Nicholas Rogers is a member of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council. He is Deputy Chairman of Tunbridge Wells Conservatives and a former Special Constable with the Metropolitan Police. He writes in a personal capacity.
Let me be clear: this is not a pitch for the job. I am not running for Kent Police and Crime Commissioner. But I feel that the debate needs to be invigorated. So far declared candidates of all parties have talked only in vague terms about what they want to achieve and some have already managed to contradict themselves. This should be a passionate debate, full of different opinions and ideas that reflect the importance of the subject.
A recent BBC article describes police leaders as being "profoundly uneasy" about Commissioners, quoting Sara Thornton of ACPO as saying that Chief Constables are "cautious". To some, this is an argument against elected Commissioners. To me, it is a very strong argument in their favour. Democratic accountability should not be cosy. It should not be easy or seamless. There should be conflict and upsets. There should be robust differences of opinion. The police will find the reality of a good Commissioner, one who is always on their case, uncomfortable. Anything else and the job won’t be worth doing and the Commissioner will become simply a highly paid spokesman.
The new Commissioners must focus on three areas; Restoring public trust in the police, bringing clear focus and direction to policing and setting high standards of personal and force integrity.
It is sad to say, but there are few organisations that have lost public trust to such an extent as the police. I saw this during my time as a Special Constable in the Met. Many ordinary people view the police with suspicion and fear. Robert Peel is going to be invoked ad nauseam in the run up to the elections, but in many areas the police no longer operate by consent.
New Commissioners can repair this. People want to feel that they are listened to and that police respond to their concerns. As well as holding himself accountable to members of the force’s Crime Panels, Commissioners must take a leaf from the Mayor of London’s book and hold regular "People’s Question Time" sessions. They must demand accountability at every level of the force, insisting that neighbourhood police teams hold public meetings. They must respond to the oft-repeated wish to see more police visibly patrolling our town centres. They must instill in officers the notion that arresting someone, taking away their liberty, is a serious matter and should never, ever be done without very good reason.
Another key drive must be to increase recruitment of Special Constables, not as a replacement for regular officers or a means of getting policing on the cheap but because it is right that communities are involved in their own policing. The Commissioners should work with local councils to promote initiatives such as council tax discounts for Specials.
We live in straightened times. All public organisations are rightly seeing cuts in their budgets. The police are no different. Kent Police have wisely decided to freeze their precept. This must continue, and further cuts made. The best organisations are effective because they ruthlessly focus on core activities. For the police, this means cutting non-core functions such as equalities, environmental initiatives and the press office. It means sharing back-office functions and procurement with other forces and public bodies.
It is right to seek maximum value for money from our police officers. To achieve this we must think about how they best spend their time. As a Special Constable I lost track of the number of shifts that saw us arrest someone within the first half hour and spend the next five hours at the station dealing with the paperwork.
Surely we didn’t want our police officers acting as highly-paid admin assistants? Surely it would be far better for an administrator to complete the file from the officer’s notes for his signature on completion? Police officers should need a very good excuse to be inside the station and away from the streets.
There has been a worrying move towards police as social workers. Officers spend too much time dealing with back-and-forth neighbour disputes, petty squabbles, drunken text messages and other such wastes of time. This distracts them from dealing with real crime with real victims. A Commissioner will be ideally placed to order a change and to explain and deal with any political fallout; how a policy ‘plays’ with the media should not be the concern of the Chief Constable or his officers.
A series of high-profile events, from the death of Jean Charles de Menezes to that of Ian Tomlinson, has dented the public’s image of an honourable police force that can be relied on to tell the truth at all times and act with integrity. I believe that this loss of image is responsible for why the police feel they are "damned if they do, damned if they don’t" when it comes to major policing incidents such as the London riots.
The police must be honest about everything, all of the time. This includes crime figures, which are skewed by the dubious practice of "administrative detection". This essentially involves manufacturing a detection though the clever use of interviews and warnings for hopelessly trivial incidents. This must be stopped. It will undoubtedly lead to a rise in the percentage of undetected crimes, but the revealed picture will have the merit of being true.
The ideas outlined above are merely starting points. This is an exciting opportunity to engage in a national debate about just what sort of policing we want. As Conservatives we will be choosing candidates to represent our views. It is vitally important that, as well as their background and experience, we scrutinise potential candidates’ ideas. This is too important a job to give to someone with only a half-formed plan of action.