LEADING ARTICLE: The dangers of politicising our police

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The Independent Online
ON FIRST inspection, Michael Howard's proposals to make local police forces answerable to elected commissioners look almost sensible. After all, in Britain, policing is done by consent. Directly electing commissioners would, in theory, reinforce that principle. And, for the Tories, it is undoubtedly a politically astute idea. It is difficult to argue against the principle of devolving power to local communities. To do so is to risk being labelled "anti-democratic".

But dig beneath the surface, and it becomes clear that Mr Howard's plans are not only unworkable, but dangerous. They are unworkable because local democracy in this country is in such a lamentable condition. Turnout in local elections is extremely low. If there is a problem with policing, the public expects the Home Secretary, not local officials, to address it. But if substantial power were to be devolved to local police commissioners, the Government would find itself powerless to act. The result would be chaos.

The greatest danger of these proposals lies in their susceptibility to abuse. There would be no safeguard against some rabble-rouser taking advantage of the relatively small number of votes needed for election and running successfully on some populist single issue, such as harassing paedophiles or humiliating petty criminals. Chief constables would find themselves accountable to a single politician. The result would be the politicisation of the police force - something that Britain has always assiduously avoided.

If police forces are perceived to be failing by local communities, the answer is to strengthen local police authorities - the existing watchdogs for Britain's 43 local forces - not to abolish them, as Mr Howard proposes. But there is, in fact, little evidence that the police are substantially out of touch with the public. The truth is that this proposal is simply the latest attempt by Tories to exploit the inflated fear of crime that exists in Britain. A constant diet of media horror stories has given people a distorted impression of crime rates. What this country needs is not populist police commissioners but a more realistic perspective on the problem of crime.