Copping out over police commissioners

Posted on: 02 December 2010 by Alexander Hay

The government won't make the most out of its proposed police commissioners. The price we pay is less democracy and less accountability.

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So far there have been two opposing views on elected police commissioners, today proposed by Home Secretary Theresa May. Firstly, there's May's view that "these new measures will place the public back at the heart of our drive to cut crime, giving them a say in how their local area is policed". 

Then there's the response by Labour MP Vernon Coaker: "A single elected police chief for an area as large as the West Midlands, Greater Manchester or Devon and Cornwall will do little to improve police accountability, but will risk politicising the police and at a huge cost to the public." 

Both quotes sums up the limitations of our politics. May combines Pollyanna with Blue Sky thinking, predicting the future before it happens, while Coaker worries about giving the public too much power almost as much as he worries about raising taxes. 

Misanthropy, hubris and penny-pinching aside, both miss the real problem facing this new measure - it's not the idea so much as how it will be implemented that is the problem.

For example, the posts will be relatively powerless. While they would be able to sack or hire chief constables, those chiefs would still run the show and be unaccountable to the public they serve. Imagine, if you will, by way of analogy a really bad cook. The government lets you elect a chef-czar who tells the cook off. But the cook is still not directly accountable to you, so all he need do is make some token measures to keep the chef-czar happy. You meanwhile still have to like it or lump it.

This leads us to the main problem with the proposals. They are put together by politicians who fear the public but at the same time want to cultivate the appearance of being sensitive to the opinions of the great unwashed. They pay lip service to democracy, but suspect that voters are deep down simple, small-minded and will vote 'the wrong way'. This flies in the face of a long British tradition of rejecting extremism, but it also reveals the huge gulf that exists between electors and elected.

This leads in turn to a proposal that doesn't resolve the main problem with the police, that they are often a tribe apart from the communities they serve. They talk differently, act differently, their cultural points of reference are different too. This can, of course, be said of other professionals and tradesmen whose jobs tend to take over their lives. But the police are different in that they, alongside NHS staff, are the most public of public servants. 

Their job by definition requires them to deal with and relate to the public, which is a problem for a profession where everyone talks in 'Whisky-Tango-Foxtrot' and the main culture is Canteen Culture. Toothless community support officers aside, a more directly democratic input into how we are policed would go some way in remedying this.

Admittedly, Coaker's accusation that the proposal features too-large geographical areas per police commissioner has some merit. (Even though he thinks the public are too thick to vote the 'right' way in this case.) The measure needs to be more localised - MPs are local enough to answer letters and e-mails from their constituents. Why shouldn't Police Commissioners be too? 

This leads us to the central flaw of these measures. They won't deal with the main problem facing the police - irony upon ironies, its politicisation. As the Blair era showed, the police were already 'on message' and willing to play along with measures such as 90 Days Detention. This dates back to the 80s, when the mass mobilisation of constabulary to fight the government's corner during the miner's strike, not to mention the Battle of the Beanfield, confirmed an end to what was at least a nominal notion of policing by consent. More accountability and less influence from Whitehall would break this monopoly of implied force. But again, the politicians just won't let go.

So do Theresa May's proposals represent a new dawn in policing? Or a waste of money and the risk of a BNP sympathiser being elected to run police in Oldham? Neither. It represents a feeble attempt to devolve power mixed up with irrational fears and vested interests. A watershed shift in the relationship between the citizen and the state has been squandered.

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Alexander Hay

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