NEW POLL: is it time for elected police chiefs?

by Stephen Tall on October 2, 2008

Sir Ian Blair has resigned as commissioner of London’s Metropolitan police force, and the race to be his successor is now on, with the appointment the responsibility of the Home Secretary. All of which begs the timely question: should police chiefs be directly elected?

Lib Dem policy is against directly elected police chiefs, instead proposing that chief constables be made accountable to police authorities. Writing for Lib Dem Voice recently, the party’s shadow home secretary Chris Huhne explained the policy:

for the 35 police authorities that straddle lots of councils (out of the total number of 43 in England and Wales), we propose that two thirds of their members are directly elected by fair votes (single transferable vote). One third would continue to be nominated from councils. Authorities would also be able to co-opt other members, like magistrates, to ensure diversity and expertise.

Unlike Labour and Tory plans for elected sheriffs, our proposals ensure that all groups and opinions, including women and ethnic minorities, would be fairly represented. Elections would be about policing issues, not populist posturing. These plans also breathe life into our commitment to localism by ensuring that councils take control where possible, but that police authorities are fairly elected otherwise. And they set out a route march for a real attack on crime by focussing not on what sounds tough, but on what works.

This aspect of the Lib Dems’ catchily-titled Cutting Crime and Catching Criminals policy paper provoked some internal controversy, especially among Lib Dem councillors. Richard Kemp was among those who rejected the proposal for directly elected police authorities arguing, again here on Lib Dem Voice:

There are many reasons that localism is failing, and a lack of democracy is only one of them. Far more important is the fact that services within and without local authorities are run in silos by specialists. Electing those silos will not help join services around the needs of individuals or communities but entrench the silos. Having more elected bodies will lead to turf wars about supremacy, and will make it for more different to join up service providers around one long-term and coherent direction for the town, county or city.

However, for the sake of simplicity in this poll, we’re not going to get side-tracked by the composition of those police authorities. What we want to know is: how do you think police chiefs should be chosen? Here are your choices:

* Directly elected by the public;
* Appointed by democratically accountable local police authorities;
* Don’t know / No opinion

As ever, feel free to pick away at the wording, and continue the debate in the comments below…

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Silos? Please use English in a way so that 99% of your fellow countrymen also have a clue what you are trying to say. I know that’s a quote, but its metalinguistic insiders’ gibberish.

by Technomist on October 2, 2008 at 7:41 pm. Reply #

Metalinguistic? Please use English in a way so that 99% of your fellow countrymen also have a clue what you are trying to say.

by Paul Griffiths on October 2, 2008 at 7:48 pm. Reply #

I have some sympathy with Richard Kemp’s argument, but I’m not clear why, when it comes to police in particular, what the problem with silos is.

Do we really want policing conducted according to overall strategic objectives for a town, that is, to be “politicised” in the worst sense of the word. Or, do we want it detached from all that and responding to the needs of the people?

I can see the sense in joining up other services, but shouldn’t policing be as disinterested as possible?

by Joe Otten on October 2, 2008 at 10:23 pm. Reply #

“Do we really want policing conducted according to overall strategic objectives for a town, that is, to be “politicised” in the worst sense of the word. Or, do we want it detached from all that and responding to the needs of the people?”

But what is responding to the “needs of the people” if not politicised?

Policing is already conducted according to political (and politicised) priorities. See for example the Blair pledge to cut street crime which to an extent was at the expense of other types of crime.

What I am sceptical about (and I think is sort of Richards point) is that “silo” is only part of the issue. We can agree that a major public concern is anti-social behaviour predominantly by young (as in under 18 year olds).

Now policing has a role to play in tackling that. But so does social work, education, sport & leisure facilities and youth service provision. None of those issues are under the control of the police authority. You end up different authorities pulling different ways – particularly if elected at different times and (as happens with local government) elected for reasons other than the job they are there to do.

by Hywel Morgan on October 3, 2008 at 12:35 am. Reply #

Perhaps the immediate problem is how to reform th multi-role job that is the Met commissioner? Behind today’s muddle is a constitutional mess, perhaps caused by the fact that we do not have a national police force. Presumably Mayor Johnson will not be able to appoint his own choice of replacement, as the Home Sec actually appoints. Finding someone to bridge the gap between them is going to be difficult. Maybe the Met boss should be a London-only job and the Mayor/Assembly’s appointment, while ‘the nation’s top policeman’, covering anti-terrorism/serious organised crime/co-ordination of local forces, should be a different, superior, post appointed by the Government/Home Secretary?

by Terry Gilbert on October 3, 2008 at 1:12 am. Reply #

the fundamental issue is “what is policing?”…rationally we all know that it is not just catching criminals, but also preventing crime happening, and providing re-assurances to counter an often media-fuelled over-stated fear of crime.

It is only in the first of those areas where the police have sole responsibility, and that falls within the remit of “command & control” and as such a Police Authority will have no influence…….it being the domain of the Chief Constable.

The other two bases of activity are the legitimate responsibilities of Local Authority elected members. As people who are in the community and of the community they most-times understand what is needed.

Let’s see the demise of as many quangos as possible, and trust locally elected people to pull together and interweave the different strands of what is needed so we can all enjoy a calmer life.

by Ian Stewart on October 3, 2008 at 8:14 am. Reply #

Broadly speaking, I tend towards Richard Kemp’s view in this, which is that control over the police authority should be invested in local authorities which are better able to take a broader, strategic view of policing. But for that to work, we have to change the way we elect local authorities so that they are representative of the communities they serve.

Regarding Blair and Johnson, I say a plague on both their houses. In Blair, Labour politicised the role of Met Chief to an unprecedented level, but the idea that a single person should be able to essentially sack the police chief is equally unacceptable. BoJo’s actions over the last 24 hours are the best illustration I’ve yet seen of why we should continue to oppose directly elected mayors.

by James Graham on October 3, 2008 at 10:59 am. Reply #

This is a good question which goes to the heart of the political choice in this country, thanks LDV.

So, do we want direct democracy, indirect democracy or a quangocracy?

My feeling is that direct elections are responsive but can be overly so, quangos create a sense of stability but have a tendency towards unaccountability, while indirect elections are a constantly shifting unhappy medium between the two extremes.

I think it doesn’t matter what system we prefer so long as we have some liberals at the helm, because we depend on good people to counteract structural weaknesses in society.

by Oranjepan on October 3, 2008 at 12:39 pm. Reply #

James – good points on PR and BoJo. Personally I did not get a vote for Mayor at all, as I now live outside the Great Metropolis. So no way should a local politician, however big his area, be allowed to effectively sack the man responsible for anti-terrorism policing for the whole country. Its a nonsense.

On the main issue here, I’m for indirectly elected police authorities – where dedicated liberals, even if in the minority, have a chance to be heard and earn respect. I fear the directly elected police chief route will lead to dog-whistle stuff of the worst kind.

by Terry Gilbert on October 3, 2008 at 2:05 pm. Reply #

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