The curious case of the elected police commissioner

The tectonic plates of English policing are changing. But the creation of elected Police and Crime Commissioners lead us to more questions than concrete answers

Police, meet politics
Julian Hunt
On 7 February 2012 12:30

The tectonic plates of English policing are changing. Rather like the elected mayoralties that have sprouted up in towns across the country over the past ten years, the creation of elected Police and Crime Commissioners will radically alter the shape of local politics.

Akin to elected mayoralties, these Commissioners may be pooh-poohed incorrectly at first as gimmicks or party political creations which will have no long term support from the public, but a reading of the Police Reform and Social Responsiblity Act 2011 suggests that these Commissioners, in the context of law and order, will trump, usurp and dominate Chief Constables in a way not seen since Sir Robert Peel's bobbies were founded.

The Commissioners must, in law, issue Police and Crime Plans and need only "consult" with the relevant Chief Constable (in other words, listen and then ignore them if they so wish). Interestingly they also hold some significant purse strings as s. 7(1)(c) of the Act makes clear, giving as they so wish to the "Chief Officer of Police" whatever monies they see as proper.

Rather lamely, the Secretary of State may only "give guidance" on the "matters to be dealt with in the police and crime plans" which could mean crazed plans from Commissioners due to a lack of any framework from the Home Office - something the politicians may rue.

Although there are Police and Crime Panels, made up in the main of councilors, to hold the Commissioners to account, they can only suspend him if he is charged with a serious offence. They have little in the way of real powers - leaving the Commissioner as a sort of elected king of laws, unfettered unless the Commissioner is charged with an offence for which he can get a maximum of two years in prison.

Truly, Commissioners, on paper at least, will have real executive power over the direction and policy of local police forces.

Of course, the Commissioner will be no King Utopus, able to tell individual officers who to arrest and who not to arrest. The Commissioner in addition cannot tell the Crown Prosecution Service who to charge and who not to charge. The Commissioner obviously cannot direct local courts on how to sentence (thank goodness). They are neither prosecutor nor judge.

The Commissioner could though end up in a civil war with the senior management in the local police forces especially with their individual control of purse strings. Why give the Chief Constable money if he is pursuing targets you disagree with? Why co-operate with him if he does not give you unconditional support? Why not, with such security of tenure, issue unpalatable Police and Crime Plans which the local Chief Constable will not support?

These new Commissioners lead us to more questions than concrete answers and that is unpalatably worrying. 

Julian Hunt is a barrister and has been practicing law since 2005. He was a Crown Prosecutor and Senior Crown Prosecutor for the Crown Prosecution Service between 2008 and 2011 but now defends. He lives in South London

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