In the wake of the riots we are bombarded with competing claims about who controlled them. The police are sure that the successful tactics were evolved by them while the politicians say that it all got sorted when they returned from holiday. I think that the riots stopped because the weather turned bad, but there is a serious issue about who should do what in keeping us safe from crime.
The government have said that they will scrap the costly and useless police authorities and replace them with elected commissioners. Well OK, but what exactly is a commissioner? The chief of the Met Police is called the Commissioner whereas the people who run all other UK police forces are called Chief Constables. If the Metropolitan Police Authority is to be replaced by an elected commissioner they are going to have to sort out the titles.
The real issue, of course, is what part of policing should be decided by politicians and what is decided by the police chief. The standard answer is that policy is for politicians and operational matters are the responsibility of the uniformed cops. But where exactly is the line drawn between these? Many libertarians support the idea of directly elected police control in some form because they want policing priorities to be responsive to citizen concerns and they also wish t oget policing to be closer to specific community conditions. These are legitimate aspirations, but I would suggest that focussing on election of a figurehead does not address the right issue.
Britain is unlike most other countries in its insistence on having a single police service in which personnel deal with everything from dropping litter to multiple murder, parking infringement to complex fraud. This is all done through 43 different police forces, roughly relating to counties, that are far too big to provide genuine local accountability and much too small to address large scale, organised crime.
The apprehension of criminals and even the prevention of crime is a technical process which most people would agree requires skills, experience, training and a high degree of efficiency. Quite obviously these are things which require stability and are not compatible with the turnover resulting from elections or the absence of appropriate background that election candidates are likely to have. Whatever title you give them, the operational head of any level of policing cannot and must not be determined by popular election.
At present, Police Authorities do not perform any worthwhile role. They are meant to be the means by which Chief Constables, or the Met Commissioner, are accountable for the performance of themselves and their force. The reality is that the Authority is composed primarily of Councillors selected by the local authority who have no knowledge of policing and no idea how to hold the professionals to account. Serving on the Police Authority is just another little source of responsibility allowance and a diverting couple of hours from time to time.
An elected person with specific responsibility for setting policy frameworks for police and holding the Chief constables to account would have more focus and authority and might gain sufficient insight to be able to probe the effectiveness of the force if s/he held office for long enough. The problem is that this doesn't deal with the problem of getting policing organised on an appropriate scale to deal with the whole range of crime and public safety that is required. Also, in those places which have an executive mayor, particularly London, the elected Police Commissioner is going to be a competing figure to the mayor and a dilution of the executive mayor role.
A few years ago it was unquestioned that only the state could run prisons and handle prisoners. Now we have many privately owned and run gaols and prisoner transport is largely contracted out. Tiny steps have been taken to improve policing by de-criminalising some traffic management roles and introducing Police Community Support staff to deal with anti-social behaviour and petty crime. Even these micro moves have been met with implacable hostility from the Police Federation which, although they are prohibited from organising industrial action, is one of the most intransigent and powerful trade unions in the country. Apart from the rank and file union, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) is a formidable barrier to reform. ACPO is the senior officers trade union, but at the same time it gets large amount of taxpayers money so it is one of those strange hybrid organisations by which the state extends its tendrils where they shouldn't be. Financial pressures brought about change in the prison system and that will go further. The present economic constraints should be an aid to breaking the massive institutional barriers to police reform.
The way forward is to go ahead with abolition of Police Authorities. In those areas with an executive mayor policing should become part of his/her responsibility. In the rest of the country an elected police commissioner would be OK.
The real job though is to get the right sort of policing. Major crime and the contingency arrangements for large scale incidents must be coordinated nationally and internationally. All motoring offences, which does not include such things as manslaughter by use of a vehicle, should be de-criminalised. The task of enforcing the civil motoring laws needs to be contracted out to private providers. Local crime and crime prevention needs to be separated into its specialisms of theft and burglary, rape and sexual offences, fraud, etc. and delivered in the manner chosen by the communities they serve.
It is my view that the vast majority of policing and public safety would be best handled by private contractors, but there is no reason why mayors or commissioners should not keep it as a directly employed service or a mixture of public and private provision.
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