Protecting The Operational Independence Of Chief Constables

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

Protecting The Operational Independence Of Chief Constables

One of the most-frequently raised issues in the debates concerning the Police Reform & Social Responsibility Act was the danger that the operational independence of Chief Constables would be compromised if elected Police & Crime Commissioners came into being.

The Home Secretary and her Ministers were consistent in their approach throughout – they informed all who raised this reservation that the legislation would have safeguards built in to prevent this happening.

There is now a Protocol which sets out the relationships and responsibilities of the Police & Crime Commissioner and the Chief Constable.  This is a Statutory Instrument and is subject to scrutiny by Parliament.

The reason for the sensitivity concerning “Operational Independence” as the Bill was making its way through Parliament was understandable.  As I have said publicly on many occasions, this distinguishes Policing in the United Kingdom from almost every other country in the world.  The simplest way of looking at the issue is this – Police Officers in this country are not “employees” – they hold an “Appointment” to the “Office of Constable”. This historic office means that they have powers that are given to them because they are so appointed – and nobody can instruct them to execute the duties of the Office – a Sergeant cannot tell a PC to arrest or not arrest somebody – the individual Constable must come to an independent conclusion that an arrest is lawful and justified.

Take this up to the level of the Chief Constable and whilst it might be expected to become more complicated, the basic principle applies - if a political demonstration is taking place, it is entirely up to the Chief Constable how the policing of that event is conducted.

Similarly, whilst there were those in Parliament who suggested that Police & Crime Commissioners would have all the Police Officers patrolling the leafy suburbs where their voters live, this is simply not the case.

I’ve been lucky enough to see this in action over the years – the frustration of Labour Councils who did not want their Chief Constables to intercept flying pickets during the Miner’s Strike is a good example.

The principle I would adopt is one based on my answer to the question I was asked when being interviewed to be a Chief Officer – If you end up talking about “Operational Independence”, or “The Protocol” – you’ve failed in your relationship as Leaders.  The number one task of an incoming Commissioner will be to sit with the Chief Constable and get a true mutual understanding of what the Protocol means in terms of your responsibilities and I will put that on top of my list.

It will always be possible to drive Effectiveness, Efficiency and Value For Money without compromising the operational independence of the Chief – you’ve just got to understand how your relationships work.

As someone who has held the Office of Constable myself, I know how “Operational Independence” works in practice – I also know just how important it is to the integrity of Policing and I would “die in a ditch” to protect it.