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John Raine and Paul Keasey

The elections on 15th November 2012 of 41 Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) for the police force areas of England and Wales (outside London) represents the start of one of the biggest experiments in democratic governance. The new office of PCC, for which there is no known precedent in policing around the world, surely represents the most significant change in at least fifty years in how the police in England and Wales are governed and held to account. The replacement of Police Authorities (an assembly of nominated councillors and independent members) by PCCs has generated much public debate since it was first proposed back in 2010. Proponents argued that it would make the police more directly accountable and more responsive to local communities. Opponents, on the other hand, highlighted the potential for politicising the police and for local populist policies to take precedence over other vital, but less visible, national policing priorities; for example, counter-terrorism and serious organised crime.

Whatever the realities, it is clear that the introduction of PCCs has the potential to engender any number of far reaching and significant developments in the fields of policing, criminal justice and community safety, more broadly, and the change deserves to be closely monitored and evaluated.  While some of the key intended ‘outcomes’, such as better police performance and enhanced public confidence and trust in the police, may only become apparent over the longer term, there are other important issues concerning the change of democratic ‘process’ that are certainly of more immediate interest.

Among the many interesting questions raised in this respect three seem especially significant to us:  first, what might be the implications of the new framework for the nature and patterns of accountability, authority and influence regarding policing policy and practice?  Second, to what extent can the introduction of new framework be seen as being congruent with the Coalition Government’s policy goals of ‘localism’, enhanced democratic governance and citizen engagement? And third, how might the ‘local commissioning’ role of PCCs affect the wider criminal justice and community safety policy and institutional landscape beyond policing?

And what makes these questions particularly interesting is the complex interplay of actors and accountabilities involved in the new framework.  For example, the PCC, as a directly-elected office holder, will feel accountable to the local voters for local policing priorities and practices in their particular police area but it is the chief constable who remains wholly responsible for operational policing matters. At the same time, while local voters will have chosen their PCC primarily to address their concerns and priorities, there is also an accountability requirement on the PCC in relation to national policing priorities as established by the Home Secretary (through what is referred to as the ‘Strategic Policing Requirement’). Moreover, since most PCCs will have stood as candidates for a particular national political party they are also likely to feel some sense of accountability towards their political masters, whether/or both at national level or locally. Then one further element of complexity arises in the form of Police and Crime Panels (PCPs), these having been established in each police area, and comprising nominated local councillors, whose role is (also) to hold the PCC to account.

It will be fascinating to see just how these competing pressures on PCCs will work out in practice in different parts of the country; and how the tensions are resolved between, for example: national and local policing priorities; between local voter priorities and political party priorities; between the chief constables’ operational responsibilities and the PCC’s role in strategic oversight; and between the professional advice and authority of the chief constable on the one hand, and the scrutinizing attentions of the local Police and Crime Panel on the other.  Probably some sparks must be expected to fly in some quarters as opinions, backgrounds, sources of authority and personalities vie with one another to try and impose their way, and not least at a time of shrinking police budgets because of the austerity climate of the public finances.

A fuller description of such accountability tensions and implications is to be found in our recent article – Raine JW and P Keasey (2012) ‘From Police Authorities to Police and Crime Commissioners: might policing become more publicly accountable?’, International Journal of Emergency Services, 1, 2, 122-134.

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John Raine is Professor of Management in Criminal Justice at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham.  He has been involved in criminal justice research, consultancy and teaching at Birmingham for some twenty-five years and has a strong track record of commissions for the Home Office, Lord Chancellor’s Department/Department for Constitutional Affairs/Ministry of Justice on aspects of policy and practice within the criminal (and civil) justice sectors).

Paul Keasey is a Doctoral Researcher in the School of Government and Society, University of Birmingham.  His doctoral thesis focuses on the impact of the Police and Crime Commissioners initiative and, in part, their affect upon public confidence in policing.  Paul is also a Superintendent in West Midlands Police.

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