Monday, March 20, 2006

Elected Police Chiefs

Trust People has written recently about the management of the police service in Britain, and more specifically how he sees the need for locally elected police chiefs. This is a viewpoint which has already met with some rebuttal, but I want to expand further here.

The crucial principle in English liberty is that all are equal before the law. That means that there should be a consistent interpretation of the law as far as is possible. In turn, this view leads to the necessity of the police service being a service provider, rather than a body which takes any active part in setting the law. The Home Office is the body accountable for the administration of the laws of the land; its Ministers are, rightly, the people whose jobs depend on its efficient administration.

What problems would be caused by elected police chiefs? Firstly, there would be a tendency towards populism in policing. I do not dispute that policing, to be effective, needs the confidence of the community. There is a difference between upholding the law and pandering to an electorate, however - and elected police chiefs would run the risk of seeing someone elected on a promise to round up the usual suspects, rather than undergoing a thorough investigative process.

Secondly, it would also open up the question of how far local flexibility should go. Tolerance towards cannabis users in Brixton, for example, didn't really serve much of a useful purpose except to drive marijuana smokers there in droves. More to the point, it caused a lot of confusion regarding the actual legal status of the drug. A far cry from the equality before the law that should be the defining principle of the English legal system.

Where, then, does the role of the local police authority come in? They are vital, but in the selection of how to allocate resources. Far from the model proposed by Charles Clarke of forming super-constabularies, there should be a decentralisation of police forces further - in particular, giving funding directly to police stations and forces in large towns, who know best where resources should be deployed. The bulk of police work necessary for maintaining relations with the community is preventing crime and yobbishness, and it is local officers who should know their beats well enough to know how to allocate their funds. For matters or crimes that need greater coverage or special expertise, then specialist units on a more regional basis should be created.

The idea that elected chiefs will lead to greater community respect for the officer is somewhat flawed. Firstly, history shows examples of how School Boards became tools for political debates and disagreements that had nothing to do with education. It would be worrying if the decision to elect a police chief in a certain area came down to factors that were unconcerned with public order. Secondly, elections are, of their very nature, divisive. If one crime-ridden area has their choice for chief defeated, then they may have even less confidence in the police than before - and it may well exacerbate tensions in a region further, too.

In any case, the flexibility in running the police service should come in where resources are deployed. Trust People claims that it is the idea of the police as a service provider to the Home Office that is causing the paperwork that stifles police operations. I disagree; it is the government's own target-driven culture that causes such problems. Elected police chiefs will be far from guaranteed to achieve a crackdown on paperwork - and they would certainly open up a whole can of worms as to what sort of latitude is needed. There is accountability in the police force - through the form of the Home Secretary. That our electoral system is imperfect in how we can deal with him is another matter entirely.