Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Police and Crime Commissioners: Democracy, how?

Stephen Tall has just posted an article about why he, as a Liberal Democrat, supports Police and Crime commissioners. Unfortunately he focuses on so many logical fallacies to make his point. Let's count:

Here’s the thing: I don’t have a problem with elected police commissioners. I know they were a Tory manifesto idea and that the Lib Dems are opposed to them (while reluctantly agreeing to vote for them as part of the Coalition Agreement). But I’m just fine with them. My support for directly elected police commissioners is paralleled by my support for directly elected mayors:

First, I'd just like to say...at least it's a principled stance. If you're happy for the sham of democracy that is directly elected mayors, then being happy for the sham of democracy that is PCC's makes sense. It's still crazy if you actually care about democracy though....

For too long, city council politics have been in the hands of amateur part-time leaders:

Boom, instant strawman. Amateur, really? Well then, why do we even have part time representatives at local level, the amateurs! Hell...a third of our parliament have never been an MP before...why do we hand these people such power?!

What I find really interesting about Stephen's argument here is the complete counter-intuitive nature of it. On the one hand Stephen will say here these people are amateurs, that they can't be trusted to de-facto be on the ball when it comes to providing the right direction. Yet on the other, as you will see, he claims that we the public need to be trusted to elect people to do the job.

So which is it Stephen? Are we to trust out local councillors as they have been handed power by people, or to mistrust them as amateurs that don't have a clue about what's going on?

some have been very good, some not so good. But all have been ham-strung by a political system that grants them responsibility without power, allows them to be in office but not in government.

What does this even mean, Stephen? Ham-strung? Responsibility without power?

Let's remember that the local police authorities must:

  • Set budgets
  • Charge money through council tax (if necessary)
  • Set the strategy for the police authority area
  • Get feedback from local people
  • Encourage and nurture diversity and equality
  • To deal with complaints

By comparison, a police and crime commissioner must:

  • Set budgets
  • Charge money through council tax (if necessary)
  • Set the strategy for the police authority area
  • Hold the chief constable to account (and appoint them)

So I guess the sum total of the things that "ham-strung" those local authorities was the need to consider equality and racial diversity, and to actually listen to the public as part of their legal obligations, rather than through political expediency.

For those that don't know, by the way, local police authorities were formed by members of local councils for the area, roughly in line with the political allegiances in the region. This ensured that views from people in Cornwall (for example) were considered alongside views from people in Devon, and that different political priorities were measured up against each other in accordance with the views of the local people. Other "lay" members were also appointed, including magistrates that had real experience of dealing with the outcomes of criminal investigations.

To use my Devon and Cornwall example, the independent members vary from members of boards for charities or schools, to private business people (piano teacher, PR). They are real people like you and I, offering real, direct input from a variety of locations around the region.

I understand and respect those who oppose the idea and the principle of commissioners, those who cleave to the collectivity of committees known as local police authorities. But it’s an argument that all too often spills over into that least attractive mindset: the elitist liberal fearful of too much democracy.

Strawman number two, and an appeal to emotion...maybe we should throw ad hominem in there too. Stephen clearly doesn't respect those who oppose the idea, otherwise he wouldn't play on the emotive description like "elitist" or the idea that they are "fearful of too much democracy".

You see now by arguing against Stephen's point, I am an "elitist" and "fearful of democracy"! Drat, sussed out! Or rather not so much, such "bullying" tactics tend to spur people on rather than shut them out...

Many liberals are openly fearful of a right-wing hang-em-and-flog-em nut-job winning power.

Strange, I thought liberals were fearful of the person that the general population didn't want to represent them getting the job? Hang on. I remember being told time and time again that it was liberals and their annoying propensity for STV (and the lesser AV) that would have the BNP swarming to power in 2015!

But sure, liberals probably don't want an illiberal in power...goes without saying. Does that mean that they are against this system simply because that could be the end result? That's right, people... STRAWMAN.

I get the concern. Come to that, I’m pretty appalled by the idea of Lord Prescott’s return to public life in Humberside.

Who wouldn't be...

But you know what? That’s democracy for you.

The end, simple as that, and they all lived happily ever after! It's such a "genetic" fallacy, this idea that different applications of democracy cannot be criticised, indeed the flaws of any democratic system simply have to be ignored because...hey...that's democracy for you!


