Monday, 18 April 2011

Mixing politics and the police

The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill is currently progressing through Parliament. Once passed we – the public – will have the opportunity to elect the Police and Crime commissioner of our local police force. A local police force can cover large areas both urban - such as Greater Manchester – and rural such as Devon and Cornwall constabulary.

Independents – more than any other political grouping – know the importance of democratic representation free from political compromise or control.

If the top job within the police force were decided through democratic election rather than the current system should be based on meritocracy and appointment from the top would our police force be more or less politically controlled?

The hope is that a Commissioner elected by local people would have to respond to the needs of those people if she or he is to have a hope of election. This – the theory goes – would be better than an Police Commissioner appointed partly due to his or her success within the police force and partly due to his or her ability to please the superiors. Both versions – appointment or election – will depend upon the candidates’ ability to play a political game. They currently must impress those in charge whilst gaining the respect of those they lead. If they are to be elected they will need to be able to communicate the aims and objectives of the police force to their local community which will require their aims to reflect – more closely – the hopes and aims of their communities. However – their democratic election campaign may depend on the support of an outside organisation such as a political party. This connection may compromise their ability to represent their communities, and only their communities, as they may be drawn to follow their political party to keep them in a job.

The Government has said that no money will be made available for independent Police and Crime commissioner candidates. Instead it is expected that the majority of candidates will be backed – officially or unofficially – by a political party. However – even within party political ranks – there is awareness that a politicised police force would be bad news for both democracy and justice. Douglas Carswell MP – a Conservative politician – wrote on his blog: “I suspect there will be a strong appetite among voters for independent candidates - or at least independent-minded ones. Political parties should be wary of simply putting up party insiders for the role. They'd be wiser to either endorse a suitable independent contender - or hold an open primary contest of some sort to allow everyone a say over who gets to be the candidate.”

The Independent Network supports independent candidates who can demonstrate their commitment to the Bell Principles. It is clear that for a Police Commissioner commitment to these principles would stand them in good stead to represent their local area with integrity and justice. The fear of electing a Police Commissioner lies in the fact that if they are a party political candidate they will follow their party’s policies before responding to their constituent’s needs. If this were the case then the floodgates may be opened for party political insiders to gain the top job due to the resource benefits that belonging to a political party can lend to an election campaign.

As independents it is our duty to scrutinise each candidate based on their commitment to the Bell Principles – especially to plurality and non-discrimination, and to be guided by considered evidence, our real world experience and expertise, our constituencies and our consciences. A democratically elected Police Commissioner governed by such a code of conduct would be of benefit to his or her local police force.

At the Independent Network we will do our best to support such non-party political candidates and to campaign for maximum transparency when elections occur to ensure that party political candidates campaign on a level playing field with their independent counterparts.

What do you think about the prospect of an elected Police Commissioner? We welcome your comments below. And check out these links for articles that come down both for and against the proposals for the abolition of the Police Authority and the introduction of democratically elected Police Commissioners.

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