The case against elected police commissioners

First posted on Jim Jepp’s Daily Maybe.

Greens in Brighton & Hove are opposing the introduction of a directly elected police commissioner for Sussex Police. Why? Surely we support democracy and public accountability… don’t we?

Indeed we do, but there are many ways to deliver a public service whilst holding it accountable to the people it serves. I think an unfortunate aspect of the debate is that too many people are unfamiliar with how police forces are currently run. I must admit that I too was blissfully unaware until I was elected a councillor.

But without that knowledge of what we have now, comparisons are difficult. When contrasted with what many assume to be a faceless bureaucracy, of course an elected commissioner sounds positive. Yet police forces are already accountable to independent police authorities. In the case of Sussex Police it answers to Sussex Police Authority. This body is made of elected councillors and independently appointed members including local magistrates. The councillor membership of the authority follows proportionality rules so, as best as is possible, the seats must be divvied up to match the political representation on the local authorities in Sussex.

It’s not perfect, but the authority’s makeup does ensure a semblance of diverse representation for the communities Sussex Police seek to represent. Just as a local council does, the authority has committees and budget votes. These are open to the public and are webcast.

With a single directly elected commissioner many of the arguments Greens have used against directly elected local authority mayors hold true: Decision making will be less open, less accountable and there will be far fewer opportunities for a plurality of opinions to be heard.

Cllr Ben Duncan is the only Green on Sussex Police Authority, but his distinctive perspective has undoubtedly had a positive impact in winning commitments for more neighbourhood policing, more sustainable ways of working, for a different approach to policing hunts and much more.

The idea of directly elected police commissioners is one both Labour and Conservatives have borrowed from the American political system. There are many things to admire in the US constitution, but the results for everyday quality of life have been, at best, mixed. Indeed one could argue there has been too much of a good thing. Voters are asked to elect school commissioners, police chiefs, judges, municipal councillors, senators, congressmen, state governors, state secretaries of state and so on. Turnout levels in the US are incredibly low. I have often heard it said that in the US there are probably too many elections and too many things to vote on. Whether or not that is true, there’s no evidence to show that simply having a directly elected head of the police makes any positive impact.

Some argue that we should oppose commissioners because ‘undesirables’ (I assume the BNP and such like) might win some elections for police commissioners. I don’t believe that’s a fair argument against commissioners, though the detail of the electoral system proposed is something I have yet to see mentioned. Ultimately I believe that Greens should oppose directly elected police commissioners because they are contrary to green values: They centralise power, reduce the diversity of views, make decision-making less accountable and are needlessly expensive.

What could be done to improve police accountability? We could consider returning control directly to local councils, which would offer a more direct connection with communities and their elected councillors. In the meantime I believe police authorities are a reasonable compromise position, but the authorities must continue to work hard to engage with the areas they represent.

Particularly in these times of austerity, when Sussex Police’s Chief Constable estimates elections for a new police commissioner would cost upwards of £1 million, the case has not been made for this change.

2 thoughts on “The case against elected police commissioners”

  1. Dear Jason

    As usual , you say a lot without actually proposing anything. What a load of old tosh you talk sometimes. Do you write this sort of thing at 3 in the morning when you’re in and out of sleep? You’ve effectively argued yourself in to a corner – wanting more accountability but dissing the idea of a Commissioner who would help sort that.
    All you’ve actually done is made a limp offer that all responsibility should be thrown back to local councils. Well local councils actually work with the police to ensure this.
    Your idea would then result in someone like Cllr Duncan [who refuses to tell his police ‘colleagues’ where his friends will start marching, thus costing the police almost £1million pounds in operational costs]as a possible lead member – we might as well all build bunkers, in that case.
    All he has to do is inform the police where a march might start – not v difficult,. Instead he prefers to cause massive inconvenience to parents taking their children to and from school, shoppers, people going about their everyday business, and the police who foot the bill because they are spread too thinly across the city to cover all options.

    Like Intelligent Commissioning, you say a lot, write well, but offer nothing as an alternative. Chuck the grenade, see what happens, but have no idea what to do when the grenade is thrown back!
    Reminds me a bit of Coyote in Road Runner. Plans destined to failure.

    Look forward to seeing you soon, as ever.And I remain a committed observer of your words.

    Ayas

    1. Dear Ayas

      Thank you for taking the time to comment so fulsomely.

      My proposals are quite straightforwardly presented above: Ideally local councils should directly control their local police forces. However failing that then police authorities consisting of councillors and independent members should continue.

      With Intelligent Commissioning, as I have said many times on this blog and elsewhere, my proposal is to focus on the Council and it’s staff — not on the outsourcing this commissioning will lead to.

      Cllr Duncan does a sterling job as a police authority member and I believe your criticism is unfounded. It is vital that both the community and the Police trust him, he is not there to act as an informant to one party or another.

      regards,
      Jason

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