Sunday, 17 July 2011

The problem with Police and Crime Commissioners

Plans are afoot for a move in this country to elected police and crime commissioners. The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill 2010-11 is currently going through the House of Lords and will see it's third reading on Tuesday. They've been pushed forward by the Conservatives, the only party to suggest such a plan in their manifesto.


WHAT ARE THE PLANS?

In short, to quote Mrs Theresa May (Home Secretary), the plans put forward are to "shift power directly into the hands of the public as they elect police and crime commissioners to lead the fight against crime and disorder in their areas."

This means elections held at the same time as "normal" elections, such as local or general elections, to put a single person in charge of strategy for local policing, to decide budgets, and to take responsibility for the senior officers in the police force.


WHY ARE WE TAKING THIS ROUTE?

Is this plan genuinely seen as the best option by the government for deciding police strategy? Is it fair to assume there is a hidden agenda, that there is a desire for greater political involvement in our police forces?

New governments mean new changes, sometimes to situations that have already been tried and failed in the past. Policing seems to be one of those areas where politicians feel the need to make a change regardless of the need, cost or sensibility of the alterations.

It makes little sense for this government to push these plans go ahead, given that it may very well result in police forces being run by politicians from either Labour or Lib Dem colours rather than Tory ones, and so it also must be that the Conservatives also feel that this change won't, ultimately, make much of a difference to the national strategy of policing.

Governments may well be able to say they wish to take power away from centralised sources, but I doubt any would say they want to lose power of the country's law enforcement after all.


POLICE APPROVAL RATINGS

What the plans may do is reflect well under current methodology of police approval studies, and give the Tories something to crow about nationally come the next election. But as we can see from the British Crime Survey 10/11, there's already a long term trend of increased approval of the police, and crime itself is on a downward trend.

This isn't to say that new plans couldn't improve these trends, to make crime fall and approval rise faster.

If the public feel they are influencing the police force, albeit making them happier about the force in the process, this doesn't also mean the police are more effective at their purpose and stated aims. It doesn't mean that the police will be operating cost-effectively. And it does run the very real risk of the public thinking they should be having more influence than they ultimately will end up having, potentially damaging approval ratings, and trust in the force.


POLITICISATION?

Simply put, having people elect the person responsible for police strategy (on what would likely be a low 30% level of turnout) doesn't mean that someone right for the job makes it in. Far from it. We know that rather than knowledgeable individuals with experience in the field, parties will field politicians, and the election material will be "Let Labour run your police force" or "Lib Dems for more police on the beat".

We won't be electing individuals that fit the task at hand, though some of us may try to find out what the stances of each candidate for our area are, most will align with their political leanings and go with what their preferred party tell them to do. You vote Labour for your local elections, you'll probably vote Labour for your local police commissioner too. As far as accountability goes it's pretty thin on the ground.

And there is very real evidence that people that intend to get in to this position will do so by playing up to populist stances, without it necessarily being the right direction to take. Take this research conducted on the actions of public prosecutors (mostly elected) in the US.

The theory predicts that when re-election pressures are high prosecutors increase the number of cases taken to trial and plea bargain less. Data from all forty-three districts in North Carolina over twelve years provides empirical verifcation.


As a job, it's not comparable, but it shows us really what we already know...where personal power is predicated on the "success" of persecuting others more compared to your rivals, you will do what you can to achieve that. It's not a remote possibility that elected police commissioners here would seek to tie up police budgets on schemes that aren't cost effective but do provide favourable figures in the eyes of the public...or at least the area of the small handful of the public that is likely to return them for a second term.


SHOULDN'T THE PUBLIC HAVE A SAY?

The main gist of the whole plan is clearly the drive for more democracy, or perhaps as is more likely the greater illusion of democracy; Yet my stance is no, the public shouldn't have a larger direct say.

For a start, what do the public know of the nuances of police budgeting and crime fighting strategy? Some may have very detailed knowledge, many will have none. As I say above, the public will rely on trusting parties, at which point the public are merely delegating their voice to a party machine rather than having a true say of their own.

