Elected Police Commissioners – what’s that all about then?

Just came across a discussion on the @EDPBusiness LinkedIn group asking why the election of Police Commissioners has to be a political issue. It puzzles me too – as I posted in reply and am reposting (slightly edited) here because I can’t work out how to share a link to a closed group discussion.

Must confess, I’ve only just woken up to the fact that we are going to elect Police Commissioners (following an article in the Guardian last week about someone being disqualified from running for office because of some childhood conviction)   – and I am not sure it is a good idea.

My fear is that we get the situation you (apparently) find in the USA, where the Commissioner is always playing to the crowd, with their eye on the next election. Rather than focusing on whether the police are operating efficiently, fairly and effectively, the debate becomes a more basic one about how many people they have arrested and had convicted. What you might call the lynch mob mentality (you only have to see the miscarriages of justice that have occurred when the pressure for results is on to understand the risk).

The police have always been democratically accountable, in that elected politicians (local and national) have always been able to question them about their performance (even if only via the Home Secretary). If we want more local accountability, they I don’t see why the role isn’t performed by elected local councillors (as, John Cowan said in an earlier reply, it was until the 90s). For instance, Norfolk County and City councils could appoint a joint ‘select committee’ to perform the role – meaning the debates would be more balanced.

However, I am not sure having a de-facto party-political contest is the right way to recruit someone for such an important role. Like Kevin Maddams (who started the LinkedIn discussion), I fear we will just get a partisan in a suit, who focuses on point scoring against their political opponents and pandering to their own party’s narrow base. As such we might end up with some dreadful caricature, either a member of the tub-thumping “flog ’em and hang ’em” brigade or a hand-wringing “the police are wrong, the criminals are victims too” apologist.

The police serve the whole of Norfolk, urban and rural communities, the rich and the poor – we need someone who can speak for the broadest number of law abiding citizens across the county. Who understands that modern policing is as much about good data analysis as “bobbies on the beat” and that targeted prevention involves more than simply locking up more and more people. Most importantly, we need someone who can actually work with the Police to ensure they, as the experts, can get on and do their job without undue political interference.

I don’t know who is running for the post in this area (not even sure what the election timetable is) but I hope (if we must have an elected commissioner) that a good, independent candidate comes forward.

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