The idea that policing is a function of the state which should operate with the consent of its citizens is generally held to go back to Robert Peel, founder of the modern police force in the mid nineteenth century. But how is that consent expressed today? Police Authorities are unelected and virtually unaccountable to the electorate: the Thames Valley Police Authority consists of 10 members chosen from elected councillors, 8 independent members “chosen from ordinary members of the public who responded to a public advertisement” and 2 lay magistrates. It seems highly unlikely that any Councillor has ever lost his or her seat in an election because of their actions on the Police Authority. The Home Secretary has a role too but again democratic accountability is at best remote and indirect. If as a citizen you are unhappy about some aspect of your local police force how do you make your views known and how can you invoke the voter’s ultimate sanction and get rid of someone who is underperforming?
Another assertion we are hearing as the elections get closer is “keep politics out of policing”. But how can that be? Policing is political. It is an arm of the state seeking to control (for good reasons or bad) the behaviour of its citizens. How the police handle protest demonstrations, for example, or which organisations they class as a threat to law-and-order and so justify infiltration and surveillance, or whether or not they choose to investigate allegations of phone-hacking, are highly political policies. Agreed, these questions are a long way from how often my local PCSOs run an operation to fine people for cycling on the pavement in Headington, but allocation of resources at a local level is not politically neutral either.
So I don’t have a problem with political parties sponsoring and supporting PCC candidates. This is not to say that Independent candidates have nothing to offer: they may well do, and will have an uphill struggle getting their messages across against the organisation and resources of the political parties. But although some may question whether PCCs will really have much influence over their local police forces, I see the introduction of an elected and accountable person as a step in the right direction.
And that is why I’ll be voting on 15 November.