Web Analytics Trust People (once an Englishman in Philly): Elected Police Part 4: Tackling common arguments against

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Elected Police Part 4: Tackling common arguments against

Over at Militant Moderate there's been a pretty detailed discussion of this ongoing series. Which raises some interesting points that need to be shot down early.

What problems would be caused by elected police chiefs? Firstly, there would be a tendency towards populism in policing. I do not dispute that policing, to be effective, needs the confidence of the community. There is a difference between upholding the law and pandering to an electorate, however - and elected police chiefs would run the risk of seeing someone elected on a promise to round up the usual suspects, rather than undergoing a thorough investigative process.

If there is real accountability to the electorate at the moment, as MM seems to suggest later on, there ought to be just the same risk of this happening at the moment. Even if it does happen though, it needs to be established just why this is a bad thing. I can't help but feel this suggests a disconnection from Peel's founding concept of public and police partnership. From where do the police derive their powers of force over people? From people. How is the exercise of their power legitimate if the public, insulated or protected from "populism" can have no say over what they want from their police? Can't the same, somewhat eerily, be said about all aspects of politics?

Secondly, it would also open up the question of how far local flexibility should go. Tolerance towards cannabis users in Brixton, for example, didn't really serve much of a useful purpose except to drive marijuana smokers there in droves. More to the point, it caused a lot of confusion regarding the actual legal status of the drug. A far cry from the equality before the law that should be the defining principle of the English legal system.

Brixton was, I understand, an experimental zone authorised by central Government which required a different approach to be authorised by specific legislative instrument. Such a variation in the law just is not within the control of individual police forces whose role is not to enforce the law, but to bring potential criminals to the courts where it can be enforced.

Where, then, does the role of the local police authority come in? They are vital, but in the selection of how to allocate resources. Far from the model proposed by Charles Clarke of forming super-constabularies, there should be a decentralisation of police forces further - in particular, giving funding directly to police stations and forces in large towns, who know best where resources should be deployed. The bulk of police work necessary for maintaining relations with the community is preventing crime and yobbishness, and it is local officers who should know their beats well enough to know how to allocate their funds. For matters or crimes that need greater coverage or special expertise, then specialist units on a more regional basis should be created.

Here MM is more on the right lines, but this is surely an argument in favour of elected sheriffs to replace local police authorities? To give them a real mandate to make changes, to stand up to Home Office bullying with the support of the people they serve, is to make much more likely the sort of changes Ken suggests.

The idea that elected chiefs will lead to greater community respect for the officer is somewhat flawed. Firstly, history shows examples of how School Boards became tools for political debates and disagreements that had nothing to do with education. It would be worrying if the decision to elect a police chief in a certain area came down to factors that were unconcerned with public order. Secondly, elections are, of their very nature, divisive. If one crime-ridden area has their choice for chief defeated, then they may have even less confidence in the police than before - and it may well exacerbate tensions in a region further, too.

At least they've had the chance to vote. Right now the majority of people served by the police may feel like those whose choice was defeated and they have no recourse at all. They just have to pay for what they're given.

Trust People claims that it is the idea of the police as a service provider to the Home Office that is causing the paperwork that stifles police operations. I disagree; it is the government's own target-driven culture that causes such problems. Elected police chiefs will be far from guaranteed to achieve a crackdown on paperwork - and they would certainly open up a whole can of worms as to what sort of latitude is needed.

I don't intend in any way to assert this plan as a final solution to all our policing woes - it just would make a difference, and a difference worth having. To give the local police authority/elected sheriff some real stature through a democratic mandate will provide a buffer or temporal check against further bureaucratic burdens passed down from Whitehall. It is the idea of the police as service provider to the Home Office which helps feed the target-driven culture. The two are self-enforcing. All governments will try to micromanage further that which is within their control. That is why a culture change in policing is needed to shake it up for the better.

There is accountability in the police force - through the form of the Home Secretary. That our electoral system is imperfect in how we can deal with him is another matter entirely.

The Home Secretary is not accountable to the electorate (save to his constituents as an MP - a different role entirely). He is accountable to Parliament. No matter how we change the Parliamentary electoral system there will never be a clear line of accountability between the Home Office and the people it serves. The important connection should be between people and their police force. The Home Secretary should be there to offer light-touch regulation of this relationship when needed. At the moment his role and the feeble link provided by police authorities just obscures it.


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