“The proposed election of police commissioners has generated intense debate. The substance of the legislation being considered is to replace police authorities with commissioners elected by popular vote. Proponents argue that this is a welcome reform to make the police directly accountable to the people while opponents worry about further politicisation of the police forces.
Proponents clearly assume that the indirect control that we exercise over our representatives is imperfect i.e. we assume that the threat that the electorate holds over their representatives does not make them select efficient regulators to oversee local affairs such as policing. The hope is that electing them directly will improve accountability i.e. elected police commissioners will be somewhat more responsive to the will of the people than our elected MP and local councillors have been. It’s an attractive theory and while it is impossible to predict the precise impact that electing commissioners will have let us briefly look at how these elections of similar officials have worked in the US. I am not aware of any rigorous study of police chief/sheriff elections but the analysis of electing public prosecutors (that I have carried out with Dr. Bryan McCannon, Wake Forest) could serve as a cautionary tale. If conviction rates are what the public cares about, prosecutors take cases which are easily provable to trial to increase their conviction rates. If the public are more concerned with higher prison sentences, prosecutors put in inoptimal amounts of effort on costly trials to produce the required average sentence targets that the public demand. This stems from the fact that voters are imperfectly informed about the ability of their elected officials and use these measures to distinguish capable officials from not so capable ones. Our empirical work on prosecutors facing elections in North Carolina validates our theoretical analysis that elections do induce distortions i.e. the decision by prosecutors of what cases to try differ from what is desirable from the view of the working of the criminal justice system. Work by other researchers on elections of judges in the US point to similar distortions when election time approaches.
Various case studies in the US have shown that miscarriage of justice has occurred when prosecutions have been carried out under public pressure. The UK and various parts of Europe had very wisely understood that certain regulatory bodies should be insulated from the fluctuating metric of public opinion. Indeed, there is research showing that stability in office for regulatory posts has been found to improve not reduce regulation. While this may have led to over centralization where the differences across local areas have been ignored, a welcome move towards some degree of decentralization is quite different from introducing elections at every level. Reforms should be undertaken to insulate the police further from political pressure not the reverse. Transparency in their modus operandi to ensure that they do not shirk in their duty can be introduced without officials who face re-electoral pressures trying to oversee their crime fighting decisions.
Finally, almost everyone agrees that the reforms will be costly at least in the first few years. To spend millions of pounds on an untested measure at a time when the police are facing 20% cuts in their budget do not seem a prudent use of resources. Cash strapped commissioners trying o please the electorate would not be human if they did not distort resources towards the most vocal sections of the community, further neglecting crime in areas where the rewards are not immediate and visible to the public eye. If our would be commissioners are no less keen than their US counterparts to get re-elected, the elections are likely to cause further distortions in the administration of the criminal justice system.”