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For they only seek to serve us

Source: Public Sector Executive Sept/Oct 2012

Police reform: elected police and crime commissioners

Dr Floyd Millen, director of public affairs think tank yesMinister, discusses the abolition of police authorities and their incoming replacements.

There was no grand design for policing in England and Wales; its development was never logical or systematic but was moulded by the needs and fears of society, evolving over time as needs fluctuated and changed. The transition from watch committees to police authorities, the role of the Justices of the Peace and their powers to appoint chief officers all provided the foundation for the system and structure of policing that we have today.

Through the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, police authorities breathed their last breath and we are witnessing the birth of police and crime commissioners (PCCs). This process has been far from smooth: but reform is necessary!

Never before have we needed the expertise and undivided attention of our police. With the growth and spread of terrorism, trafficking, serious and organised crime, it’s hardly a time to reduce the force. But policing has attracted huge controversy from its handling of civil disturbances and the use of controversial containment and kettling techniques, the application of what some term ‘paramilitary’ tactics, stop and search powers, claims of police ‘victimisation’ vis-à-vis the riots of 2011, our inability as individuals to feel properly policed and protected, plus the role of senior police in the media hacking scandal, have raised questions about accountability. Whether real or imagined, faith in our institutions is haemorrhaging.

As the nation prepares for the first elections of directly-elected police and crime commissioners, we are bound to ask whether these reforms will truly be enough to bring sufficient governance and accountability of the police service to the citizen. Something certainly needs to change; time after time we have seen police authorities fail to bring real scrutiny to law enforcers, with the line between accountability and cooperation being far too blurred. However, we need to keep sight of the fact that the police only seek to serve us.

Effective reform can never be driven by the need to reduce the deficit. Unlike the home secretary, I believe that police numbers are sacrosanct. However, in order to sustain this position, our police need to be doing the right thing at the right time and to the right people. Sadly, this is where they are failing to deliver.

The killer question

Research shows that there is a huge disconnect between what the police say they are doing and the general public’s experience. I recall recently being stopped on two occasions by two separate police officers.

On both occasions I had my children in the car. When the first officer approached he was perfectly civil. As I drove off I spoke to my boys about the exchange and why it was important for adults to always remain calm and respectful.

One week later – on the same stretch of road – I was stopped by another officer. Sadly this exchange was the polar opposite and far from acceptable.

I told the officer to note that I had children in the car yet he persisted to be aggressive and overbearing. After he had concluded his business he walked away, at which point I exited my car and spoke to him in private about his attitude and the impact it could have on children. He was still as aggressive. Then there came a point in the conversation when he realised that I actually knew what I was talking about and he then asked me the ‘killer question’: “What job do you do?” I simply looked at him and smiled and he instantly calmed down. Classic case of ‘oh no, this guy might know someone or be someone.’

When I think of the horrible police officer, I find reform very tempting; cut his pension, make him work the beat, sack him if he is overweight and performance manage him out of the service. However, I would defend the good police and those like him. Sadly my children will remember the bad officer for much longer than the good.

The challenge

The real challenge is to detach ourselves slightly from our personal experiences and ask the crucial question of what society needs from its police force. After all, no amount of reform or lack of reform will weed out the bad police officer.

Reform must be about making the police better at what they do whilst ensuring that levels of controls and accountability are built in. Our research with the University of Loughborough found that there was a lack of accountability and that police authorities continually failed to effectively hold the police to account. Even more damning, was the revelation that 99.9% of the population knew very little about their police authority and even police officers were not familiar with them.

It would, however, be a mistake to see elected police and crime commissioners as a silverbullet solution. Transferring a collective police authority power to a single elected individual could see power concentrated in too few hands and destroy the delicate tripartite relationship and, potentially, overtly politicise policing.

While these fears are genuine there is no evidence that policing will become any more political than it already is and has been. The election of police commissioners will undoubtedly herald a more responsive form of policing and possible accountability because the citizen will be empowered to directly hold an individual to account, challenging the dislocation and disconnect between local people.

No longer will there be faceless bureaucrats and self-serving civil servants serving their own purpose. But the danger is that we will have self-serving politicians serving their own political interests, which they will incidentally tell us are also the people’s interests because they have been elected. Sadly – and politicians know this – elections will not bring about the type of accountability that we so earnestly yearn for. So when we hear that this police reform will be better than the old system, I agree, it will be; but what are its shortcomings and what will it not do? Transparency on this is essential if the home secretary intends to gain more support.

The home secretary has recently shown her disappointment that applications for the new PCCs are primarily party representatives. She is surely the last person in the UK to realise this was inevitable. Elections attract the political class, not your business or academic experts. If the Government had consulted and listened they would have realised this.

(And oh, by the way, overweight police should indeed be sacked: three strikes and they’re out!)

Dr Floyd Millen is director of public affairs think tank yesMinister and the former head of policy for the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion. He has also been a programme director of ‘Building Futures’, a Department for Work and Pensions funded initiative with BTEG and Talent that brought the voluntary sector and the private sector together to create jobs. He previously worked for the Metropolitan Police Authority as an adviser on the implementation of the new Home Office Guidelines on ‘Custody Visiting’.

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