Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Guest post: The case against elected police commissioners

For a while now I've been in two minds about elected police commissioners so when I saw Brighton and Hove Greens had come out against them I immediately thought to get blogging councilor Jason Kitkat to write a guest post which, I think, raises some really useful and interesting points.

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.

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