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The case for police commissioners

Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock

The case for police commissioners

Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock

On Thursday May 5, voting will get underway for local police and crime commissioners – commonly referred to as a PCC. The chances are that it will be the first time that many people have voted for a PCC, as back in November 2012 when the first PCC elections were held, most people did not bother, resulting in an average turnout of less than 15% of potential voters across England and Wales. Understandably, the elections were dubbed a “shambles”.

The decision to stage the first PCC elections on a (cold) Thursday in November probably goes a long way to explain why the eventual turnout was so low. Added to that the fact that it was the wettest November in 50 years and, along with a lack of awareness, it’s not surprising most people weren’t bothered enough to turn up to vote.

This time round, tying the PCC elections to the local elections is definitely likely to significantly increase voter turnout. Even if voters only go to vote for their local councillors, while they are there they will be asked to vote for a PCC – two birds with one stone and all that.

What is a PCC?

Despite popular opinion, police and crime commissioners are influential and important because as well as being responsible for the hiring and firing of chief constables, they are charged with holding the police fund.

This is an annual grant from the Home Office to fund their policing, which is calculated using a formula which takes into account factors such as population size, geography and levels of crime in the 43 police service areas.

It is the PCC’S responsibility to set the budget for the force area, which includes allocating enough money from the overall policing budget to ensure that they can discharge their own functions effectively.

As part of their role, police and crime commissioners must produce a “police and crime plan” which lays out their objectives for policing in their area – including what resources will be made available to their chief constable and how they intend to measure police performance.

The PCC is required to produce an annual report to the public on progress in policing. The plans they develop are therefore very important as they will set the direction and emphasis of your local police force.

Why bother voting?

PCCs have to set up and run their own offices with their own staff to monitor progress against the crime plans, measure police performance and administer the policing budget. This is a lot of power for just one person. Ask yourself how you would feel in the very unlikely scenario that your PCC set up his or her administrative centre in a stately home, decorated it with expensive marble flooring, antique furniture and priceless masterpieces – and you hadn’t voted?

They are also able to raise additional police funding by raising the local policing precept from our council tax – if you look at your council tax bill for this year you will see policing itemised along with the fire services. So if you have an opinion on how your council tax is spent, it’s probably worth your while having a think about who should get your vote in your local area.

When it comes to the hiring and firing of chief constables, you clearly want a PCC who knows their stuff. I live in Yorkshire, where this power has been wielded in a big way. The chief constable of West Yorkshire was hired but then was very quickly suspended as part of a probe into police vehicle contracts and the chief constable of South Yorkshire has just been suspended following the Hillsborough inquests. This means that voting for the candidate you trust to wield this power for the public good is pretty important.

What makes a good PCC?

Don’t be under the illusion that only ex-police candidates will know anything about crime – or even policing. In fact, having been a police officer might actually produce a narrower perspective of crime solely based on career experience – so what counts as serious crime to you could be considered totally differently to an ex-bobby.

That said, a candidate who appears to know little (or next to nothing) about crime at all is far more worrying. A Channel 4 documentary which aired last year followed the PCC for Kent Ann Barnes, leading to widespread criticism of the role and claims it made the Kent force into a “laughing stock”.

In Meet the Police Commissioner Barnes, struggled to explain what her role involved and was filmed painting her nails and incorrectly writing her job title on a whiteboard.

So someone who knows a bit about crime, victimisation and policing, and who is prepared to listen to local views and opinions and challenge the chief constable where and when necessary, would be a start.

And if you list crime as one of your main concerns, then surely you need to have a say in who is in charge of policing your local area.