How should we police the police?

Northern forces are going through troubling times, but there seems little public appetite for new and different management. Ed Jacobs, the Northerner‘s political commentor, is not optimistic about reform

Last month in the Northerner, Martin Wainwright wrote of the troubled times facing police forces across the north. Whilst the barbaric murders of WPCs Fiona Bruce and Nicola Hughes in Greater Manchester sent shockwaves nationwide, question marks over the heads of some of the north’s major police forces prompted pressing questions about the accountability and transparency of those at the top.

In September came the news that Cumbria’s temporary chief constable, Stuart Hyde had been suspended pending an investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) into allegations of ‘serious’ misconduct, which has subsequently decided that:

while some matters may require an investigation by Cumbria Police Authority, the allegations as they stand either do not amount to serious misconduct or are based on unsupported suspicion and therefore do not warrant IPCC involvement.

Cleveland’s police chief however was not as fortunate. Earlier this month, Sean Price was dismissed for committing gross misconduct by asking an officer to lie over allegations that the chief had asked a member of staff to enquire about a job for an individual.

Meanwhile, the IPCC last week launched what will be its largest investigation ever, assessing the conduct of police officers, largely based in South and West Yorkshire, at the time of the Hillsborough disaster, including the current chief constable of West Yorkshire, Sir Norman Bettison.

While it is not wise to bracket public trust in, for example, bobbies on the beat who so often provide reassurance to the communities they serve, with that in chief constables under fire, data out this week reveals the extent to which faith in South Yorkshire police has been damaged by Hillsborough. Publishing details of a poll of South Yorkshire residents carried out by ComRes, BBC Radio Sheffield found that while 51% said that their confidence in the force remained unchanged, 78% felt that the forces’ reputation now had been damaged by events many years ago. A further 37% said that the revelations had led them to trust the force less, compared to 26% who trusted it more and 37% who said they simply did not know.

James Vincent, political reporter for BBC Sheffield, says:

The force’s reputation has taken a big hit and that is what hurts officers serving today; those who started their careers long after 1989

.

As the region comes to terms with the need for justice over Hillsborough, another pressing question is whether new Police and Crime Commissioners – due to be elected in four weeks’ time – will be the antidote needed to put things right. Addressing the Conservative conference last week, the Home Secretary Theresa May emphasised the importance of the new posts whose holders can hire and fire chief constables, set the priorities for their police forces and holding chiefs to account for their record on cutting crime. She said:

The most important thing about Police and Crime Commissioners is that they will need to stand up for the public and cut crime. If they don’t, they’ll be voted out of their job.

In reality, however, what once seemed like a great idea, a chance to enact major reform of the police service by abolishing the current largely unknown and faceless police authorities with a new powerful, directly elected figure, is becoming a damp squib, raising the prospect not of a democratisation of the police but of a politician tearing apart the consensus on which so much police work has historically relied.

In a poll carried out by YouGov-Cambridge in partnership with RUSI, overwhelming majorities of those questioned in the north felt that the elections would unduly politicise policing in their communities; would not be effective at holding their police forces to account; and would lead to a postcode lottery in the provision of policing. The Government’s rhetoric about being able to vote a Commissioner out in five years’ time if people aren’t happy might be all well and good, but could a police force and a community cope with five years of a potentially poorly led service?

It also has to be asked whether anyone in Government itself is really enthused by the plan. Take the date of the election, for example: 15 November comes at the worst time of year to conduct a poll as nights get dark early and the weather sets in. Little wonder that the Electoral Reform Society has predicted that at 18.5%, turnout for the elections could be the lowest for any nationwide election in history, spurred also by a failure to provide mailed out information on the candidates standing in each area, such as takes places at General Election.

There’s also going to be a helpline which opens just 23 days before polling day. It wll be interesting to see how many people ring it.

How then does a turnout which could potentially see over 80% of the population failing to bother to vote for their commissioner sit alongside the traditions of ‘consensus’ policing? What kind of a mandate does it really provide for the new regime? And why do ministers feel that police commissioners are so important that they need imposing on communities, rather than giving voters a referendum on whether they actually want a vote, as happened with for a directly-elected mayor?

Elections and democracy are clearly good things, but ministers have been swept up by the idea that they are are the cure for every part of public life in need of reform. Were this the case, how can the expenses scandal have hit what is supposed to be the beating heart of our democracy: Parliament?

But if not commissioners, then what? I could come out with ideas about reforming police authorities, but would that miss out on public engagement altogether?

What do you think? What should reform of our police service management look like? Would a reformed independent police complaints authority, as argued for by the Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper be the answer? Or do we need change at all?

Ed Jacobs is a political consultant at the Leeds based Public Affairs Company and devolution correspondent for the centre-left political and policy blog, Left Foot Forward.


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