What the public should have is confidence that their communities issues are being listened to and dealt upon, something that doesn't need a directly elected official, and confidence that where there is wrongdoing or incompetence on behalf of the police force that it will be quickly and comprehensively dealt with. What it needs on the issue of crime is that common sense is applied as to who is being brought to justice, a remit not even in the hands of local police forces themselves. With criticisms of both the IPCC and CPS, as well as the invisibility of the police authorities that currently run some of the tasks that the police commissioner would take over, there are much more concerning areas of policing that could be improved and bring trust in the entire crime and justice system up another level.

Nick Herbert, a Minister involved in pushing the legislation forward, has called views like this "Elitism", which is a very crass way of trying to switch off the political debate about such a potentially large change to the way our police attempt to do their job.


HEADING IN BLIND

I for one don't think it's elitist to ask that we don't make policy up on the hoof, that we set out a proposition (That the police could be reducing crime faster, and improving public relations quicker), and then carry our appropriate research in to similar models, how they've worked, how frequently they're used, and if the model isn't used then why not; to legislate potentially for small scale pilot study of the model that seems most in tune with out aims.

I don't think it's elitist to use all this data to make sure we have a good idea that is likely to work before we spend £130 million to implement it.

The Lords seem to agree with this, when on the 11th of May they voted for Amendment 1 on a margin of 188-176, scrapping the notion of an elected police commissioner completely from the legislation (though the government have presumptuously said they shall keep on with it)

[The Lords must] ask ourselves whether we really understand what we are changing and why; and, above all, whether we fully appreciate what the consequences of that change will or could be. I am not against change, but if it is to be positive it needs at the very least to do more good than harm, and preferably it needs to demonstrate that what it creates is better than what came before. I am very concerned that the evidence base for making this change is incredibly thin, and that the consequences of implementing it have not been thoroughly researched or properly thought through.

Baroness Harris of Richmond

I urge people to read the debate held in the Lords on 11th May, as it's an incredibly sensible one that cuts through a lot of the supposed benefits of this plan.


STANDARD PRACTICE?

When it comes down to it, this legislation doesn't follow standard practices for our democracy, we understand the need for local democracy and that's why we elect entire councils of local politicians rather than a single politician for the entire area, and when we elect our representatives for the entirety of the UK we don't just elect a single individual or a party and give them full control of our nation.

The principle of more direct accountability of police authorities is one that can be positively discussed, it's a model we all understand. By contrast the nearest we have as a model in the UK to police commissioners are elected mayors (such as Boris Johnson in London).

If there is one thing that perhaps the last few weeks have shown us is that power corrupts, the involvement of the police and politicians in collusion with the press for their own self-serving ends shows the danger of a lack of independent oversight and the danger of an organisation or set of individuals feeling beholden to someone with an over-abundance of power.

Do we necessarily need a single individual holding all the cards, pandering to populism (though only in the majoritarian sense, since the views of the minority that take part in their elections shall be all they need to concern themselves with), and significantly more vulnerable to media (tabloid) attacks on their actions due to their single party standing?


IS NOW THE TIME?

So surely, with all of this in mind it is not the right time to think about plans as "grand" as this? Now is not the time for creating a job so easily corruptible, not when we have organisations that are much better suited for the job of holding police forces to account, if only they had a little more power.

Police authorities are unelected bodies, but are made up of people that are both interested and knowledgeable parties, as well as politicians that have been elected (yes, directly elected!) and are a more accurate route of information from local communities around a police force's area to those that hold that police force to account.

There is no doubt that these police authorities need to change. They're silent, they lack teeth, they essentially don't justify their own existence as it stands...yet it would take minimal changes to give them the powers that the government wishes to gift to the single role of police and crime commissioner. Administrative reforms that make it clearer who they are, how they can be contacted, and what they've been doing...as well as a larger move to publicise their existence, would cost significantly less and be significantly more balanced than trying to get the same work from a single elected party line politician.


GOING FORWARD

If the latest Lords bill is to be believed (though it is a little contradictory since the amended bill has been published), what will return to the commons is a plan for a non-elected body, made up of representatives that are stakeholders in local areas, that will alone have the power to create this police commissioner from it's own membership as it sees fit.

We have the opportunity to tell our MPs, when this bill finds it's way back to the House of Commons, that we would prefer that they don't politicise our police force any further than it already is, without proper study at least, and that we also don't want our time and money wasted by trying to revert the Lords' plans back to their own when they now provide a more stable reform.