Securing the State: Counter-terrorism and Community Policing

December 12, 2018
Securing the State: Counter-terrorism and Community Policing
Andrew Staniforth
Andrew Staniforth Non-Resident Fellow - Counter Terrorism & National Security

Communities the world over, despite their varying social, cultural, geographic and ethnic differences, have common and shared values in their need for safety, security and wellbeing. We live in an age of increasing technical connectivity but many citizens and their communities are disconnected from the police who serve to keep them safe. It is this disconnection which currently raises acute concerns for national security policy-makers and senior police professionals who, in the context of tackling terrorism and preventing violent extremism, believe it is a space which becomes exploited by terrorists who espouse their extremist rhetoric to encourage division, while serving to radicalise and recruit those vulnerable in society to their violent and extremist causes.

In recognising this challenge and identifying the need to bridge the gap between the public and the police to tackle terrorism, there has over recent years been a fresh focus upon the role of Community Policing (CP) in preventing violent extremism at the local level.  In the UK, this approach has signalled a re-dedication to the founding principles of policing established in 1829 by Sir Robert Peel of the London Metropolitan Police Force. Sir Robert Peel declared the key to preventing crime was not only earning the support of the public, but that every community member must share the responsibility of preventing crime while maintaining at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that “the police are the public and that the public are the police.” Widely acknowledged as the “Father of Modern Policing”, the core ideas and principles created by Sir Robert Peel and his commissioners remain as crucial and urgent today as they were two centuries ago.

Catalyst for change

Although terrorism has been endemic to human history for centuries, there is something particularly horrific about the suddenness and sheer magnitude of contemporary terrorist events. The coordinated suicide terrorist bombings and armed active-shooter assaults conducted over recent years have all served to amplify the discord between the geographically anchored specialist policing assets and the amorphous threat from distributed non-hierarchical cells affiliated to terrorist groups.  These major terrorist incidents have proved to be a catalyst for change in responding to international terrorism. During the aftermath of these tragic events, reflection and analysis of government responses found similarities in failings to prevent the attacks at the most local level. The immediacy and the diversity of the terrorist threat havei brought about a series of fresh challenges.  At the core of many of the changes required to tackle contemporary international terrorism has been the problematic shift to the pre-emption or interception of terrorism.  This is a shift necessitated both by the suicidal component of terrorist tactics and the decreasing attack planning timeframes, a shift that has far-reaching implications for national security, and in particular for Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs).

The policing of political violence – traditionally categorised as intelligence-led and politically sensitive – had historically generated structures which had been remote, secretive and specialised.  Yet the contemporary evolution of terrorism, demonstrated in recent attacks, has spawned important new trends and demanded a new policing response.  The discovery of terrorist cells, who have evolved to become embedded citizens living and planning in communities, has challenged the traditional pursuit of terrorists to ensure that counter-terrorism practices are now able to draw upon the information and goodwill of communities from which aberrant extremists are being recruited and radicalised.  National security policy-makers have come to understand that international terrorism is increasingly local, therefore, to keep citizens safe, a major shift towards harnessing the capacity of the public to support the broader counter-terrorism effort has been an important development in counter-terrorism practice.

Community Policing

The lessons from international terrorist attacks today continue to indicate that national security increasingly depends upon neighbourhood security and local information from communities to help authorities to prevent terrorism and pursue terrorists has come to the fore. While the concept of CP has been embedded in police practice across the world for some considerable time, many police officers and homeland security policy-makers neither fully understand nor appreciate the scale and scope of how it can serve to significantly increase safety at a national and international level.

It is now essential that all in authority understand more about the philosophy, delivery mechanisms and key characteristics of CP if they are to fully support and contribute towards the prevention of terrorism and violent extremism.  At its simplest level, police interaction with the public through CP reassures communities about the risk from terrorism and reminds the public to remain vigilant. But the combined effect of a CP approach, with police officers and their partners who are both informed of terrorist threats in their locality and conduct their duties through the lens of counter-terrorism, can directly prevent terrorism and protect the communities they serve.

