Friday, 26 October 2012

Support Your Local Sheriff?

15th November sees an innovation in British law enforcement of a dubious nature. Thanks to some odd and expensive scheduling courtesy of the Liberal Democrat arm of the Coalition Government, electors across England and Wales will have the opportunity to vote for the newly created role of Police and Crime Commissioner.

This role  is charged with ensuring effective policing in its area and replaces the committees of Police Authorities. These consisted usually of 9 local councillors nominated by the councils in the Authority area, plus 8 members who were a mix of magistrates and independent appointees. These were a valuable means of oversight and governance but one where no one person was powerful enough to interfere overly with the operational activities of the police, which remained the provenance of the professional Chief Constable. Equally, having a range of views and interests represented meant that any cosy one-to-one relationship between a Chief Constable and a Police Commissioner was not possible.

The thinking behind Police Commissioners is supposedly to combine democratic control with a more directive approach to policing, just as elected mayors were once touted as the miraculous cure-all for local authorities - with decidedly mixed results (viz, Hartlepool and Doncaster). Given the choice in May this year of having more elected mayors, voters in all but two of the eleven areas voting decided against. Sadly, no such vote was ever taken on Police Commissioners and as the idea featured in the manifestos of both Coalition parties, this dreadful example of gesture politics has gone ahead.

So what do we have now that nominations have closed? Given the complete absence of any public funding for the election campaign - such as the free mailshot distribution in other elections - the only people capable of mounting a credible campaign across the large geographical areas involved will either be machine politicians or rich people with their own agenda. So we are left with a rag bag of local politicians eyeing up the significant pay packet attached to the post, along with a collection of ex-police officers possibly looking to get their own back on their former bosses and a smattering of former military people, which seems mildly worrying. Few inspire any confidence of offering any fresh start to policing. And how could they?

Effective local policing needs local input from a range of sources - community policing at its best encompasses a wide range of views and needs and while it varies in different parts of the country, there are a number of examples of good policing working well with local people and attendant reduction in crime.

None of that has involved some local would-be caped crusader offering instant salvation. Rather it has involved a lot of long-term, painstaking work by officers and communities getting to understand each other and working together in ways that defy the hot headed ranting of the likes of the Daily Mail about soft cops and ineffective courts. The result has been a steady decline in crime to its lowest level in over 30 years, but the fear of crime, thanks to the media, has grown so that the public perception is that it is worse than ever.

And this is the worry about these new posts and the election that goes with them: the candidates are just feeling their way into new campaigns for a new type of post. Most voters are unaware and quite disinterested - turnout is likely to be appallingly low (which begs the question why the Lib Dems were so keen to have them now rather than alongside other local polls in May next year). But longer term, forced to justify their tenure in office - or seeking to challenge an incumbent who will be blamed for all manner of ills - there is every likelihood of Police Commissioner votes turning into populist referenda driven by revenge-seeking stories in the press. Incumbent Commissioners will be more and more tempted to make headline-grabbing gestures, pressurizing the police into politicised agendas that can easily lead into extremely difficult territory in terms of social cohesion.

It is perhaps only because of their current organisational stasis that so few far right candidates are standing in these elections - the BNP is collapsing because of in-fighting, but the far right will not go away. There is every chance that future PC elections will become a gift-horse for their scapegoating agendas, and a Trojan Horse for those who think that this sort of vote somehow enhances democratic control of policing.

Time to stop aping America. We're not Gotham City just yet...

1 comment:

  1. I have to agree that these posts are a generally unwanted imposition and that the claim that having 1 elected person rather than 8 overseeing the police is hardly an increase in democracy.

    It is patently obvious to anyone, except it seems a member of the coalition, that one person will be unable to guage the feeling of the millions whose views they are supposed to reflect.

    The thought of a police force controlled by a founder of the English Defence League fills me with dread.

    I spent 30 years in the police and this is possibly the worst innovation there has ever been.