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An independent approach to policing

Source: Public Sector Executive Nov/Dec 2012

Independent candidates won a quarter of the votes in the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections. PSE spoke to Bill Longmore, the first PCC for West Mercia, about how the model could improve local policing.

Out of 41 new PCC positions, 12 were won by independent candidates. It demonstrates a certain appetite from the public that supports the well-worn ideal that ‘politics has no place in policing’.

The new commissioners are intended to bring more democracy into public expenditure – despite shockingly low election turn-outs – and hold the police to account on behalf of the public in a more direct way than the police authorities they have replaced.

They will have the power to hire and fire chief constables, set budgets and police strategy.

West Mercia’s new Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) is independent candidate Bill Longmore, who previously served with Staffordshire Police for 30 years. He spoke to PSE about his main aims for the force and said: “To improve the visibility of officers on the beat, that’s one of the main priorities.”

Bringing the community together

Prevention of crime is another big area of concern, with Longmore keen to develop initiatives to involve young people in local activities, to “hopefully steer them away from crime”.

The community is to be another cornerstone of his work, with local people engaged to help bring together such facilities.

Longmore cited the importance of encouraging leadership within the community to deliver this and to make an impact on anti-social behaviour and crime.

Commenting on his election, Longmore pointed to his extensive police experience as evidence of his capabilities.

He said: “I think people saw that for anyone in the job as commissioner, they’d be far better if they had some police experience. I’ve always worked very closely to improve peoples’ lives.

“I see the role as someone elected by the people to try to do everything possible for the people, take note of what they’re saying and be aware of everything that’s going on to work with the chief constable and make policing as efficient as possible.”

In addition to this experience, his independence was a critical element of his vision for the West Mercia force.

“There’s no place in policing for politics, not as a commissioner, and I think the public agreed with that. I’m willing to speak to any members of any group; I’m open to good ideas. I shall be running think tank sessions where we open it up to ideas and I want to work all the political parties to come up with what’s good for the communities, not what’s good for a political party.”

Longmore sought to explain how the new system could bring significant advantages to public safety: “The PCC is an individual, whereas the previous police committee was 17 people, with 17 different views. There could be all sorts of possible problems, whereas the PCC can go out and meet people and come to decisions without having any fear of going to a committee where it’s argued about and they can’t come up with a consensus.”

Close consideration

In terms of challenges for policing in the future, Longmore acknowledged the need for efficiencies and said that work was already underway to identify areas for savings.

“I shall look at every aspect. I quickly identified any areas that I want to look a bit closer at. Obviously we re living in an age of austerity and we have to look at every aspect of policing, make sure were doing it in the right way.

“The chief constable is very cooperative on this. He’s just as aware as I am of the need to run an efficient police force, as cost effective as possible but at the same time keep to a good standard of delivery.

“We’re both working towards that and I enjoy a good working relationship with him. Hopefully between us we shall deliver the West Mercia police force as one of the best in the country.

“It’s had a good record and we want to continue with that and if possible get even better. “There are several areas I want to look at a bit more closely and see if we can make improvements.

“There are some things that might be done in a different way. I want to be happy that everything’s as good as possible to make the force as efficient and cost effective as possible and ensure we get full value for money.”

He concluded: “I’m looking forward to it, I’m enjoying it and everyone’s cooperating.

“I think the staff are looking forward to it, they’re quite excited that I’m coming up with new ideas, a new look at what we can do to improve policing in general.”

The PCC elections

41 Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) were elected on November 22 and will remain in post until May 2016.

PCCs are to be subject to ongoing public scrutiny, and have been given a democratic mandate (albeit from a small percentage of the populations they will serve) to respond to local people’s concerns.

Their duties will include setting local forces’ policing priorities, strategies and budget by January 2013. PCCs will also have the power to hire and fire chief constables.

In terms of party break-down, 16 Conservatives were elected, 13 Labour and 12 independent candidates – far higher than originally expected. Six PCCs are female, making the proportion of women in the role 14.6%.

Turnout to the elections was just 14.9% overall, and one polling station in Newport saw no voters at all.

However, Prime Minister David Cameron stated that this was to be expected of a first election and that turnout should be higher next year. He said: “It takes time to explain a new post.”

Critics have argued that a lack of funding for mailshots, confusion around candidates and the timing of the election all contributed to the poor turnout, as well as a widespread apathy with politics.

The Electoral Commission is to carry out a review into how the elections were carried out. Chairwoman Jenny Watson said: “We will talk to voters, candidates and returning officers to understand what worked and what didn’t.”

One of the most high-profile defeats was in Humberside where Labour former deputy prime minister Lord Prescott lost to Tory rival Matthew Grove.

Commenting on the selection of chief commissioners, Sir Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said: “It’s vital that a robust and transparent recruitment process is developed, so that the most talented within the service step up to take these critical jobs.

“Deciding how to make these appointments is in the hands of the PCCs, but they will be wise to think carefully and take advice as a matter of priority.”

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