Only a single directly elected individual, unlike what is suggested in the Green Paper, is likely to be able to give the political lead to make the police do what the public want. However, merely transferring Police Authority powers to such a person is unlikely to be sufficient to ensure that police chief officers implement a democratic mandate.
Unfortunately “political” is a dirty word in policing, generally used by chief officers as a reason not to do something. There is a danger that the “political” objection will be deployed more frequently against a directly elected individual than it is against an only partly indirectly elected police authority.
We should also guard against assuming that the main problem with the Tripartite Structure is that the Police Authority leg is too weak compared to the Home Office leg and that the problem can thus be solved merely by endowing the former with greater democratic legitimacy.
The more significant problem is that Constabulary operational independence leg has been colonised and nationalised by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). Whilst its representative role for chief officers has ostensibly been hived off, ACPO acts as an overbearing and unaccountable club of chief officers which tends to subjugate its members’ individual and local judgement. Its Committees and Cabinet (!) promulgate ACPO policy (sorry, ACPO operational guidance) on almost every conceivable policing matter to supposedly independent Constabularies which too often then implement it with little or no reference to either Home Office or Police Authorities.
For instance the Kent Intelligence Model was rolled out across all forces as the National Intelligence Model by Kent’s previous Chief Constable as the last part-time head of ACPO. While that approach to policing may have helped cut crime in one county in particular circumstances, over time and applied nationally it was too often used to justify ignoring ‘small’ crimes and low-level disorder, and placed insufficient emphasis on visible Neighbourhood Policing.
ACPO’s reach is now such that last month at the Kent Police Authority we were even told by our Chief Officer team that we should implement national guidance on charging local community events for policing because “ACPO had decided this was necessary” and we therefore needed to “divorce ourselves from public feeling on this issue”.
It is possible that our elected Police Commissioners may somehow manage to draw their Chief Officers out of this ACPO mindset and together run policing locally as the public would like. This may depend on whether those commissioners are able and prepared to push through significant increases in police precept as a quid pro quo for that co-operation.
The other possibility is that Chief Officers fall back on ACPO nationally to shield them from “political” Commissioners locally. The courts would then have to adjudicate.
A Conservative government committed to localism would be left hoping that the judges would rule that only local constabulary independence was entrenched in the tripartite arrangement and that Chief Officers were therefore unlawfully fettering their discretion when just implementing national ACPO guidance.
A better approach for the Conservatives would be to localise and democratise criminal justice as a whole, subject of course to an independent judiciary. This might prove easier and more effective than trying to do this to just one part of the jigsaw, i.e. policing. We could allow the CPS locally to be overseen by the same directly elected Commissioners as the police. Local priorities could then be aligned.
However, there would still be proper protections as the localised CPS would operate at arms length from the police, while having operational independence for individual prosecutions just as the police have with respect to individual investigations. Our directly elected Commissioners could also take control of probation and youth offending teams as well as play a role in commissioning places in prison and funding community sentences.
Over time money in the criminal justice system would begin to flow towards what worked best in preventing crime and rehabilitating offenders. Instead of exchanging sterile sound-bites nationally over what works best, we would soon find out as local electorates did their work.
Instead of seeing directly elected Commissioners as rivals in a turf battle police Chief Officers could look to them as allies who could get the criminal justice system working in a way that the public wants and which would allow the police to do their job.
Originally posted on Conservative Home on 17th July 2008