Policing the commissioners
The naysayers predict that turn-out for the police and crime commissioner elections in November will be below 10 per cent. Without free postage, some argue these will be the first entirely digital elections, decided by postal votes as the electorate shrinks from the prospect of voting on a dark November evening for candidates they barely know.
But the democratic innovation doesn’t stop on election day. Crime and policing will be the first public service entrusted into the hands of a single elected representative and it is far from clear quite what the outcome is likely to be.
Police and crime commissioner (PCC) candidates emphasise their autonomy and the importance of the electoral mandate in determining policing priorities and disrupting the cosy complacency that is used to characterise the relationship between chief constables and police authorities. For many, particularly on the right, PCCs represent an opportunity to release what academic Ian Loader calls the “inner-crime-fighter” in a police force strangled by bureaucracy and local government meddling.
But councils see an opportunity of a different kind. By constituting police and crime panels (PCPs) with a strategic and effective role in the shake-up they see an opportunity to exert renewed influence over crime and community safety issues. In the absence of too much guidance, PCPs look set to take a variety of forms, from formal scrutiny bodies for PCCs to executive partnerships between elected members, chief constables and PCCs.
In West Yorkshire, local authorities are developing a Memorandum of Understanding which they intend to present to PCC candidates setting out proposed arrangements for PCP meetings, creating a single data analysis hub, negotiating the police precept and how they see the role of the chief constable. Protagonists of this approach insist this in not about protecting the status quo but it is a means of assisting negotiation of what is clearly contested territory. But whether or not candidates are prepared to commit to sign up ahead of elections will send an interesting message which the electorate might interpret either way.
It is easy to envisage a scenario where PCCs, councils and chief constables are all at loggerheads, but experiments in localism to date suggest such nightmare scenarios are unlikely. PCCs will remain dependent upon soft influence over wider issues such as reoffending, community safety and crime prevention, drug and alcohol services and, crucially, employment and welfare. While populist campaigners will inevitably emerge, the majority of PCCs will recognise that long-term success will require more harmonious relationships with other public and voluntary sector partners and that evidence-based, preventative policing is the key to re-election. Even if they choose not to follow a path of wise consensus, then low turn-out figures are likely to be cited to keep them in check.
Such are the opportunities and risks of a genuine localist experiment of this nature. One thing is clear, a year from now there will be a very different patterns and models of crime and community safety emerging across England and Wales