The point of police and crime commissioners, we are told, is to increase the democratic accountability of the 41 police forces in England and Wales outside London.
Elections will be held in November and the first potential candidates are emerging. The concern, however, is that this American-inspired model of police accountability may not translate easily into English or Welsh.
The principles enshrined by the father of our modern police force, Sir Robert Peel, are to be found in the General Instructions given to the first Metropolitan Police officers in 1829.
Number five of nine states that it is the duty of officers "to seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion; but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing".
British tradition has it that, to retain its legitimacy, the police service cannot allow itself to be politicised. Accountable, yes. Political, never.
How then, can the Government claim that the service will not become politicised, when the vast majority of candidates so far putting themselves forward for the respective roles, are from one of the political parties?
Look at the list for yourself, then see the table below to see which party looks set to take control of policing in your area.
|Avon and Somerset||2||2||3|
|Devon and Cornwall||7||2||1|
Whilst there is an equal split of candidates between the two main parties, it is evident that those splits are not as equal in the respective force areas, suggesting the political colour of policing in certain forces looks set to be dominated by political persuasion.
So here's the dilemma. How can you increase the democratic influence upon chief constables without undermining their independence?
The government's answer is to separate the strategic from the operational, with a layer of oversight to make sure it happens that way. Commissioners will formulate the policing plan, leaving chief constables to decide how best to achieve it with a panel of local politicians and lay members to ensure fair play.
But many police leaders remain profoundly uneasy about what will happen in practice. "All chief constables are quite cautious as we go into this period," says Sara Thornton, vice-president of the Association of Chief Police Officers and head of Thames Valley.
"individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing” Sir Robert Peel's 1829 instructions to police
Democracy and political tribalism are so intertwined in the UK that hopes the elections could be conducted in a non-partisan, practical, grassroots way have been dashed. Although independents will fight for votes, they fear party machines will crush all but the most well-known local candidates.
This has led to even greater anxiety that the huge constituencies - some well over two and a half million souls - will see their police priorities influenced by the core voters from the political heartlands of a successful party candidate.
The neighbourhoods where people are least likely to vote are the same communities with the greatest risk of crime. If democratic accountability is about reflecting the views of those who vote, independent policing is about protecting the lives of those who do not.
Will the checks and balances of the system ensure their needs are not ignored? And what happens when the commissioner's democratic mandate clashes with the chief constable's independent principle?
And is there a risk commissioners might ignore the needs of those who didn't vote for them? The architect of this new model, Tory peer Lord Wasserman, thinks not.
"If anybody ignores great chunks of their community and allows crime in particular council estates where there are very few voters to rise, I think he will be exposed and he will be hammered," he tells me.
"I'm relying on the community activists, I'm relying on the media, but I'm relying on far more than that. I'm relying on the community, and I want the community to feel that it has a role to play, and I think this will happen."
That, perhaps, is the real question posed by the introduction of police and crime commissioners. Is our local democracy good enough to keep them honest?
Two points spring to mind in conclusion.
1. Whatever the Government say, politicization of the service looks inevitable. An already fragmented service will face the future difficulty of one force adhering to the political preferences of the elected commissioner, whereas its neighboring force may be playing by completely different principles. Regardless of the alleged honorable intentions of the Home Office with its printed objectives for the project, the temptation to influence decision making along political agendas will become irresistible.
2. Locally Elected Crime Commissioners are appointed to follow the Home Secretary's focus on the reduction of crime which carries with it the implicit increase in detection's. For a number of years now, we have tried to educate readers about the "Crime Of The Century" (see previous posts). Crime statistics have been fiddled mercilessly and disgracefully for many years by successive Chief Officers and their management teams. Whether for political, career or financial gain, the fact remains that the public have been conned into believing that crime is reducing and detection's are increasing at a greater rate than is actually experienced. Indeed, it has even been suggested that the fallacious and dramatic drop in crime was largely responsible for policing NOT to be ring fenced in the comprehensive spending review. We have all witnessed events since then, with swingeing cuts to essential front-line services. With the books of crime being so corruptly "cooked", we would maintain that actual crime figures and genuinely low primary detection rates that sit behind the fiddled set, would have forced any Government to take heed of protecting not decimating the service.
Rephrasing the question above, Is our local democracy good enough to MAKE them honest?