People are going to be asked to elect Police Commissioners in England and Wales for the first time in November this year. This is a remarkable change in how the Police are run in this country and we are told it is to make the Police more accountable to the people they serve.
Of course the Police always need to improve the way they operate but I believe that these new Commissioners will cause as many problems as they solve.
It is possible that that any new Commissioner will dutifully seek the views of all local residents and then go about making sure the Police deliver what the pubic want of them but the reality is that the Commissioners are most likely to be Party politicians chasing the votes of their own core voters because few independent candidates will have the resources to run a successful campaign.
A Party politician will want to appeal to his or her party supporters and will want to make sure the Police operate to suit their need to win elections - it is possible or probable that the Commissioners will be aiming to serve only parts of the community - not the whole of it.
Before anyone says that the Commissioners will not have influence on day to day policing - that senior Police Officers are persons of firm resolve and integrity - should remember what influence media bosses have had over the decision making of senior officers in the Metropolitan Police. Then remember that the Commissioners will be able to sack the Chief Officer and will set the priorities for the area, and set a budget. Surely any Chief Officer will be very careful to tell his or her Officers and staff to operate in a way that pleases his or her boss! They will remember what happened to Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ian Blair under Boris Johnson.
Are people living in areas known for voting for the other Parties going to get the same service from Police - there must be some doubt about this? People - usually the poorer and less articulate - who do not vote at all, will stand even less chance of getting a good service (though to be fair that is often the case now). Those with loudest voices will always do better - those that vote for the 'right' Party will do better still.
We can also expect more 'policing by soundbite' than before. One particular prospective candidate has already said that he wants Police to be 'rat catchers' and not 'social workers'. Which of our fellow citizens are going to be the rats? What social work is he talking about - is it the safeguarding of vulnerable young girls who run away from home he wants to cut back on because that does occupy a lot of Police time? As we have learned recently Police and other services should be spending more time looking after these most vulnerable of people not less.
Getting officers 'back on the beat' will always be a popular idea with the voters - who can blame them - it would be nice to see an Officer patrolling our street every time we step out of the door - but there are too few Officers to do that now - and that's before the current cuts kick in. Be aware of promises made on this topic - the new boss will want the Constables in back offices out walking the beat but there aren't many of them left in offices now. Then there are the specialist squads - yes you can lose a few of those but then when some major investigation goes wrong because of a lack of expertise - who will be blamed then - never mind that justice and the public good will be ill served.
We should also be very worried if we have a prospective Commissioner standing on matters like illegal immigration - promising crack downs. The Police could be directed to stop more people from visible ethnic minorities (they won't be clamping down on Canadian and Australian overstayers of course) - but most of those stopped will be legally here and it will just cause more problems for ethnic groups who are already disengaged and disillusioned with the Police.
I am not saying that nothing can be done to improve policing - there is always room for improvement in any organisation but the Police are part of the justice system - they are the gatekeepers to it and it matters what they do and how they do it. People's lives can be altered for ever on decisions made by police if it puts them into the criminal justice system.
Communities can feel better protected or more neglected depending on the decisions of Police chiefs. Making these decisions subject to the need to chase votes will bring as many problems as cures. It is difficult to see who wanted this change - but we should certainly be careful what we wish for.
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