At the end of 2012, policing across England and Wales underwent significant reform with the election of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) across the 41 force areas outside London. Under the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, PCCs were introduced to replace police authorities who were seen as the weak link in the tripartite governance of the police. Accordingly, PCCs were handed a range of tools to exert greater influence over the police. This included powers to hire and fire Chief Constables, set Police and Crime Plans and direct crime reduction budgets in their local force areas. Architects of the policy hoped that public election of these figures would excite interest and involvement in local policing and crime issues through localised campaigning. It was also anticipated that the election of a single recognisable figurehead would make the democratic arm of the police more visible to local communities, further enabling greater engagement between the public and the police. However, with an average turnout of 15% and a recent poll indicating that only 11% of people know who their PCC is (Populus, 2013), hopes that the elections would reignite local involvement in policing and crime matters soon evaporated. The downfall of the elections in terms of low turnout has been well documented in both academic circles and the public media, and has raised serious questions about whether PCCs even have a mandate for the role. Nevertheless, PCCs are in power for at least the next 3 years and it is important to contemplate just who was elected, what they have been doing and what we might expect from them based on their first few months in office.
While unsurprising that the majority of the elected PCCs were affiliated with the Conservative party, considering this is a Tory—led policy, the success of 12 Independent candidates was unexpected. When the policy was first discussed, it was assumed by many that the public would vote for the person affiliated to the party they usually align with and Independents would be largely unsuccessful. Instead it appears that the popular Independent candidate line ‘keep politics out of policing’ won the public over in almost a third of areas. Former jobs of successful candidates are fairly predictable: they include local and national politicians with experience of elections, and those with experience of the police and criminal justice arena. While politics may well be wanted out of policing, one could also argue that these individuals are likely to ‘know the job’. But of course, ‘knowing the job’ might sometimes also come at a price. One of the concerns regarding police authorities was that they were not sufficiently independent from the police and in some cases had the appearance of an ‘old boys club’ (Myhill et al. 2003). This is particularly pertinent where former officers have become PCCs and raises questions about just how well they will be able to hold chief constables to account.
The first few months after the elections have been busy for PCCs, as they have had to acquaint themselves within the complex local policing and community safety networks across their forces – a particularly challenging task for those without backgrounds in police authorities or local councils. One of the most significant relationships that PCCs have had to form has been with their Chief Constables. This was not an easy task for some, given that over a third of chief constables were on temporary contracts. For example, the Chief Constable of Avon & Somerset police chose to stand down after disapproving of PCC Sue Mountstevens’ decision to advertise the job, explaining that he refused to reapply for his own job. But this in itself is not necessarily problematic and can give life to new constructive partnerships between PCCs and chief constables. Indeed, this might even be regarded as a desirable outcome by those behind the introduction of the policy, who were critical of the seeming immovability of some chief constables. New policing minister Damian Green stated in the week the elections took place that the cosy relationship enjoyed by chief constables and the police authorities needed to be addressed, a situation supported by many chief constables who would prefer ‘challenge or tension’ (Travis & Perkins 2012, The Guardian). With the appointment of a number of new chief constables across the country, new approaches to tackling crime may be developed and the relationships that are formed between PCCs and these chief constables will be critical to determining the success of this policy.
Relationships with Police and Crime Panels will also be important to observe, given Panels’ scrutiny role over PCCs. Thus far, some PCCs have gone about their business with little objection from their Police and Crime Panels. However, in some areas, Panels have openly criticised decisions made by PCCs, particularly in relation to the appointment of other staff. For example, Panels in Humberside and Sussex have opposed the appointment of their PCCs’ choice of deputy (although both PCCs went on to appoint their choice of deputy regardless of the Panel’s discontent). Gloucestershire Police and Crime Panel recently scolded PCC Martin Surl’s decision to appoint and publicly announce a new chief constable without formal ratification from the Panel. In the West Midlands, the Police and Crime Panel strongly rejected the appointment of three assistant police commissioners proposed by PCC Bob Jones. The Panel refused to take any part in the appointment of the assistants and declined the offer of attending ‘strategic board meetings’ suggested by the PCC. While such cases illustrate that some Panels are being more critical friends than others, ultimately it appears that they have very little power to stop a PCC from doing what he or she wants.
The PCCs are currently drafting their first Police and Crime Plans that will detail their strategic priorities for the next four years –a tough assignment considering they’ve only been in office for four months. Final drafts are to be published in March, but the plans can be altered at any time, with approval of the Police and Crime Panel. Many PCCs have sought public consultation on their plans, utilising social media and the internet to distribute surveys, as well as face-to-face conversations with the public. However, some plans are in excess of 50 pages long: is a member of the general public really going to read that? And even if they did, would their feedback be taken into account at this late stage? While some PCCs closed online survey consultation at the end of January, potentially so that they had time to work the feedback into their plans, others remain ‘open’ even this close to the deadline. One has to wonder whether this is a case of cynical consultation, in which the public think and feel that they are participating and engaging with the PCCs, but feedback as actually ignored.
Brief analysis of the draft plans highlights similarities in priorities between force areas. A reduction of the incidence and impact of anti-social behaviour is mentioned in many, as well as the phrase ‘putting victims at the heart of the criminal justice system’. Tackling violence against women and girls is widely prioritised, and the importance of working in partnership with relevant agencies is frequently highlighted. Few of the plans provide specific details of how they will go about meeting this priorities: time will tell whether this is due to not wanting to tread on the toes of the chief constable’s operational duties, or whether the PCC simply doesn’t know. If public consultation on the plans is conducted and subsequently used in the right way, these plans can become more localised to individual communities’ needs, rather than the template priorities that seem to be included in the drafts.
It has been just over 3 months since PCCs were introduced, but evidently a lot has happened in that time and a great deal more change is likely. The introduction of a number of independent candidates, the forging of new relationships with chief constables and panels, and the delivery of Police and Crime Plans all provide opportunities for fresh thinking about how to best engage local communities, hold the police to account and to stimulate innovative and cost-effective ways of dealing with crime. These are exciting times for Police and Crime Commissioners and perhaps even more so for those conducting research on them.
Matthew Davies is a 2nd year PhD student at the University of Oxford, conducting research in collaboration with the Police Foundation into Police and Crime Commissioners. His project, ‘Elected Police and Crime Commissioners: An Experiment in Democratic Policing’, examines the introduction and implementation of the policy and specifically explores the wider implications for the democratic governance of the police.
Sophie Chambers is a 2nd year PhD student at Cardiff University Law School, funded by a President’s Research Scholarship. Her research compares two PCC covered areas in England and Wales to address the question of how Police and Crime Commissioners impact local agenda setting in the context of the devolution.
This article first appeared on the BSC (British Society of Criminology) Policing Network blog.