What can we expect from the Police and Crime Commissioners elections?

You would be forgiven for having entirely missed the fact that a fundamental change to policing in the United Kingdom will be occurring in less than a month. The arrival of directly elected police and crime commissioners has been heralded with little fanfare outside of the political classes, and one can perhaps see why – it is not an issue that we would expect to capture the imagination of the public at large.

It is, however, important. As we draw closer to November 15th, and the first ever British PCC elections, I have to believe that public debate will pick up a little. Election leaflets will begin to circulate, and I believe that the Home Office has bought some television advertising slots to let the sofa-bound British public know that somewhere, in a primary school near them, there is a bit of paper with some names on it that demands their attention. This is a good thing. So far, the new elections have received so little attention that many are confidently predicting the lowest ever turnout of any nationwide election in British history. Whatever you think about the new policy, this can only be a bad thing. Once these elections take place, we are likely stuck with elected commissioners for the foreseeable future, and introducing ineffectual non-entities who lack a proper mandate to take command of the local force is in no one’s interest.

Ian Blair disagrees with me. He went on the record last week, telling people that they should boycott the upcoming elections. Mr Blair is, or at least was, the most high-profile commander that Metropolitan Police has ever had. I can say with certainty that he knows more about police work than I will ever know. On this particular issue, however, I’m going to have to call his judgement into question. Nina Kelly, writing in the Guardian, thinks that the Electoral Reform Society’s guess of an 18.5% turnout (linked to above) might be too conservative. There are campaigners who are predicting a turnout of 9-13%. At this level of political apathy, the final results of elections become wildly unpredictable. From the 26th of October, almost certainly unnoticed by the wider world, the Home Office will publish the official list of candidates for the new PCC position at www.choosemypcc.org.uk. This list will contain seven candidates from far-right part the English Democrats and one from the British Freedom Party, the political wing of the English Defence League. The smaller the final turnout, the more likely it is that we will wake up on the 16th of November with a racist far-right extremist having been given the power to set ‘policing priorities’, the control of the police budget and the ability to replace the chief constable. While this slightly nightmarish hypothetical is certainly unlikely, I find Mr Blair’s call to boycott difficult to comprehend.

Several weeks ago, though, I would have had a lot more sympathy with his arguments, even if I disputed his conclusions. I was not a believer in elected police commissioners. The arguments against populist elected representatives being in such direct control of the forces of law, order and legitimate violence are certainly convincing. It is hard not to look to the United States and be nervous, where the system has thrown up such gems as Joe Arpaio, an elected sheriff Maricopa County, Arizona, whose continual and flagrant abuses of power have become an unfortunate example of what happens when you allow those who command police forces and correctional facilities to pander for the public vote.

The response to an event such as the nation-wide 2011 riots is one example among many where a knee-jerk response from a populist commissioner would likely have added flames to the fire. There is also a risk that differing police priorities and political ideologies in different areas will result in measurably different standards of policing becoming more prominent across the United Kingdom. The implementation of the new policy by the Coalition throws up even more red flags; most notably that otherwise acceptable candidates are being forced to stand down by harsh rules over previous offences – including one 65 year old Nottinghamshire candidate who has been prevented from running due to a drinking related offence from his 21st birthday.

Despite these compelling arguments, however, I have been convinced by the need for change. In the face of countless enquiries, investigations and trials, the police force remains one of the least reformed public bodies in the United Kingdom. Its institutional character is distinctly conservative and inward-looking. Regardless of  a recently improved public image following cheerful photos of groups of police officers posing and smiling during the Olympics, the fact remains that they are an organization where external oversight is mistrusted, and forces often close ranks around those accused of the most flagrant abuses of power. Proponents of elected police and crime commissioners contend that the outrageous cover-up over the Hillsborough disaster could not have happened with properly democratic oversight, and it is difficult to claim that more direct accountability to the public would not help police forces in both ensuring their methods stay inside ethical guidelines and maintain public confidence in their ability to carry out their duty. The fact that Mr Blair and other policemen so heartily reject the idea should not count against it; it is arguably that rejection of external authority that has resulted in the need for commissioners.

The elections that will be held on November the 15th will mark a new chapter in the relationship between the police and the people. Senior policemen will be forced to be more accountable and to better understand the public they protect and serve in a new way. While there will be the inevitable teething troubles, and while it will take time for the reforms to bed in, it is vital that we preserve with the introduction of police and crime commissioners. It is far from a perfect solution – there are problems with the size of the constituencies, problems over the transparency of the eventual command chain and problems with the cost. However, it has long been clear that police accountability requires radical reassessment, and this Conservative-driven plan is the best opportunity we’re going to get.