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Police Authorities - Problem or Solution?

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Last week, we saw what politicisation of the police looks like, and it was hardly a pretty sight!

We saw an undignified battle between the Home Secretary and Police Chiefs, in which each claimed to be in charge. We'd better get used to it, next May England and Wales will be electing our local Police Commissioners on a political ticket. The spectacle of Police Commissioners and Chief Constables in public spats may become all too much a part of our public life.

Last week, we saw the difference between Chief Constables and Politicians. Chief Constables are used to making decisions that directly affect people's lives and can literally mean the difference between life and death. They are used to the fact that life is not always expressed in sharp black and white but usually much too complicated to solve problems with a quick new policy initiative or a fresh sound bite. In short, they are dealing in real life scenarios.

Here in Cumbria we experienced the horrific Derek Bird shootings which killed 12 people and injured another 11. It would have been easy to rush into print with calls for all kinds of actions and reactions but that's not the way of the Cumbria Constabulary, or of the Cumbria Police Authority. Patient analysis, and the appreciation that this really was an extremely rare event that might never again hit our County, has led to a series of recommendations that have been well thought through.
Contrast this with what we have seen in the last week and try to imagine the Cumbrian shootings with an elected Police Commissioner in place. There's a very real risk that we might have seen politics at its worse.

Police Authorities might not be perfect but in practise they provide a very good middle ground between a politicised police force and an unaccountable constabulary. They consist of both independent and elected members, a combination which works well. The elected Councillors are not directly elected but nominated by their local Councils.

We don't hear a lot about Police Authorities and some say that this is symptomatic of their failure to hold the Police to account. But could it be because they actually do work very well in that triangular relationship between the Force, the Public and the Government? Some Police forces have had well publicised problems but most have not. Most have worked away in consultation with their public and their police authorities and seen a year on year reduction in crime figures. In short, they have done exactly what they have been asked to do and done it with no small amount of success.

In May, Police Authorities will cease to exist. We are taking a well proved system and replacing it with an import from the USA. Will it be a change for the better? The events of last week must surely give us pause for thought.