Would Having Elected Police Commissioners Have Prevented Hillsborough?

11/11/2012 13:42 GMT | Updated 10/01/2013 10:12 GMT

What happened before and after the Hillsborough disaster is - quite rightly - under close scrutiny once again. It seems clear that the deaths of 96 football fans, was not investigated properly at the time and there are obvious questions about why it happened in the first place and how the Police responded to it on the day. If there had been elected police commissioners in place at the time - would this have led to a better outcome?

There would have been at least three elected Police Commissioners involved - the one for South Yorkshire Police - who policed the match, one for Merseyside Police who had some Officers there and one for a West Midlands Police who carried out a - a much criticised - inquiry into the disaster. Each of these Commissioners would have to consider the effect of this disaster on their voters - assuming they wanted to be re-elected.

The evidence gathered by the independent panel does not suggest that having elected politicians in charge of the Police would have changed much. In theory the Commissioners would have no influence on operational policing - but they will of course try very hard to interfere when things go wrong - but would their existence and democratic accountabilty have helped at Hilllsborough?

At the time - both politicians and parts of the media bought into the police story of drunken fans being to blame and in at least some cases re-enforced that account. Again - in theory the commissioners would not have been interfering with operational matters anyway - so presumably the build-up to the tragedy would have been the same - things had not obviously gone wrong at that stage. Again - in reality they will try and influence all policing matters - operational and otherwise when things start going wrong or have gone wrong.

We cannot be confident that any elected commissioner in charge of South Yorkshire Police would have challenged the conduct of his or her police officers after such an event since so many politicians did actually buy wholeheartedly into the police account. Indeed, any commissioner in charge of South Yorkshire Police might well have found himself defending the conduct of his police force - after all he or she would not have been democratically accountable to the Liverpool fans and their families - they would have had their own police commissioner in Liverpool. Would any commissioner in charge of West Midlands police - whose investigation into the tragedy has been questioned - have added any extra safeguards or re-assurances - again his or her interest would have been in winning votes in the West Midlands not in supporting the case of the vicitms of this tragedy.

This - of course - assumes the worst of human nature and the democratic process - but I suggest the system we are about to adopt - by electing commissioners - begs these questions.

Is having elected Police Commissioners- most likely to be from the main political parties - likely to increase the level of trust in Police?

Looking at another high profile case - an investigation has begun into how North Wales Police investigated the historic allegations of abuse in children's homes. An investigation may bring some clarity around what happened and perhaps some new lines of enquiry. What is now well known is that allegations have been made that a leading Conservative was involved in some of the abuse. This particular allegation now seems to be groundless - but if we had already had an elected police commissioner in place at that time - and that Commissioner was a Conservative politician - would this have added to the confidence in the independence and integrity in this historic investigation?

I do not mean to suggest for one moment that a Conservative politician is more likely to be corrupt or dishonest than any other party politician. What I mean is that putting an elected commissioner in charge of the police - especially if they belong to a political party - may not necessarily bring the desired increase in public confidence that the government says it will.

This could of course apply to any non-party, independent commissioner - they could be members of any number of organisations in their private lives or have been in their past - and at some stage be subject to a conflict of interest or doubt about their independence. But in reality most commissioners are likely to belong to the main political parties because they are the ones who have the experience, the best networks and the resources to get themselves elected. And - again - the point is the elected commissioners are meant to add something new and desirable to policing and to increase our trust and confidence in the process - something which the government thinks is currently lacking.

It is not as if politicians are more trusted than the police - a 2011 Ipsos Mori poll on which professions are most trusted - puts police well ahead of politicians in the list of those most trusted by the public. So we are putting people in charge of police who are less trusted by the public than the police themselves and this is meant to increase public confidence!

These surveys are, of course, crude measures that take no account of the individuals involved - almost all of whom are people doing their best - but it does raise a question about how the public are going to gain from this dramatic change to how we are policed. Is there going to be a significant change for the better in the level of trust in the police with the introduction of elected politicians - I suspect not.