“Elected Commissioners Will Bring Politics Into Policing” – Myth, Reality, Or Just The Status Quo?

This article was published as part of my campaign to become a Police & Crime Commissioner candidate

 

During the passage of the Police Reform & Social Responsibility Bill through Parliament, a constant issue raised by its opponents in both the Commons and Lord’s debates related to the potential for Policing to be influenced by Politics.

Whilst the Government and those Members of each House who supported the Bill denied this might be the case, the opposite position was articulated at length by their opponents.

This case was also put by the Association of Police Authorities when asked to comment on elected Police & Crime Commissioners.  Their trenchant opposition to the Bill took many forms and they had supporters in Parliament including a number of noble Peers, who had led Police Authorities during their own careers as Councillors in the past.

Despite the fact the Government won the day and the Act is now in place, reservations are expressed to me on a daily basis about this issue of “politics in policing” – but those now doing so are (in the main) serving or retired Police Officers who see this as a real threat to the independence of the Office of Constable – which is the basis upon which all of our Policing has been based, even before the days of Sir Robert Peel.

It is fair to say that whether for or against elected Police & Crime Commissioners – or indeed as a candidate to be one in my case – everyone acknowledges that political interference in Policing would be bad.  Bad for Police Officers, bad for Policing and I would go as far as to say bad for our democracy.

You don’t have to look very far around the world to see nations where the Government use the Police as an arm of the state, to suppress opposition.  The Police in Egypt are a good example – their part in trying to suppress the demonstrations of opposition to their Government last year will still be fresh in our memories.

On a less dramatic scale in terms of the humanitarian consequences, but no less important in application of the principle, was the very public falling out of Commissioner Bill Bratton and Mayor Rudi Giuliani, who (it is said) was jealous of the former’s profile in terms of public popularity.  Despite outstanding success, Bratton resigned, following publication of his photograph on the front cover of Time Magazine – an honour that Giuliani had not received.  Too many changes at the top occur in American cities for the “politics” not to be playing a part.

In this country though, has politics ever been far away from Policing?  For that matter, is it ever far away from any major state activity?  All the debate about Education, Health, or Policing is – especially at election time – couched in terms of numbers – numbers of teachers, numbers of nurses and numbers of Police Officers.

There is something truly ironic in the Labour Party’s position on this subject – quite happy to say that elected Commissioners will bring politics into Policing, yet continually talking about “Cuts of 16,000 Police Officers” whenever commenting on Law & Order.  (For the information of those who are new to these pages and for the avoidance of doubt - I oppose cuts in Police Officer numbers as presently planned by the North Yorkshire Police Authority, because I consider the necessary savings may be made elsewhere.)

Even the Police Federation (an organisation for which I have enormous regard) fall into the same trap.  Every statement they make is couched in terms of Police Officer numbers.  That is part of their job – many people don’t know they have many statutory responsibilities that have really assisted Police efficiency and Officer welfare over the years – but one has to describe it as political lobbying.  They have a stand at every Party Conference each year for just this reason.  I’m not criticising them – they are one of the most effective Staff Associations in the country and the best in Policing by a country mile – the point I make is that Politics exists in Policing, always has and always will.

The issue which is relevant is when one has recognised this, you have to know where the boundaries lie.  I have written elsewhere about protecting the operational independence of Chief Constables and described how that may be maintained.  The protocol issued by the Home Secretary governs the relationship between the Chief and his or her Commissioner.  In short, the Chief gets on with the Policing, the Commissioner the accountability.

Political issues should never influence who the Police deal with, what they deal with, or how they deal with it in an operational sense.  If the Chief Constable has to deal with a political rally, how he does that is a matter for him, regardless of which Party it is for or against.  If the Leader of a Council is subject of an investigation, the same applies.

Of course, Government tries to “influence” the way Policing is conducted.  Arguably, the last Labour administration were masters of the art – through the mechanism of “ring-fencing” of money issued to Local Authorities, including Police Authorities.  A good example is that of funding for Police Community Support Officers - which was limited by Gordon Brown to paying for that aspect of the Police operation alone.  Would Chiefs appoint PCSO’s or fully warranted officers if they had a choice?

The past couple of weeks have seen the Labour Party start to use Police Officer numbers more actively in their approach on Policing and today’s Home Office Questions contained the now familiar sight of Labour MP’s rising to criticise “cuts of 16000 Police Officers”, only to discover that Ministers have to hand briefing that shows in that MP’s local force, “there are X Police Officers in IT”, or another back office function where their specialist skills are not being used.

Historically, the way in which Police Authorities have operated has placed Chief Officers right in the political firing line – especially when it came to delivering bad news.  Last year, North Yorkshire Police Authority set the budget in such a manner as to cause reductions in the hours of opening for a number of Police Stations.  They did not consult the public about this, yet it was the Assistant Chief Constable who had to field all the media attention that followed from the decision.

One of the real advantages of having elected Police & Crime Commissioners will be that the public accountability for the consequences of budgetary decision-making will be held by a directly elected individual – who will lose support if choices are made without community involvement.  In the case of North Yorkshire’s Police Stations, it would be the Commissioner who answers for the decision.

This is politics – but not in a manner that impacts on the proud history of independence our Police Service has and which I would fiercely defend.

The reality is that Policing – like any major public service – has politics attached already and the election of Police & Crime Commissioners will not change that.