On November 15th a unique event in British political history will take place. On that day, voters will go to the polls to elect 41 Police and Crime Commissioners, the first time elections have been held for a political office responsible for a single public service. Police and Crime Commissioners will be powerful figures. They will draw-up a local plan to cut crime and will set police budgets. They will commission crime reduction and victims’ services. They can hire and fire the chief constable – the latter without cause. Make no mistake: these elections matter.
The Home Office, worried about a low turnout, has been running ads to frighten people into voting – ‘On 15th November criminals will hope you do nothing’. Today, the candidates in each force area were unveiled and the Prime Minister, during a speech on crime, reiterated his support for the idea. This is no surprise. Police and Crime Commissioners are David Cameron’s baby – his big idea for police reform. They are the flagship of a radical police reform agenda which seeks to release the police’s inner crime fighter.
Inside every police force, the government reasons, there is lean, mean crime-fighting machine struggling to get out. That machine has over the last decade been shackled by an excess of rules and bureaucracy, by antiquated working practices, by interference from Home Office civil servants, by deferential and anonymous police authorities, and by remote, liberal-minded chief officers who have read too much criminology. The government has set out to ‘liberate’ the police from these restraints so that they can once again focus on a single objective – to cut crime.
Police and Crime Commissioners have to be understood in this wider context. They are intended to act as disruptive technologies sent to shake-up cosy and opaque relations between (shortly to be disbanded) police authorities and chief officers. Their task is to replace complacency and obfuscation with transparency and accountability with a view to requiring chief constables to focus ceaselessly on delivering better performance.
In the political imagination of government ministers, Commissioners are to serve either as a voice of the people acting as a constant thorn-in-the-side of chief officers (who can be dismissed if they are deemed ineffective or recalcitrant), or else are to form a dynamic crime-fighting team with the chief – Bratton-Giuliani, British-style.
Critics of these proposals see them as a threat to the ‘British police tradition’. They think policing is being dangerously politicised. They worry that Police and Crime Commissioners will step on the operational toes of chief constables. They fear that candidates will make populist promises they cannot keep or else unleash a ‘law-and-order’ crackdown on unpopular minorities.
They fail to see how one person can represent the interests of all voters in such large constituencies. Many of these critics are quietly willing Police and Crime Commissioners to fail – that turnout is low, that the new system collapses into chaos and scandal. They are lining up to say ‘I told you so’. At the weekend, former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Lord Blair went one step further urging voters to boycott the elections in the hope this will force the government to change its mind.
I may or may not be alone at being dismayed at the sight of a retired police chief publicly urging citizens not to vote in an election – a move that makes its author look disturbingly ill at ease with democracy. I am, however, convinced this is the wrong approach. To be sure, there are serious shortcomings with the idea of Police and Crime Commissioners.
Yet it remains a flawed attempt to give practical effect to the laudable objective of making the police more responsive to the people they serve. Police and Crime Commissioners are best interpreted not as a crime reduction measure, but as a piece of constitutional reform, a radical recalibration of the relationship between citizens and a key public service – the police. By interpreting Commissioners this way one is reminded that the success or failure of this democratic experiment lies beyond the control of its Conservative authors. In fact, the impact of Commissioners on the ground may largely depend on how Labour Party candidates do at these elections and how they perform once in office.
Given this, two tasks lie ahead. The first is to back the campaigns of candidates for Police and Crime Commissioner who are willing to use the office and its powers to put in place a more civic, deliberative conception of policing. The progressive task is to stand up for candidates who will respect police operational independence; run an office for public engagement; improve the transparency and responsiveness of their force; hard-wire social justice into the work of the police; work closely with local agencies to develop holistic crime prevention; remain open to (but not slaves of) evidence about what works, and take seriously the national and global dimensions of crime.
But it is important to do all this, secondly, while remaining open to the possibility that Police and Crime Commissioners are not the only, and may not be the best, way of giving practical effect to what should remain a progressive cause: making policing more transparent and democratically accountable. We have been reminded by Hillsborough and other recent events why policing and police accountability matters. The forthcoming police elections call for active progressive engagement, not reactionary boycott.
Ian Loader is Professor of Criminology at the University of Oxford.