Campaign in favour of what you want and against what you don’t want. Despair of the electorate’s judgement. But respect the voters’ right to make the wrong decision.

Unless the voter is voting for a local councillor, of course. They're just amateurs.

There are legitimate concerns that vesting a commissioner’s power in just one person might lead to corruption or limit debate.

Sure, if you want to paint opponents (strawman) of simply being paranoid about evil forces infiltrating our beloved democracy. Thankfully the views of those like me who stand very much against these plans have a little more depth.

Our concerns are rooted in the fact that the police and crime commissioners have LESS duties to maintain the police force in their area, not more; That the very nature of the "democracy" that is electing them threatens to leave entire communities unheard and left to rot in areas of demoralising, but not high-electoral-priority crime; That tying the power to control strategy to a single party, rather than a broadly representative group, lessens the ability to prevent poor planning in the future; That the electorate fundamentally do not understand enough about the nuance of organising the police forces in this country, and therefore being asked to decide between a set of people with broadly the same ideas (less crime, more police, more victim support!) isn't providing democracy to anyone; And that...as with every election of this type...the danger of personality rather than ability becomes to reason that someone gets power. The list, I'm sure, goes on.

Our concerns are far more legitimate and far more important than the not too unreasonable limited views of the tin-foil hat brigade.

Such concerns will, I believe, be outweighed by the vast scrutiny and direct, personal accountability that will come with these powers. You can bet their every move will be watched with greater care than is currently focused on the authorities they’re replacing.

It is surely true that they may be watched more. The great tragedy of the police authorities is that it wasn't clear how they were important in shaping the role of the police. Victims, perhaps, of the turn of the century and new ways of communicating, their structure and process was stuck in the mid 1900's style of minuted board meetings and commissioning statistical research.

Oh how easy it would be, how cheap too, to start gaining public opinion in a more effective manner, and to be more transparent in what they do. But no. We shall not try these simple changes, we will throw the baby out with the bath water.

But scrutiny? Accountability? Boris Johnson was just re-elected to London Mayor. Why? Personality. Dislike of Ken. Was it because of what he did? He himself admitted that he had FAILED to deliver his promises. On the campaign trail it was shown that he was lying to the public about what he had achieved. "Crime down" according to boris, when actually it was up...the London Mayor IS the police and crime commissioner for the London Metropolitan area...and we're supposed to believe that scrutiny and accountability means anything?!

Certainly I hope the new system will put a stop to the tendency for committees to be captured by chief constables, for there to be a greater equality in the power dynamic at the top of the force between the professionals and the people’s representatives.

Well, when the system is now tailored so that political types can sack chief constables that stand in their way, and appoint a sock-puppet chief constable that'll do their bidding, it's not too high a hope is it?

But just a second... is the option here really black and white? We either have police authorities, regionally representative of the public, with direct public interaction and real experience in crime and punishment, but without any power over the chief constables....or a single unrepresentative individual elected with a huge £100k salary that can sack and appoint chief constables at will?

Of course not, it's an insult to our intelligence that we should sit here and accept this new system because it is a route to ensuring public control of the police, rather than police control of the police. It's one route, yes, but the best route?

There is one argument with which I have no truck: the mealy-mouthed complaint that elected police commissioners will ‘politicise’ the police. What is policing if not political? Was ‘kettling’ peaceful G20 protesters a non-political act? Was the Hillsborough cover-up something politicians should have ignored?

Proper appeals to emotion here. Fact: Police and Crime Comissioners will have no operational control over the police. Kettling? These changes make no difference there. Not, of course, unless the PCC decides to sack their chief constable and bring in a more liberal one... but then there you go, that's not the police controlling policing matters, and the public controlling direction and strategy...that's a single elected person controlling a professional to do as they wish. That is, ultimately, corruption.

Hillsborough is a particularly low blow by Stephen. It is clear from the reports so far that there is nothing that any police authority would have been able to do with police simply lying about what went on, asking/intimidating people to falsify reports. A PCC would similarly have no effect on this.

What's the point to bring these issues up? This "reform" won't alter them, but they're being presented as if they are the reason we need Police and Crime Comissioners.

Is it actually a liberal stance now to say "Hell yeah we should have someone who will run a police force like a mob family, and fully politicise operational decisions!"?

This is what people are complaining about when they talk about politicisation of the force...it's not that politics are in place, since the way policing operates will always reflect society and that in itself is political. It's when policing STOPS reflecting society, and starts reflecting an individual, that it is no longer an impartial service.

