Those of you familiar with American crime dramas like the Shield and the Wire will remember that one of the subtexts of these dramas was that the local Police Commissioners are often shown in a bad light because they are more concerned with getting re-elected than with fighting crime. Indeed, the anti-heroes of both these shows fight a lonely campaign for honest policing in the face of indifference and sometimes downright dishonesty from the Police Commissioner. The view is that this person, with an eye on re-election, spends a lot of time trying to agree to the demands of the different social groupings in his constituency and also, as a solitary individual, can often be pressurised by powerful groups including organised crime. Well, from 2012, these drama series could be set in England as the Coalition government have decided to scrap the existing, mainly voluntary Police Authorities and replace them by directly elected Police Commissioners.
The theory is that this will make policing more accountable with an identifiable person in charge instead of a faceless committee – but, given the size of the constituencies, ie the whole of Lancashire, it’s hard to think why the public will feel any greater sense of identification with this person because they have been elected than they do with the current Chair of the Police Authority. The other theory is that, in support of Nick Clegg’s demand for localism, it frees the local forces up from central Home Office control so that local policing priorities can be addressed more seriously – suggesting that, currently, this is not the case. It would be interesting to know what the government is using for evidence for this assertion and what percentage of the population subscribe to that opinion.
As a further source of potential confusion, the elected Police Commissioner will be responsible for policing strategy and finance but not the actual day-to-day operations, which will still be managed by the Chief Constable. In which case, given that most ordinary folks are only concerned with the physicality of policing – the number of incidents in my street and what is being done about them – the Police Commissioner may end up with a highly lucrative job that no-one actually cares about. A salary for the new role has not been set yet but the government expects that the cost of this changeover will be approx £100m – this, at a time; when council budgets are being decimated, tuition fees trebled, educational maintenance allowances scrapped and a fire sale organised for the national forests. It’s certainly hard to understand why this has become such a high priority for the government.
The older amongst us will remember that, in the 1980s, elected police chiefs was one of the demands of the so-called Loony Left and, as such, was regularly pilloried by the Tory press under the banner of ” policing on the rates.” Now, it’s become a priority for the Tory/Lib Dem coalition, I suppose it would be asking too much to expect the press to scrutinise it with the same vigour. If they did, they might even try to work out whether the Tories have had a genuine conversion to this previously much-maligned idea or whether they have been bounced into this by their Lib Dem colleagues as part of the coalition deal.
Anyway, there’s not going to be any public debate about it – the elections will take place in spring 2012 and, in what seems to be a victory for hope over reality, the government are expecting a higher turnout for these elections than for local council elections – apparently, because it will generate such interest among the public.
So, budding script writers should get their pens out – there’ll be a big TV series in there somewhere!