Sunday, 31 July 2011

Elected Commissioners to support the Police? Not just pie in the sky.

One of the Liberal Democrat standpoints on justice has been to have an elected commissioner of Police, it is one that I agree with in principle and one I think needs especially now needs to be looked at seriously. This does fly in the face of my friend Councilor Tristan Osborne (lab) who wrote a very interesting 'blog post that is firmly against it and I will attempt to engage with his arguments further on.

You can read his 'blog post here...

Currently each constabulary is run by a Chief Constable with whom all the power and responsibility rests. There is an advisory committee made up of independents and local politicians that have been appointed rather than elected. The Chief Constable should listen to the concerns raised by this group and their advice but like the parliaments of old their in puts are not necessarily taken seriously and budgets and priorities are set and controlled by the Chief and their staff. Police officers making their own decisions as to how the police force should be run. In theory that's what you want.
Who knows how to run the Police force better than the Police force? Do you really want some political lackey or busy body telling them how to do their jobs or how to spend their money? It'd be like the Soviet Commissars telling the ex Czarist army officers how to wage war... Chaos would ensue and you would end up with a situation where two different "heads" would be butting for supremacy and the only loser is the public.

BUT... and here is the big crux of the matter. What qualifies a chief constable? Now ignoring some of the tales my Grandfather told me about from when he was a Police sergeant including nepotism, old boys, Masons, Eton/ Oxbridge buddies which I'm sure are no longer true. A Chief Constable will usually have gone in as a beat cop, sat their exams quite quickly done a brief spell as a sergeant before moving up to an officer and then rotating themselves to as many secondments as possible to gather a wide range of different sections and then begun the task of being in the right place at the right time. It’s helpful if you know the right people or get yourself attached to the right cases etc. Then pow... if you're lucky and you've done your politicking well you're a Chief. How long were you a constable on the ground? More importantly how long ago was that? You may even find yourself a Chief Constable in a completely different part of the country? What knowledge of Devon and Cornwall policing would a Chief from London have?
Further more, and this is important especially since the Government announced cuts of 20% (, the budget and Police spending. Now left to their own devices a Chief Constable will make the decisions as to what to spend the money on. Now some Chief's, such as Chris Sims of Birmingham are trying to limit the amount of cuts to frontline officers by cutting non-essential services and bureaucratic staff, others will seek to limit the projected 15,000 odd job losses to "Natural Wastage" of retirement and resignations etc. Others may decide that yes... we need a new fleet of BMW patrol cars rather than the officers to drive them, or that more money needs to be spent policing Football matches or tackling alcohol related crime - according to the statistics BUT these may not be the concerns of the neighborhood or community. The Police can only work on crimes that are reported and if there is a gang terrorizing an estate that they don't know about then they won't tackle it. Civilians are often too scared to deal with the Police, it's not like the 50's where you can stop an officer in the street and talk confidentially... When was the last time you saw a Police officer in your street?
Who will they talk to? Another civilian. Now I agree that party politics should be kept out of this. There are times I think it should be removed from parliament and council as it all it seems to breed is this tribal tub thumping and the constant blue/red rugby game that seems to go on everywhere and the only losers are the constituents...

But an elected official, not necessarily on a county wide but definitely in a borough capacity to liase with the citizenry and direct the Police in how the public wants to see them act, what they feel the money should be spent on and services they feel should be maintained or cut. It would help police/community relations no end. An unelected "advisory board" just won't cut it, some members may be drawing from their knowledge of the communities others may be using it as a CV mark and not interested. If a single commissioner is out of the question at least make the advisory body elected by the people to represent the people's needs. Another half step would be to open up the accounts and practices to public scrutiny and questions. If the Chief Constable is sure of their actions let them publicize it and defend it on the open stage. Policing needs to be open, more so than ever. Their duty is to serve and protect the community but the communities don’t know they're there half the time.
Cllr Osborne is right to raise the question of corruption and that an elected member may be open to bribery etc. even to a greater extent than an officer in uniform. I think that it is down to the individual. A person in uniform can disgrace themselves just as readily as one in civilian clothes, but if a civilian is discovered they can be recalled, a uniform... you need to rely on them falling on their good sense and resigning.
Now is not the time for rash economic decisions and Cllr Osborne is right to rise the financial implications of this policy BUT I think, and I know sections of our party and the Conservative party, strongly believe that Police reform is needed and an elected Commissioner would go a long way to help path the gap between Police and Citizenry.