Besides, if policing should truly be non-political, why do those who oppose the new system stick up for local police authorities which have a majority of elected councillors?

See above...

I have the suspicion that the worry of ‘politicisation’ is really code for ‘we’d prefer the public not to be too involved in how they’re policed’.

Ah, a new logical fallacy for the mix (if you're still counting, keep up!) tu quoque, to add to the ad hominem and strawman.

Our complaint about politicisation is that the public won't be involved when a single person, representing what will ultimately be a small area within a larger one, most likely focused on a very loyal voter-base that need to be nurtured. A single elected individual is extremely unlikely to take a broad range of views on board and treat them all with equal weight, especially when they are elected either through their own biases with a political party, or with the political pressures of the funding that has been given to them to achieve their new found power.

By comparison, police authorities had true scope, they took from all sections of the region, and even directly involved the public from around the region.

How the hell can you have the audacity to stand there and claim that it is we, questioning why a simple and small reform of local police authorities, authorities that already have much tighter democratic legitimacy, and a greater guarantee of minority voices being heard and represented, are the ones that are trying to take the voice of the public away from how the police do their policing?

I remain hopeful that elected police commissioners will, probably not to begin with but in time, lead to better policing.

Based on what, Stephen? What makes you hopeful? The misplaced notion that around a quarter of the country voting between two or more candidates promising pretty much the same thing will suddenly spur on dramatic changes to the way the police do their job?

Why do I believe that? Because I’m a democrat who believes that greater transparency and clearer accountability improves decision-making.

Except there are no guarantees of that. Even with AMS, we will have regions that may well fall in to the same cycle we have with FPTP, where only one party wins. That's not democratic accountability, it's just inherited autocracy. Transparency? Pah...I point once again to pretty much every vote I've ever seen and the sheer amount of lies and manipulations that are thrown around, completely tricking honest and trusting members of the public.

It's the reason that real liberals will support TRUE democracies, that being bodies of people to collectively represent. The closer you can get to one person one vote on an issue, the more people will be getting what they actually want. Deferring your vote to an individual so that it is one person, all the votes...that's not transparent...there's no debate, there's no discussion. You can't see why that decision has been made or what influenced it.

For too long, the liberal approach to crime — to have a tough but fair system which makes offenders face up to the consequences of their crimes, punishes them proportionately, and aims for their full rehabilitation into society — has been easily, cheaply derided by our opponents as ‘soft on crime’ when it is anything but. As The Economist found on a recent visit to Jersey, an island which already has elected police chiefs and isn’t usually regarded as a bastion of liberalism:

There is a great emphasis on keeping offenders, especially young offenders, out of the criminal justice system, and avoiding anything that looks like public humiliation. Young tearaways and petty offenders will be sent to perform community service, but there is no question of putting them in bright yellow waistcoats emblazoned with the word “offender”. All Parish Hall Enquiries are confidential. Islanders use the word “paternalist”, a lot, to describe their approach to justice. Those who offend repeatedly will face tough justice in the end, the home affairs minister, Senator Ian Le Marquand, told me: “but we like to take our time getting there.” So is justice tough or soft on Jersey? Locals call the distinction rather empty. What counts to them is trying to get justice right.

Anecdotal fallacy. Jersey is a community island of around 100 thousand people, it has a population smaller than some of our smallest cities, on an island with a handful of towns alone. Compare that to Devon and Cornwall where a single person would have to represent 1.65 MILLION people. Comparing how a large town, or a small city, would police itself, to how entire counties, in some cases more than one county, would be directed by a single individual, is an absurd concept.

But take all that aside, so Jersey has a system going that liberals would enjoy. What does that prove? That Jersey perhaps isn't quite as "hang-em" as Stephen seems to think we believe them to be? Great! Does that mean that the rest of the UK will be the same? Maybe, maybe not. Does that matter? No, because the successes and failures of individual areas based on our own perception of what "works" or not is independent of the frailties, risks and weaknesses of the system that still manages to produce any positive results.

Will that approach find echoes across the country after 15th November? I may be a liberal, but I’m not that much of an optimist.

And indeed polling would agree, people are vindictive and blood thirsty.

