Understanding preventive counter terrorism policing – what shapes police practitioner understandings of preventive counter terrorism?

Identifying sources of counter terrorism information used by policing practitioners and exploring its impact on frontline practice.

Key details

Lead institution
Principal researcher(s)
Alexandra Kemp
Police region
South East
Level of research
Project start date
Date due for completion

Research context

The threat to the UK from international terrorism and violent political extremism has both increased and changed profoundly in recent decades.

Following the 2005 London bombings, government and police attention has been increasingly focused on upstream prevention. This is to identify and halt terrorists before they engage in violence, or even attack planning through inland and ports counter-terrorism powers, and identifying those who are in the process of radicalising or deemed vulnerable to radicalisation, principally through the Prevent strategy.

Yet preventive counter terrorism policing is often criticised as intrusive, ineffective, counterproductive and misidentifying innocent people as 'suspect'. This suggests the need for constant refinement and improvement.

Against this backdrop, there has been a governmental and organisational drive for policing to be more evidence-based and research-informed, so that academically generated or informed knowledge informs both policy and practice. This assumes policing quality, practice and outcomes are influenced by the type, depth and reliability of knowledge sources. This begs the question, 'what knowledge do practitioners routinely draw upon and how does this influence front line preventive counter terrorism?'

Study objectives

  1. To obtain a deep and theoretical understanding of which external, non-security sensitive knowledge sources inform police counter terrorism worker comprehension of terrorism, terrorists and how and why people become involved in or support terrorist violence. 
  2. To understand how knowledge is formed and operationalised in day-to-day encounters with the public and information.
  3. To describe the lived experiences of counter terrorism workers and how participants make sense of and respond to preventive counter terrorism from the knowledge sources on which they draw.
  4. To determine if engagement with and learning from research has tangible benefits for front line counter terrorism practice. 
  5. To improve public, policy-maker and academic understandings of the difficulties of preventive counter terrorism policing to aid communication, improve cooperation and reduce the potential for counterproductive outcomes.

This researcher is supported by the College of Policing bursary scheme.

Research methodology

Methodology and methods

  1. Approximately 40-50 semi-structured anonymised interviews with serving counter terrorism officers and staff across departments concerned with precautionary or preventative counter terrorism working in five anonymised forces or areas.
  2. Anonymised ethnographic observations of counter terrorism workers in a training environment, observation of discussion, engagement with training material and scenario based activities. 
  3. Administration of a questionnaire structured around close analysis of interview and ethnographic findings to indicate the generalisability of research outcomes.


Counter-terrorism departments engaged in preventative or precautionary counter terrorism across frontier policing, Prevent, intelligence and training departments in five geographically diverse UK areas.

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