  1. An interesting rubuttal though do have further questions.

    You mention a career path of a Chief Constable but the Police Commissioner does not replace the Chief Constable; it replaces the KPA which is a seperate institution. I accept that career path for Chief Constables are broad and varied but actually having a Police Officer who has breadth across varying forces is better equipped then dealing with an elected office who may have no experience of policing at all.

    Also additional questions

    i) Could we guarantee that a Sheriff garnering votes will not look to represent the constituency that votes for him. The risk in Kent being high-voting Shire areas V low-voting inner city urban areas. We have seen such resource skew before with KCC

    ii) The expense of funding an election. Do the public really want an elected Sheriff. Who is leading this debate on behalf of local communities. Is it PACTs, Communities? Or is it policy wonkers in Whitehall?

    iii) Would you want to have a the head of the Police canvassing on your doorstep for votes? Campaign teams, attacks on opponents. The Police are supposed to be above politics and non-partisan. This risks how the Police are perceived by the public?

    Just food for thought.

  2. Hi Tris,

    To answer your first question this is true and although I do question the qualifications of certain Chief Constables, for example Ian Blair was not a "Copper's Copper." and was happy to play politics. I suppose I look on it in the same way as Generals and Admirals in the military, they've not all got there on merit if you get what I mean. I do however respect the office and agree the Police should have a Policeman as head but I also believe that an elected body or person would give greater public involvement and they'd feel they would have a voice. Its an area that I feel warrants investigation and debate.

    i.) Absolutely. That's why I suggested a borough based sherrif so that a Medway Commissionar would represent Medway, a Maidstone and district, Canterbury etc. A county sheriff would be disasterous as each county is diverse. I suppose what would be better would be to have the KPA to be an elected body that sits in an advisory fashion for the Chief Constable (whom I wouldn't want completly replaced any way.) and then the public would feel they had more of a say.

    ii.) True, but I think it is a debate worth having, people should be given the option of having more of a voice rather than being told what is and isn't good for them. People at the moment are looking at the state of the country and wondering how we got to where we did and rightly want answers from the "Ruling elite" that have guided us into this iceberg.

  3. and part II ;-)

    iii.) In honesty... yes, I would want someone at my door telling me how things are run & how they will represent my concerns. I agree that party politics should NOT be part of it and that stricter rules should be brought in about how a campaign is run though.

    If I may just quote Hayek from "The Constitution of Liberty";

    We may admit that democracy does not put power in the hands of the wisest and best informed and that at any given moment the decission of a government by an elite might be more beneficial to the whole; but this need not prevent us from still giving democracy the preference. It is in its dynamic, rather than its static, aspects that the value of democracy proves itself. As is true of liberty, the benefits of democracy will show themselves only in the long run, while its more immediate achievements may well be inferior.

  4. There is a validity on a borough based model as that would remove the concerns about resource skew. Not the proposal being considered though.

    I favour democracy but the public do not have referendums on every issue and nor actually do they want to. They dont elect doctors - they rely on their experience and judgement. I think the reduction in crime over last 10-15 years shows we do have a good Police force.

    Could the KPA be reformed to allow more democracy; that is an interesting questions. I certainly would appreciate Medway having more of a local say but we do have the CSP here.

    Sufficed to say there is not enough information out there at the moment and the public are not engaged. You would not think this were already in the House of Commons / Lords at final stages.

  5. Indeed, I know it was one of our ideas and I welcomed it on its announcement but was also waiting for debate and more information and its just slipping through!

    I agree that referendum's would be pointless on every little facet but on certain key ones I think they would appreciate it. i.e Voting reform.

    To be fair though If I didn't like my doctor I'd change and get a new one. If I don't agree with my chief constable I'm stuck with him. An elected body would help in so many ways it just looks like a daunting task at the moment. If its managed properly (IF?!?) then I really believe it offers amazing opportunities.