Why we should be wary of police commissioners

12 Nov
Photo by CodyR, via Flickr

Photo by CodyR, via Flickr

By Chris Hansell

On 15thof November voters across England and Wales will go to the polls and vote for new Police and Crime Commissioners for the first time. Or maybe we won’t.

According to the BBC some projections have the turnout for the vote as low as 15%. This is low, even for Britain, but it’s not clear if this is an accurate number. It’s true that votes considered less important tend to get lower voter numbers though.

So what is the whole Police commissioner thing and why is it so important? I must admit that when I heard the election was taking place my first thought was Gary Oldman in The Dark Knight. Our police forces would be run by modern day Jim Gordons, but without a crazy batman running around.

I don’t think Jim Gordon was the real inspiration the government were going for though. The new police commissioners and their staff will replace the soon-to-be-defunct Police Authorities. One major factor for this decision seems to have been to make policing more accountable.

Police Minister Damian Green told the Birmingham Mail ‘The PCC will make sure priorities are the priorities of local people because they can hold the PCC to account.’

In theory this might work. The website for Lancashire PCC describes how the PCC holds Chief constables to account while the public holds the PCC to account. That seems simple enough. It also says ‘PCCs will be able to set the priorities for the police within their force area.’

But the PCC setup seems to have one major flaw. Along with the election of PCCs local Police Authorities will be replaced by a Police and Crime Panel. Is there a risk of overlap?

Talking to the Guardian former PCC candidate Simon Weston said ‘Police Authorities were getting too comfortable with Chief constables’ and ‘an awful lot of people who have been on Police Authorities were looking at standing as PCCs’.

The Police and Crime Panel also seems to be built in largely the same way as Police Authorities. Going back to Lancashire, the old Police Authority website says it is ‘made up of 17 members, 9 of whom are elected by their local communities’. This largely means local councillors.

On the other hand the new PCP will be ‘made up of councillor members from each local authority, and a number of independent members’.  What’s to stop members of an old Police Authority becoming members of a new PCP?

In the Guardian article I mentioned earlier Labour PCC candidate Vera Baird said what a PCC will do is in ‘a very raw and fresh stage now’. It remains to be seen whether PCCs will be a success or failure. But the government’s reforms may already be flawed given the potential overlap.

In any case Jim Gordon would probably not get elected on the 15th. He might get on the PCP though.

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