Democracy and the police: a system in crisis


It was intended as a key reform of Theresa May’s tenure as Home Secretary, injecting much-needed democracy and transparency into the policing of England and Wales.

Instead the system of elected police and crime commissioners is in a crisis highlighted by Shaun Wright’s refusal to step down over the Rotherham sex abuse scandal – and the inability to remove him from his post overseeing South Yorkshire Police.

Under the legislation which created the roles, a commissioner can only be suspended if he or she has been charged with an offence which carries a maximum jail sentence of more than two years.

In Bedfordshire Olly Martins has been suspended by Labour and could face criminal charges over the leak of confidential information about the death of a man in police custody.

Elsewhere “police tsars” have faced questions over their expenses and become caught up in disputes with chief constables. As they have struggled to raise their profile, it would be difficult for the most ardent supporters of the initiative to point to the differences that PCCs have made in their local areas.

Even Ms May has admitted that their early performance has been “good and bad” because reform is “always difficult and uncertain”

Bruised by the abject 15 per cent turnout in the first elections for commissioners in 2012, ministers insisted that support for the innovation would grow the longer they were in office.

That optimism was undermined this month when just over one in 10 electors bothered to take part in a by-election to choose a new West Midlands PCC at a cost of £20 per vote. Ironically, it had been triggered by the death of Bob Jones, who had argued that his job should be scrapped.

The fact that the contest had to take place in the middle of the holiday season pointed to another flaw in the law. The next round of PCC elections is due to take place in 2016 alongside local council contests, which would improve the turnout figure. But whether they even take place is open to question.

Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, has promised to reform the “flawed” system as part of a shake-up of policing. and it looks certain that commissioners will not remain in their current form if Labour wins the election.