Two years after the first Police and Crime Commissioner elections, it seems appropriate to reflect on how the role is developing and why it will prove crucial in sustaining and building effective policing for the longer term.
PCC’s are responsible for the efficiency and effectiveness of policing and the justice system. Having one clearly visible, democratically elected, and locally focused individual who the public can relate to and hold to account has a lot going for it, and I believe the concept of Police and Crime Commissioners is working well.
We shouldn’t be surprised that it is taking time for the public to fully understand what we do. The former Police Authorities had a similar cost, but were so invisible that I think it is fair to assume that many people didn’t even realise that they existed. We need to reinforce the message that the cost of Commissioners is not a brand new ‘extra’ expense. Some form of police scrutiny has existed for more than 150 years.
All Commissioners can already demonstrate real achievements in their force areas, and it is these tangible results which will ultimately persuade the public that we provide excellent value for money.
I will give you three examples of where I have made a real difference in Devon and Cornwall.
- I have reversed a plan to further reduce police officer numbers. There are now 250 more officers in Devon and Cornwall than there would have been under the Police Authority plans.
- The 2013 crime figures locally showed a worrying ‘spike’ in the summer months (when Devon and Cornwall’s population increases dramatically). I reinforced with the Chief Constable that the public still expected ‘low level’ crime to be investigated and encouraged him to rethink policing strategy in the holiday periods. Crime figures for summer 2014 reduced significantly.
- The public told me constantly that the 101 non-emergency service was not working effectively, despite the police force claiming otherwise. This summer my office conducted a detailed review and found major areas of concern. This proved that 101 was ‘‘unacceptable’ locally and, after reviewing the evidence, the force has now accepted the report and recommendations for rapid improvement.
These demonstrate how we are making a real difference, and without being disrespectful, I don’t believe this would have happened under the Police Authority.
Public facing results like this are just the tip of the iceberg. Our workload has increased considerably, and staff I inherited from the Police Authority tell me that our correspondence levels are about eight times more than they ever used to be.
This role is all about reconnecting the public with policing, and we are doing just that.
However, despite all the evidence, and this new role being very much in its infancy, there is now a pledge by both Labour and Liberal democrats to scrap it.
As you might expect, their alternative plans are light on detail and even lighter on costings. For example, Labour seems to be suggesting a local authority led ‘police panel’ that on first viewing doesn’t seem a million miles away from a return to the invisible police authority.
This would be a bureaucratic nightmare in Devon and Cornwall. Members would not be directly elected on a purely policing manifesto, as I am, and I suspect that they would fight to protect their own local policing needs rather than take a more efficient strategic oversight for the whole force area.
Every force faces considerable funding challenges over the next few years, and we simply cannot allow local politics to prevent us making major regional decisions that will maintain front line services.
As an example, the Chief Constable recently made a decision to close some police station front offices across the two counties. I was persuaded to agree to this move when he presented clear evidence of low ‘footfall’ figures which showed that people weren’t using this service in sufficient numbers. It was a stark choice between keeping these offices open, or losing ‘bobbies on the beat’. Importantly this also provided an opportunity to re-enforce face-to-face meetings with the police.
In tough economic times it was clearly the right thing to do. However I doubt similar decisive strategic thinking would exist under labour’s police panel. Would a member who had a front office closure in their patch, vote in favour?
Even if ‘police panels’ were desirable, how much would they save anyway? I will await these details with interest because it is difficult to see how this can be done without unacceptable compromises. In light of Hillsborough, Rotherham and Plebgate, the public demands proper and effective police scrutiny in addition to all our other duties.
Around the country there are talented and hard working OPCC teams (led by PCCs of all political colours) putting victims first, pioneering new initiatives, challenging old practices and monitoring the new ones. Impartiality, transparency, integrity and inclusion are the cornerstones of everything we do.
Police Commissioners may be relatively new, but we are proving our worth on a daily basis.