Weston
Principal supervisors: Dr Mike Rowe and Dr Liz Turner

Full Report


The College of Policing (2018) recently developed Neighbourhood Policing Guidelines to provide forces with a practicable framework for delivering local policing. In the guidelines, police visibility, described as ‘officers, staff and volunteers being responsible for and having a targeted visible presence in neighbourhoods’, is identified as an ‘essential element’ of ‘engaging communities.’ This aspect of the guidelines has been indirectly boosted by the government announcing in 2019 a commitment to increasing police funding to put ‘more bobbies on the beat’ (GOV.UK, 2019). These developments, although in their infancy, recast police visibility has an important part of local policing functions, particularly delivering community engagement. It is within this context that the research sought to develop incomplete insights into how police visibility, and more specifically the visible presence of Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs), can contribute to providing an ongoing two-way dialogue between the police and the public and enabling the police to better understand communities, as envisaged in the ‘engaging communities’ guideline.


Key Findings

  • A visible police presence in the day-to-day work of Neighbourhood Policing Teams (NPTs) is created by the interactional accessibility of police officers and staff on patrol. It is the nature and structure of the interactional accessibility of police officers on vehicle patrol and PCSOs on foot patrol that highlights the compatibility of each patrol method to delivering a community engagement function.
  • The vehicle is a closed bounded space moving on the road at a distance from others that can restrict and disguise the physical accessibility of police officers. As a result, vehicle patrol can create the conditions for minimal formal police-public contact and can produce information about the activity of officers that is inconducive to establishing a visible presence to engage communities.
  • The open unbounded space of walking on the street in close proximity to others can expose and amplify the physical accessibility of PCSOs. Accordingly, foot patrol can create the conditions for increased informal eye-to-eye and verbal police-public contact capable of facilitating a reciprocal expressive connection and developing relations conducive to establishing a visible presence to engage communities.