Apathy fears over police chief elections

Two police officers

It is now less than three months until the elections that form the centrepiece of what the Home Secretary Theresa May has called the "most radical reform of policing for 50 years"

For the first time across England and Wales, the people who appoint, and can ultimately dismiss, chief constables will be directly elected.

It is a idea that has had an elephantine gestation period.

As far back as 2003, some in Conservative circles were already talking about a plan they hoped could jump start the democratic accountability of police forces. Turbo charge scrutiny. Empower local people.

They said police authorities, those all but anonymous collections of councillors and local appointees, should be scrapped.

A directly elected figurehead would do the job instead.

Nine years on, those first elections are just 12 weeks away.


The big challenge for the government is to convince people to turn out to vote, and hope the turnout isn't as dismal as the weather in November so often can be.

"It has been a shambles. They have decided to hold a winter election, even though we know that drives turnout down," Katie Ghose, the Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society told me.

"They are not providing information in the post as we'd like to see, even though seven million people don't have regular internet access."

Start Quote

In our democratic life we now have an important executive figure at local level”

End Quote Blair Gibbs Policy Exchange

Ms Ghose makes the case that a low turnout threatens to undermine the whole case for opening up police governance to direct public scrutiny.

Here is the central problem for ministers. Enthusing people, on a dark, cold and wet Thursday in November, to vote for someone for a position they may barely understand. And, to vote for someone to replace an authority they had probably never heard of.

"We are used to as a country not having a great deal of input to what is happening locally. Consequently it is unsurprising if the debate is not very developed," says Sam Chapman, editor of the Top of the Cops blog.

"Give the police and crime commissioner a couple of years and the debate will be very different from today. Any police commissioner will have more of mandate than any of the existing police authorities," he adds.


Few dispute the scale of the change that is coming, even if awareness of it is limited. The new commissioners will have different outlooks and different personalities. Policing will have a different feel in different places.

"We will be looking at 41 mini experiments. They will all operate slightly differently. All the individuals elected will be different, the chief constables are different," Jon Collins, deputy director of the think tank the Police Foundation tells the BBC.

"There may be some where there are some tensions that cannot be resolved and in those cases we are likely to see chief constables moving on pretty soon."

Looking at the change through the prism of Westminster, it is likely to be chalked up as one of the most significant constitutional changes during the coalition's time in government.

"It is almost an extension of the franchise in some ways," said Blair Gibbs, research director for crime and justice at centre right think tank Policy Exchange.

"In our democratic life we now have an important executive figure at local level.

As a constitutional reform it is a legacy of the coalition government. But that is not just about governance. It is not an end in itself.

"If police and crime commissioners do their jobs well policing will improve and the streets will be safer," adds Mr Gibbs, who used to work for the Policing Minister Nick Herbert, added.

That contention, that policing will improve, is ultimately how the whole idea will be judged in the long term.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    I was unaware that there were election in my area...just found out there are two candidates...neither have deigned to palce a profile on the website..I have had no contact from my local force regarding the election...why should I bother if they and the candidates are not prepared to work for the right to my vote.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    As soon as I heard that Joke Prescot had put his name forward I realised it was not worth bothering with. In principle it sounds like a good idea as we can boot themn out when they prioritise hiding behind bus shelters with radar guns over real crime but in reality, with jokers like brains prescot in charge it is going to go horribly wrong. The last ones to get the job should be those who apply.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    There was nothing wrong with the old system where chief constables were appointed by the Home Secretary and held to account by local Councillors.

    And will we have an actual choice in this election? In mu area there are only 2 candidates and I'm guessing their actual policies will be very similar. It's doubtful any candidate will propose to actually sack officers or cut their pay.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Given that the tax payer already funds the office of HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary and an Independent Police Complaints Commission, what additional value is this new role going to add? I have no idea who is up for election in my area so not an electorial success story so far.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    If turnout for stand alone elections to police commissioners exceed 15% of the electorate I will eat my old police helmet!
    Not wanted,stupid and irrelevant idea all it can do is politicise the police,

  • Comment number 23.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    18.Stuntman Mike

    Policy is made by government but not resource allocation.

    Local police forces decide whether their diversity training is 2 days long or 2 minutes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    If voting for a local police chief was a good idea it would have been done 150 years ago. In the US it is questionable whether it actually works and of course it opens up another point of influence to corruption.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    So we have a choice between party nominees to run a remote hierarchy under Westminster direction- hard to see any credible democratic process there.
    it's still all too distant from us.
    Given that about one in 500* of us is a policeman we'd all be a lot better of with some real local connection.
    *say one for every 200 homes, very roughly. One for every street in some areas.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    A better model would have been to follow the pattern of school governance, with a board comprising a mix of directly-elected and locally-appointed people - the whole spirit of public service, doing something for the community and being a 'critical friend' to the local police.

    It doesn't warrant a well-paid full-time post to do that!

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.


    Finally the public will get a say on how the police use OUR resources...

    No we want. Policy is made of Government.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Finally the public will get a say on how the police use OUR resources. Perhaps then we can reign in the liberal establishment that have hijacked our police force.

    So, I’m hoping for more Bobbies on the beat, fewer armchair “strategy” officers, no annual two day diversity training courses and a focus on actually catching criminals rather than being social workers for the underclass.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    I think this post should be voted for by the police force(nationwide) who MIGHT know something about the candidates

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    When the idea of elected mayors was put to the public it was shot down almost uniformly across the nation. We have seemingly lost all faith in the democratic system, or more accurately those who stand for election. We should be jumping at every opportunity to enhance our democracy but we just aren't interested in party political yes men and public school clones.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I'm not sure whether the election of police chiefs are a good idea, but what I do know is the Police need to be more accountable & get back to protecting & serving the public, not the likes of news international.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    ...anonymous collections of councillors and local appointees...

    Anyone getting involved in this initiative better watch their back unless they are "one of the boyz"

    Local administrations are nothing more than legalised gangsters

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Vote for everything!

    Politics by the double barrel full!

    Democracy for the sake of bureaucracy!

    Big Society! You’re in charge!

    (Wait… if were in charge then what are politicians for?)

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I'm not at all keen on this idea.

    I'm tempted to go along and submit a spoiled ballot paper in protest.

    Might help put them off doing it again?

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Rather than making the police more accountable to local people, this is a further attempt to politicise the police service. The candidates, under the original proposals, were not supposed to run under party tickets, now they are 'surprisngly'! You do not need to be elected to a position to be accountable to people; look how 'accountable' David Cameron and Nick Clegg are to the British people!

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I don't know anyone who wants police chiefs to be elected. Given the standards seen in politics recently, what sane indvidual wants more politicians anywhere near our police.
    We already pay Theresa May to do this job.


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