Police reform proposals outlined

Theresa May: "Police have become disconnected from the communities they serve"

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Plans for a massive shake-up in policing in England and Wales have been outlined by the home secretary.

People will also be able to vote in two years' time for locally-elected officials to oversee each police force.

A new national crime-fighting agency, to replace the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca), and establishing police reservists are among the proposals.

Shadow home secretary Alan Johnson said police did not back the plans as they would "make their job harder".

The Home Office consultation paper - Policing in the 21st century - was described by Home Secretary Theresa May as the "most radical reform of policing for 50 years".

She told the Commons on Monday that the police had "become too bureaucratic, too much accountable to Whitehall, rather than to the people they're serving".

Key changes include:

  • the scrapping of Police Authorities in England and Wales. Instead, elected police and crime commissioners will have the power to hire and fire chief constables from May 2012
  • the proposed introduction of police reservists - a pool of volunteers to undertake police duties
  • "community crime fighters" - ordinary people could take part in joint patrols with officers. There will also be a push for more to become special constables or join Neighbourhood Watch schemes
  • phasing out of the National Policing Improvement Agency
  • the abolition of Soca in favour of a new UK-wide National Crime Agency, which will include organised crime, border policing, and the child exploitation and online protection centre (Ceop). The exact scope of the NCA's powers are open to consultation but it will have some kind of relationship with police in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Soca was criticised last year when figures showed that for every £15 of public money it spent, just £1 was recovered from criminals.

View from the US

The British image of American law enforcement might be of directly-elected officials, but this is usually only the case for county sheriffs.

(Sheriffs carry out law enforcement for villages, towns and cities within their counties that do not have police departments, and carry out certain county-wide duties.)

Unlike in the proposals for the UK, police commissioners in the US are not usually directly elected. There is no single model but in the big cities, the commissioner is typically a civilian post selected by the mayor, making it in effect a political appointment.

Commissioners are responsible for policing policy and can have control over the selection of the very highest echelons of the department's officers. They cannot hire and fire lower and middle ranking officers.

Underneath the commissioner - and his deputy commissioners in some cities - may be a police chief, a uniformed officer who has risen within the ranks, who directs day-to-day activity.

In some cities there is a strictly "civil service"-style selection where the head of police must be a career officer, and is not a political appointment.

Commissioners can often be high-profile figures - William Bratton being a good example from recent years.

His pursuit of the "broken windows" policy in New York - the belief that zero tolerance of minor offences would lead to wholesale reduction in crime - garnered nationwide publicity.

Its chairman, Sir Stephen Lander, said seizing assets was not the "be all and end all" and said the body had also stopped gangs using an additional £460m.

Mr Johnson responded angrily to the plans in the Commons, and branded Mrs May's claims about Labour's failures on policing "infantile drivel".

"We've yet to hear a word from this government about how they plan to cut crime," he said. "All we've heard is how they'll cut officer numbers, prison places and police powers."

Co-chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Committee for Home Affairs and Justice, Tom Brake, said elected police commissioners "will need to be subject to tough checks and balances".

"These proposals should not be seen as a green light for the election of 'Judge Dredd' characters more interested in populism than effective co-operative policing," he added.

But Mr Johnson said the cost of elected commissioners had been estimated at £50m, and labelled the proposal an "unnecessary, unwanted and expensive diversion".

Sir Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), said the police service was ready to make changes.

"But reform must add real value to the critical service we deliver which keeps our communities safe," he added.

He said Acpo would "need to examine in detail the government's proposals for maintaining operational independence against the practical reality of directly-elected police and crime commissioners".

Last year, Sir Hugh said police chiefs may quit if commissioners were forced on them.

Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at Kings College London, said there had been "fresh concerns" over the police following the death of Ian Tomlinson after he was pushed by a police officer in London during G20 protests.

"Lots of people would agree that there is a need for greater accountability of the police and greater transparency," he told the BBC.

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