However, elected police commissioners who want to be re-elected will need to show that their approach works

No they won't, at least not to everyone, only to some people, and only on issues that affect them. Got the silver-fox vote sowed up? Well then, show them that hoodies hanging about on street corners and home burglaries are getting priority funding. Never mind the assaults that happen in that area where they don't vote for you, or the car thefts in the other area that doesn't vote at all.

that they can actually cut crime

Unless they do a Boris and just massage the figures, or outright lie. Again, they can ignore that crime is rising, as long as their core voters feel crime is falling where they care about it.

working with the police, working with the communities

More like getting the police to work for them...and there is no mandate for PCCs to care one jot about actually engaging with whole communities if they don't wish to.

I have enough confidence in a liberal, evidence-based, humane approach to justice to believe that even those elected police commissioners who preach lock-em-up-fire-and-brimstone will repent when they realise that prevention and rehabilitation are the best ways to crack crime.

We can but hope, because that kind of nation-wide revelation is probably the only thing that can save this flawed idea from cutting large swathes of the public out of how their police are run, and worse cause their relationship with crime to actually get worse as entire communities are ignored in order to help re-election chances.


  1. Hi Lee - thanks for the article and engaging with the arguments. A handful of specific responses:

    Part-time/amateur - I was a councillor for 8 years and one of the things I learned as a part-time amateur myself was that it was almost impossible to be on top of things and to hold council officers to account in the way I would expect to be in command of stuff in my day job. That's why I think an elected mayoral system, alongside part-time/amateur councillors like I was, is the system most likely to work.

    Local police authorities - one question: how can the voters get rid of a committee they think does a bad job?

    Police & crime commissioner powers - there is an alternative, equally logical, end-point to your argument: that we should campaign for more duties for these roles. It's a bit of a strawman itself to say your problem is that they'll be less effective, but then to say they'll be more powerful. Any individual who is going to be effective in this role will need to bring a team together. If they fial to do that they'll fail in the job, just as ineffective local police authority chairs do.

    Boris Johnson - re-elected because Labour chose the wrong candidate to oppose him, unable to hold him to account.

    Kettling/Hillsborough - I disagree here. My point was that policing is political. Those who pretend you can somehow suck out the politics of policing by handing it over to an anonymous committee are creating their own strawman.

    Commissioners will be unrepresentative of areas that didn't vote for - a risk, I agree. For me it's outweighed by the fact that there will be one person who can be asked questions about this, and you avoid the pass-the-parcel of committee members blaming others for inaction.

    Jersey - is it a model? No. There are many problems with the Jersey system. But it is a corrective to the idea that democracy tends to bring out the worst in the public - as suggested by your comment, "And indeed polling would agree, people are vindictive and blood thirsty." I don't agree. I think you got carried away by your own rhetoric there.

    1. "Local police authorities - one question: how can the voters get rid of a committee they think does a bad job?"

      They couldn't, but the answer to that is to build in greater accountability to that body...not to scrap the body and start again.

      "there is an alternative, equally logical, end-point to your argument: that we should campaign for more duties for these roles."

      If we truly get stuck with the system then on one hand yes, though my argument is coming from the point that moving to a PCC is bad democracy...I don't see why I'd then argue for greater powers in the hands of autocracy. The solution to proper accountability lies within reformed local police authorities, and it's not a "positive" that PCCs could be brought up to have more powers from within their own flawed framework.

      "It's a bit of a strawman itself to say your problem is that they'll be less effective, but then to say they'll be more powerful"

      The two aren't mutually exclusive, the effect of being less effective is caused by the greater concentration of power.

      "Boris Johnson - re-elected because Labour chose the wrong candidate to oppose him, unable to hold him to account."

      Yet there were other strong candidates in Brian and Siobhan. Who voted for them because both the Labour and Tory candidates were poor? No-one. The elections aren't about whether one person can do the job or not, it's about which is the most charismatic out of Labour or Tories.

      "For me it's outweighed by the fact that there will be one person who can be asked questions about this"

      See above Re: Boris. It's all well and good being proud about a single point of contact. I have a single MP in my area, rather than my preferred distributed model in STV, and he doesn't answer a single thing I question him on. Simply having that one focal point doesn't in any way, shape or form prove that accountability for poor decision making will happen.

      "as suggested by your comment, "And indeed polling would agree, people are vindictive and blood thirsty." I don't agree. I think you got carried away by your own rhetoric there."

      Over half of people still see the death penalty as a reasonable punishment for extreme crimes...I don't think it's rhetoric to say people are vindictive.


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