“The case for directly elected police and crime commissioners begins with the weakness of the current arrangements for holding our police forces to account. Ever since their inception the existing Police Authorities have had a very low public profile – few members of the public know who is on them, when and where they meet, what contribution they are expected to make or what exactly they achieve. Indeed, mostly it is only the Metropolitan Police Authority in London that ever makes news headlines or receives any regular media attention – and this, as it happens, is the one Authority that has a high profile directly elected individual as its chair – in this case, the Mayor of London.
Elsewhere, there exists a serious democratic deficit in relation to police governance and it is worrying that such an important and publicly-facing local service should operate with such a weak framework of public accountability. This indeed was recognised by the previous Labour Government which also sought to reform police governance, but failed to identify a satisfactory acceptable alternative.
The idea of addressing the democratic deficit by directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners is, for sure, controversial and carries risks, notably of unhelpfully politicising policing, of creating a challenge to the traditional operational independence of chief constables, and of giving priority to those aspects of policing work that are of most interest to the public (e.g. local policing) at the expense of other, less visible, but no less vital, protective and security-related police work.
But against such risks are some significant potential gains to be had in terms of democratic accountability and control of the police at force level. The need for this was all too apparent in the wake of events such as the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, and the death of Ian Tomlinson in the G20 protests. The election of Police and Crime Commissioners is unlikely of course to prevent more such tragedies occurring, but it should certainly ensure a more robust process of calling to account of police chiefs for their actions, or inaction. More generally, it should serve to make police forces more responsive to public expectations, to perform more effectively and, in turn, help to raise public trust and confidence in policing.
One particular concern about the proposals is that a commissioner – as one individual – will struggle to engage with and represent properly all the communities and their concerns over territories as large and diverse as a typical police force area. For this reason, rather than planning to abolish Police Authorities entirely, perhaps a preferable way forward might have been to reconstitute them so that the directly elected Commissioner would take the chair of a forum additionally comprised (as now) of nominated councillors from across each police area. This would ensure that debates and decision-making about strategic policing priorities and the allocation of resources, for example, would benefit from a strong element of locality-based representation as well as that of the leadership of the Commissioner.
In fact, the coalition government’s proposals additionally provide for the establishment of Police and Crime Panels for each police area, these to be comprised of nominated local councillors who would scrutinise the work of the commissioners. But perhaps it would be better if such nominated local councillors were to work with the Commissioners on newly constituted Police Authorities rather than against them. That, after all, is the way decision-making operates in local authority areas with directly-elected mayors – including, as indicated, in the metropolitan area of Greater London.
In summary, then, the introduction of directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners has the potential to enhance democratic governance and accountability in relation to policing, to promote wider public debate and engagement with the issues of policing priorities and resourcing, and, perhaps most important, to provide a check on the drift of recent years towards a national police force in all but name. The reforms deserve to be trialled to see just what difference they make."