Can politics and policing work together?

Theresa May and police officers The home secretary is shaking up police structures

The point of police and crime commissioners, we are told, is to increase the democratic accountability of the 41 police forces in England and Wales outside London.

Ministers felt police authorities were not sufficiently responsive to the demands of an anxious citizenry. Chief constables needed someone with electoral clout to connect them to the people, to keep them honest.

Elections will be held in November and the first potential candidates are emerging. The concern, however, is that this American-inspired model of police accountability may not translate easily into English or Welsh.

The principles enshrined by the father of our modern police force, Sir Robert Peel, are to be found in the General Instructions given to the first Metropolitan Police officers in 1829.

Number five of nine states that it is the duty of officers "to seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion; but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing".

British tradition has it that, to retain its legitimacy, the police service cannot allow itself to be politicised. Accountable, yes. Political, never.

Former chief constable Tim Brain and Lord Prescott debate the need for elected police commissioners

So here's the dilemma. How can you increase the democratic influence upon chief constables without undermining their independence?

The government's answer is to separate the strategic from the operational, with a layer of oversight to make sure it happens that way. Commissioners will formulate the policing plan, leaving chief constables to decide how best to achieve it with a panel of local politicians and lay members to ensure fair play.

But many police leaders remain profoundly uneasy about what will happen in practice. "All chief constables are quite cautious as we go into this period," says Sara Thornton, vice-president of the Association of Chief Police Officers and head of Thames Valley.

Start Quote

[Offer] individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing”

End Quote Sir Robert Peel's 1829 instructions to police

It now appears certain that elections for commissioners next November will include candidates badged to political parties. Former Labour ministers have said they will stand and some Conservatives look set to campaign on a Tory ticket.

Democracy and political tribalism are so intertwined in the UK that hopes the elections could be conducted in a non-partisan, practical, grassroots way have been dashed. Although independents will fight for votes, they fear party machines will crush all but the most well-known local candidates.

This has led to even greater anxiety that the huge constituencies - some well over two and a half million souls - will see their police priorities influenced by the core voters from the political heartlands of a successful party candidate.

The neighbourhoods where people are least likely to vote are the same communities with the greatest risk of crime. If democratic accountability is about reflecting the views of those who vote, independent policing is about protecting the lives of those who do not.

Will the checks and balances of the system ensure their needs are not ignored? And what happens when the commissioner's democratic mandate clashes with the chief constable's independent principle?

John Prescott in Hull Former Hull MP Lord Prescott hopes to be elected police commissioner in his old constituency

And is there a risk commissioners might ignore the needs of those who didn't vote for them? The architect of this new model, Tory peer Lord Wasserman, thinks not.

"If anybody ignores great chunks of their community and allows crime in particular council estates where there are very few voters to rise, I think he will be exposed and he will be hammered," he tells me.

Who by?

"I'm relying on the community activists, I'm relying on the media, but I'm relying on far more than that. I'm relying on the community, and I want the community to feel that it has a role to play, and I think this will happen."

That, perhaps, is the real question posed by the introduction of police and crime commissioners. Is our local democracy good enough to keep them honest?

So what do you think? Take part in the debate on Twitter, using the hashtag #whatarepolicefor.

Catch up with Mark's three-part series What Are The Police For for BBC Radio 4 on iPlayer

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    I also fear that like the NHS and education, this is just another buck-passing measure by parliament being sold as empowerment of the people - which will only too quickly prove itself to be illusory.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    (cont) And the great thing about these groups is that they are attended by people of all political leanings, which makes for good open, honest debate with all decisions being made on a consensual basis, with no single ideology prevailing as would happen under elected PCCs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    When I think of 'Locally Elected Police commissioners' I think of Selma Alabama in the 1960's with Elected Sherriff Clark setting the dogs on children, I think of the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany , aided by locally elected Police Commisssioners and Political corruption aound the world.
    I fear for the future of Policing in the UK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    A complete waste of time now political parties have decided to get involved, I already know who the commisioner will be in my county, whoever the Conservative party choose to put up for election - so I will have no say in reality since I am not a member. The former authority was multiparty even if the council is always a one party state.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    ...(cont) raise their concerns about policing issues, set priorities which are followed up to ensure implementation and set an agenda to a more general approach to policing. Each group in the local authority represents an area of on average 12 500 citizens. This is accountability on a micro-level working at its very best which I fear will be destroyed by the agenda of a PCC overriding our choices.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    John Prescott has just spotted another gravy train to jump on. He was an irrelevant Deputy Prime Minister and lifted his wages and eventually his Lord title without deserving it. We don't need Prescott as a Police and Crime commissioner.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    I agree with jacobsladder that the police police bend over backwards to make themselves accountablze to local communities. I've been a member of a Safer Stronger Community group for years (similar structures exist in every local authority) which the police attend, allowing the public to question them... cont

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    The police and the general public both agree on one thing, that the police are presently unaccountable. The police moan at the public's lack of assistance in apprehending offenders, then charge them with false arrest when they do. Prospective candidates would get my vote if they stated on their election blurb that they had either been mugged or vandalised.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    7 - "We don't need amateurs deciding how to do our jobs"
    This somehow exemplifies the arrogance of modern policing, compared with say fifty years ago. The police look to the same amateurs for support when things go wrong but increasingly even amongst the law abiding and the middle aged they are viewed as something apart from the community..

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    If we don't want career politicians acting as police comissioners, then that is a simple matter - only vote for those without a party political bias.
    However, I am concerned that one of the chief reasons for this move is that it enables the government to pass the buck when crime figures rise as a result of their austerity measures.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    What do the politicians think the turn out is going to be in these elections?
    I would much rather the politicians sorted out the exorbitant fees the legal profession charge for their services, this more than anything else makes an ass out of the law.
    But political vested interests prevent that from happening.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    We don't need any of the discredited pie eating position seeking Westminster retreads. Party politics no thanks.
    Let's have some fresh blood.
    How about some retired Chief Constables?

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    5.kaybraes - "Politicians are the last people who should be allowed to have any input into local policing.....Much more influential would have been the election of judges........"

    Agreed on point 1 - but definately NOT on your second point.

    Judges are there to uphold the law, not vary convictions & sentancing according to public whim in order to get elected again next year.......

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    As a serving officer, we watch "developments" such as this with a raised eyebrow and a low expectation. The 21st century UK police bend over backwards to be accountable to their local communities as it is. We don't need amateurs deciding how we do our jobs. Mark's quote from Robert Peel's instructions is SO important. In democracy, decisions are made by those who show up. That's the concern!

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I have no objection to being able to vote for Police commissioners. However, the candidates must come from within the rank and file and not become another area for politicians to stick their noses in the trough. Any elections must be held with decorum and debate must be informed. Hardly likely a politician would be able to manage that with their mud slinging, back stabbing and propaganda lies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Politicians are the last people who should be allowed to have any input into local policing. Elected commissioners will be a waste of space anyway, answerable only to the local political hierarchy. Much more influential would have been the election of judges, on a manifesto ,answerable only to the general public and operating to an electoral mandate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    And what about Boris Johnson who decided to hand himself total control of the London force? He is totally out of touch with officers on the street and yet will make decisions for the good of his election campaign.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Our police do make mistakes but by and large they do a difficult job pretty well. I fail to see how having to answer to the likes of John Prescott or any other politician is going to assist them in their duties,

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    We should look for political savants, and ask them to lead us. No-one else is qualified.


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