The Big Question: Would the election of commissioners risk politicising Britain's police forces?
Why are we asking this now?
The prickly subject of politics in policing reared its head again last week with Kit Malthouse, the deputy mayor for policing, suggesting that the Conservative Party had seized control of the Metropolitan Police, the country's biggest police force. Malthouse said that he and the London Mayor, Boris Johnson, "have our hands on the tiller" at Scotland Yard. The suggestion was immediately and flatly rejected by Sir Paul Stephenson, the Met Commissioner.
His comments were echoed by Sir Hugh Orde, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, who has previously spoken about the dangers of politicising the police. In an interview with The Independent yesterday, he reiterated those fears, specifically attacking the proposal to introduce directly elected commissioners to British police forces. It is a move that the Tories have said they are committed to implementing should they win the next general election.
How are police chiefs currently appointed?
In 42 of the 43 police forces in England and Wales, the chief constables are appointed and, if need be, removed by their force's police authority. The authority is made up of a board of members, many of whom are local councillors but some of whom are entirely independent of any political party. Together their job is to oversee the force and hold to account its actions.
The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police is a slightly different case. He is appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Home Secretary, although the Home Secretary is required to consider the views of the Metropolitan Police Authority before giving this advice. Sir Paul Stephenson's appointment was the first where the chair of the MPA was also an elected politician – the Mayor of London. He had a more active role than usual in his appointment, sitting in on the interviews with the then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. And thus the row over the politicising of the Met began.
What are the Tories proposing instead?
Part of the problem is that, since announcing their plan to bring in directly elected commissioners, the Tories have not elaborated on what exactly it will involve. They have said that an elected individual will mean the abolition of the current police authorities; therefore it is unlikely that anyone would replace the current Chief Constable. The party has also intimated that the elections, which would be voted on by members of the public, would take place at the same time as local council elections. But many questions remain. Primarily: who would be allowed to stand? How much involvement would they have in operational decisions? And could the elected individual replace the current Chief Constable with his own choice of candidate?
Do police like the idea?
No. Sir Hugh Orde has said that he opposes the suggestion "with every professional bone in my body". And, in his interview with The Independent, he went further by outlining his fears that the proposal could lead to far-right extremists taking control of police forces. That fear stems from the fact that police commissioner elections would very likely result in a low turnout. Only 30 per cent of the electorate voted in this year's local elections. The turnout for police elections would be identical as that of local elections if they were held on the same day. And if that were not the case, it is almost certain that the turnout would be even lower. As one police source said: "The only people that would vote would be ex-cops and nutters".
With this in mind, it is possible that anyone who could mobilise even a relatively strong following could use it to gain control of an entire regional police force, with possibly disastrous consequences. As another senior police source said: "What happens, to use an extreme example, if the BNP take power and order us to start rounding up immigrants? What do we do then? We have to remain independent from politics and political parties." Slightly less sinister is the idea that the police could fall into the control of a novelty candidate, as was the case when the natives of Hartlepool elected the local football-team mascot, a man dressed as a monkey, as the town mayor.
Aren't the police just afraid of change?
It is only fair to point out that the same fear could be applied to any local election or by-election. Both of these usually have about half the turnout of a general election and so could also be susceptible to public apathy affecting the result of the ballot. Indeed, many observers from all mainstream parties claimed this was precisely the reason the British National Party enjoyed such a successful outcome at the recent European elections.
The Tory line is that Britain is a democracy and should trust its voters. Mr Malthouse said he believed the police should be under as much political control as the NHS or education and added: "I don't know why we reserve a special place for policing ... We are a mature democracy."
So why are politicians pushing ahead with the plans?
Because they feel it will make police forces and chief police officers more directly accountable. At the moment, not discounting the intangible accountability they have to the public, police forces are accountable only to their police authority. The Conservatives believe that by putting individuals who have been directly voted in by the public and whose sole job is to oversee a police department, police forces and officers will be more accountable.
The Tories say that "if we are to push more power and responsibility away from the Home Office and down to the front line, we also have to strengthen the point of democratic accountability in individual force areas." Although it is questionable why they would want to do this because there is the possibility, albeit an unlikely one, that after returning to power for the first time in 12 years, the Tories could immediately cede control of the country's police forces to candidates from other political parties.
Is there a precedent?
Yes. Of the 3,000 sheriffs in the US, only about 15 have not been directly elected. Simply by using an argument of omission – there has been no great backlash against the idea – it can be suggested that it can, and indeed does, work. But Sir Hugh Orde says it is not a model that would work here, adding: "Perhaps people should go to America before saying things like that. I know a lot of sheriffs and they seem to spend a lot of their time canvassing and preparing for elections. Is that really what the public wants for British policing?"
Are politicians simply meddling with the police?
It would seem so. Although not everyone seems to think this is a bad thing. Malthouse said: "This idea that somehow because we are politicians we shouldn't therefore have a say in the priorities or the way the Metropolitan Police is run, I find odd. You largely hear that from people within the policing industry themselves and I am not quite sure what they think we were elected to do.
"If a politician campaigns on policing or on crime and law and order, I am not quite sure what the police think that politician is then supposed to do when they get elected. Do nothing? Have no views? Not express their views to the police about how they should be doing things?"
Should police commissioners be elected?
*The chance to elect the individual in charge of our police is a privilege only members of a democracy have.
*It would make forces more directly accountable and not only answerable to faceless authorities.
*Given that it works in America, the police are probably exaggerating the difficulty of implementing it here.
*Not enough people care to vote, so fringe or extreme parties could take advantage and control our police.
*The current system seems to work. Why change it on a whim, against the wishes of senior police officers?
*Politicians elected on law and order issues want re-election: trust the experts (ie the police) instead.
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