On 15 November people in England and Wales will have the opportunity to vote for their Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC). This week it was announced that the public will pay Crime Commissioners £100,000 even if they work part time; this makes them a serious concern for all citizens.
However there are good reasons to pay attention to the forth coming elections, even for those citizens who are not yet rate payers. Commissioners will replace current Police Authorities. These elected officials will have wide ranging powers to set policing priorities - graffiti, street crime, terrorism - through strategic plans and perhaps most crucially over funding for a whole range of associated functions. For instance, they will decide both the policing budget but also the crime prevent budget, which can include things like drug treatment, domestic violence refuges and youth clubs. Chief Constables remain in charge in operational change of their police forces but will be directly accountable to the Commissioner. Though answerable to the electorate, once elected PCCs will have unprecedented license to affect the way a community experiences its police force.
At StopWatch (a coalition working for fair and accountable policing) we have serious concerns that the introduction of elected Commissioners will politicise policing, it could hand policing powers to extremists and it has the potential to further marginalise those on the outskirts of society. However, the elections also represent an opportunity to bring a measure of genuine accountability into the police service. In the wake of proposals to privatise whole swathes of police work this is even more vital. If corporations such as G4S, who already face allegations of mistreatment, are to take over policing functions then any proposal which offers the public the chance to have some say over such radical changes should be exploited to the full. In particular, these elections provide the young people that are the overwhelming subjects of stop and search the space to push for real change in the way they are policed.
For many young people in the UK the police are a source of resignation or rage but rarely reassurance. Over the past year we have witnessed first hand the consequences of this; in Tottenham, Croydon, Manchester and Birmingham. If such destructive outcomes are to be avoided in the future then the police must meaningfully reengage with the youth that they serve. Of course some forces have attempted this; in Lewisham local police used to attend the Critical Encounters project that aimed to increase understanding between them and the youth of the borough. While laudable, this project - now closed - was limited in scope and operated on a purely voluntary basis. The officers that would willingly give up their evenings and Saturday afternoons to attend such a program are not likely to be the officers that young people in Lewisham have the most problems with.
The fundamental truth is that while many forces recognise that responding to young people makes for more efficient policing in the long run, it is not young people who set their priorities because it is not young people who pay their wages. In a business it is important that the boss keeps his workers happy for the long term productivity of the enterprise, but he is directly answerable to the shareholders; at present the power relationship between the police and young people is more akin to employees than shareholders.
However, with the advent of elected Commissioners this dynamic is set to change. Suddenly young people aged 18 and up are have a say in who runs their local police service. Turn outs in local elections are historically low, turn outs in winter elections likewise, so turnout in November is predicted to be so low that there concerns over the legitimacy of the results already.
Nonetheless, whoever is elected will be given huge powers to determine how citizens experience their police service; and however slender, will be able to point to a mandate for their actions that no Commissioner has ever had before.
A concerted block of young voters in this environment has the power to make a real difference. An "Operation Young Vote" or "Coalition of the Searched" (including young people, black peopleand those from Muslim communities) could make sure that no one gets elected without responding to the concerns of those at the sharp edge of policing. StopWatch is already working to give young people a voice in policing; the acid test of this new accountability will be whether their voices are heard.
Follow Kamaljeet Gill on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kamaljeetgill