Police Elections Part 2: Why change is needed
So that's theory.
It's easy to see why some focus so much on the avoidance of political interference being a good thing. No single organisation or individual can control or direct the police force. It's at this point where I begin to swim against the tide. Yes, we must avoid a politicised police - it would be reckless to permit the exercise of such force as the police wield for personal reasons. What we must also avoid, however, is the complete absence of real accountability, accountability to the community, for police performance. At the moment we're not far from this point. Precisely because there are so many people interested everyone can get away with blaming everyone else. Just this absence of accountability, just this absence of connection with the public - the public who should be such a key part of policing - is the greatest problem with policing today and the greatest barrier to spreading good practice and ending lazy practice.
Accountability to those who stand to either benefit or lose from something is good. It breeds responsibility, it breeds focus on one's job and responsibilities, and how one can do what is wanted by those one's meant to help. This in turn breeds results, through extra effort, extra thought and that extra focus. The Chief Constables don't obey the community or the people though. They obey the Home Secretary. They are not accountable in accordance with the values with which the communities they police believe they should be accountable. In ignoring the public, and having to focus on the Home Secretary alone, they cater to the centrally-perceived view of what they should do, not the view of the communities of which they are meant to be part. In the same way that centrally-determined targets stifle and harm schools and hospitals they stifle community policing - we see that through the Home Office-mandated form filling which blights and hinders the police so much. Remember from the General Election the extra, non-productive hassle caused by this? It takes up seven minutes of an officer's time for every person they stop, and thereby discourages that officer from engaging with the public or stopping suspicious people. The assumption here is that neither people nor the police can be trusted to do their job. Only, we are told, the Home Office, in their infinite - erm - wisdom, can ensure the public and the police cooperate properly.
Ah, I hear you say, but I haven't mentioned police authorities. Surely they are the connection between Chief Constables and the Home Secretary? Sadly they are neither a connection nor a way of holding the police to account. This is the crux of the need for direct elections. They don't fulfill the role in practice the idealists think they do in theory. They're meant to represent the public and ensure the police force is accountable to people it serves, so how best should they do this? Trust people to make the right decision? Directly elect someone to do it, you say? Too simple. Not establishment enough. Instead they're made up of appointed local councillors, "independent" Home Office nominees and a handful of hand-picked magistrates (who have already been hand-picked once themselves). As such they lack any actual clout. That's why they don't hold local police to account for local people and why the Government feels it can, and does, ride roughshod over them. If you want to know what the Home Office really thinks, cast your mind back to this?
In particular since 1997, but before that as well, these authorities have become by far the weakest of the pillars. The police are accountable in practice not to people they serve, or their representatives, but to the Home Office in Whitehall. They then deploy the full paraphernalia of regulation, targets, diversity awareness training and the like to hit their targets not the targets of the people the police are meant to serve.
Policing has never been a central government venture. It's been a local venture, loosely regulated centrally, to work with and for local people. That's what it should remain. We should resist this ever-centralising tendency, resist this Home Office de facto power grab, and give power back to local people decisively by directly electing a single representative to replace the police authority.