The concept of CP has proved to be popular and widely used across the world, characterised as the ‘new orthodoxy’ and ‘preferred policing style’ amongst senior police officials and leaders all around the world.[1]  CP has now become an organisational strategy which allows the police, its partners and the public to work closely together to solve problems of crime and disorder and to improve neighbourhood conditions and feelings of security. It is an organisational strategy that leaves setting priorities and the means of achieving them to residents and the police who serve in their neighbourhoods. In this regard, CP should be viewed as a process rather than a product. The key elements of CP as an organisational strategy are ‘police, partners and the public.’[2]  To be effective CP must be based on partnerships, engaging with communities to identify what local problems are, and then seeking ways in which the problem can be tackled and resolved. The police services do not have a monopoly on good ideas when it comes to solving problems in communities. Furthermore, the solutions to crime, disorder, terrorism and the prevention of violent extremism do not come exclusively from the police but also from partner agencies or communities themselves.

Community engagement

As an integral part of CP, police and partners have a responsibility to engage with communities, their concerns and priorities.  To effectively engage with the community requires a citizen focused approach which bridges the gap between what the public wants and what the police can deliver. The shift towards citizen focused policing ensures that the police involve the community in decision-making which in turn increases accountability and legitimacy amongst the stakeholders involved.  This is essential as the contemporary citizen is no longer a passive observer of policing but has become a ‘consumer’ and ‘customer’ of the policing product and therefore will not simply tolerate being ignored, or left on the side lines.[3] Citizen focused policing means reflecting the needs and expectations of individuals and local communities.  The objectives of citizen focused policing are to improve public confidence, to increase the satisfaction of police service users and to increase public involvement in policing.

One of the most important concepts within CP for the prevention of terrorism and violent extremism at a local community level is that it is neither divorced nor separated from other policing or public sector activity.  CP must exist in symbiosis with community engagement and citizen focus to effectively deliver counter-terrorism policing. For the effective delivery of policing terrorism and violent extremism, every effort must be made to reach out and engage with individuals, groups and communities who can support and inform local counter-terrorism preventative measures and interventions. Community engagement strategies concerning terrorism and violent extremism must be embedded into the very culture of day-to-day CP activities.

A way forward

The indiscriminate and unpredictable nature of contemporary international terrorism has introduced a new form of relationship between national security and neighbourhood safety.  This relationship has evoked a new type of community-centred counter-terrorism response, fuelling a new era of police collaboration. . Concepts such as community involvement, multi-agency working and public assurance – now widely accepted and practised in local policing across the world – have migrated into the policing of terrorism. All police officers, and not just those specialist counter-terrorism officers, must now share in the task of countering terrorism which has become a matter for all in the police, for all their strategic partners, local stakeholders and for all the public.

Senior police officers and homeland security policy makers must now conceptualise CP in terms of collaboration and coordination, whilst facilitating shared ownership, responsibility and building trust and community confidence. While the primary mission of LEAs across the world has not fundamentally changed over the last two centuries, contemporary policing models, technologies and communities themselves have become increasingly complex, eroding the founding principles of policing established by Sir Robert Peel, disconnecting the police from the very communities they protect. A fresh approach to CP that understands that the sense of belonging to a particular community (whether it be a specific neighbourhood, self-identified social, religious or ethnic group, or even a virtual network), is a fundamental precondition for the day-to-day functioning of societies and the well-being of individual citizens. New approaches to CP must be developed that firmly believe that such functioning and well-being is improved wherever citizens, civic organisations and private businesses are empowered to work cooperatively with police and other public authorities to identify and resolve issues together that affect their safety and security.[4]

To counter contemporary terrorism effectively, governments are encouraged to seek new ways of working with their citizens, police and local community stakeholders. Embracing such an approach will serve as a catalyst for change within communities, helping them to become an integral part of counter-terrorism solutions in their locality, and thereby sharing in the ownership and delivery of CP. It is only by working with citizens and community stakeholders more closely that police officers arrive at a full understanding of their concerns, and where targeted counter-terrorism and counter-extremism preventative interventions and solutions can be agreed and actioned.


[1] Reisig, D & Kane, R The Oxford Handbook of Police and Policing 2014 Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

[2] Reisig, D & Kane, R The Oxford Handbook of Police and Policing 2014 Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

[3] Akhgar, B, Bayerl, S, Karlovic, R, & Markarian, G Community Policing – A European Perspective Cham, Switzerland: Springer International, 2017.

[4] Akhgar, B, Bayerl, S, Karlovic, R, & Markarian, G Community Policing – A European Perspective Cham, Switzerland: Springer International, 2017.