Opinion: Policing shouldn’t be tested by trial and error

(c) kenjonbro

Katy Owen

There is a bill currently making its way through the House of Lords  (albeit without a fight) titled ‘Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill’ which, among other things, aims to abolish police authorities and replace them with elected police commissioners. These commissioners would be selected based on proposed policing priorities for different areas which constables would then be expected to address and prioritise.

Home secretary Theresa May has argued that these changes would increase the connection between the public and the police and improve democracy while putting police decisions in the hands of local communities rather than Whitehall. So far, so populist. One imagines that this change is part of this government’s attempt to be associated with the positive notion of reform as well as the negative one of cuts.

So why care? Aside from the fact that the changes – according to Home Office figures – could cost up to £130 million in the first year, they could also be, in the words of the Welsh Assembly, ‘disastrous’ for policing outcomes in certain areas. Recognising that democracy is not perfect, especially when we have such low voting turnouts, means understanding that certain essential services – policing included – must not be politicised.

Imagine the following scenario: a particular town has a diverse range of communities with different policing needs. The richer areas have higher voter turnouts and therefore it is the candidate who panders most to their policing needs who is elected as commissioner for the entire area. The police force is then under pressure, or even obligation, to comply with those particular needs over any others thereby potentially hampering effective policing for the entire town.

Furthermore, police would be focused on short-term visible gains rather than tackling long-term crime problems in the same way that governments often are. The question they would ask themselves is: ‘How can we be seen to have made a difference in the key electorally important areas in the next five years?’ rather than ‘How can we tackle crime in the long term for the entire community using our expertise and knowledge of which areas are important?’

Sir Hugh Orde, of the Association of Chief Police Officers warned against Tory plans back in 2009, arguing that police independence is ‘absolutely critical’ and warning that certain fundamental policing issues which cross the country such as organised crime and serial rapists are at risk of being ignored because they are not local issues. The government has similarly been warned by New York’s former chief assistant district attorney, Jessica de Grazia, arguing that a similar scheme in the US bred corruption amongst policemen and did serious damage to their reputation.

These changes are completely untested in the UK and should not be implemented when such grave concerns are being expressed by those in the know. The police are not a service to be reformed through ‘trial and error’ when people’s lives could be in danger and serious damage to effective policing could be done.

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