We are now in the closing stages before the first ever voting takes place in the election of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs). Following the public vote on the 15th November, the new PCCs will take office on the 22nd and begin tackling their various responsibilities.
As I’ve pondered some of the things they’ll be doing, I’ve found myself feeling a little puzzled as to what exactly we’ll be getting that’s new. Among the promised benefits of Police and Crime Commissioners are: bringing communities closer to the police, building confidence in the system, restoring public trust in policing and consulting victims.
Of course, all these things already exist in one form or another. There are lay members of police authorities, there are procedures in place to process and respond to complaints and chief constables already take the views of local people into account through forums like police and community together (PACT) meetings.
As we all know, policing is an incredibly complex and ever-changing task but, in my view, they largely do a great job. Personally, apart from the lingering bitterness of being caught speeding a few too many times, I have always been satisfied with the responses I’ve had as a victim of crime or as someone reporting incidents or concerns. That said, there is always room for improvement; issues from the Lawrence enquiry 19 years ago, through to more recent revelations about Hillsborough, illustrate this starkly. But both these examples also press home the point that policing covers a legion of different domains in public life, as well as being drawn into the most private of crimes like familial child abuse and domestic violence. I take my hat off to ’em!
So, I’m struggling to see the added value that PCCs will bring. I can, however, see one great danger: that of policing being unnecessarily politicised. Essentially, it seems to me, police and crime commissioners will be political figures. The Home Office website says that their job will be to “listen to the public and then respond to their needs.” But isn’t this already done when community police officers respond to local issues, when they visit schools, make links with businesses and respond to public concerns expressed to councillors and the like? Don’t pressing issues that arise time after time get fed into MPs surgeries, which in turn can be communicated to senior police officers, who then contribute to policing plans at different operational levels? To have someone who is not (necessarily) a police officer, who doesn’t have the strategic perspective of the chief constable and yet has to appear before the public and the press to give an account for policing, seems daft.
We know that crime is nothing like as bad as the public generally believes it to be; fear of crime has perennially out-stripped the likelihood of actually being a victim of crime. It seems to me that feeding just this kind of irrational and ill-informed public fearfulness has served many a political agenda over the years. Not least when there’s a need for some kind of distraction or easy sound-bite. All too often, young people (thugs, hoodies, yobs, etc.) bear the brunt of media-hyped sensationalism; they are a soft target for a generation of people who’ve completely forgotten what it’s like to be a kid – we fear most what we least understand… They will, I fear, become the new punch bag for yet another round of political rhetoric, this time from PCCs, who will bask in the easy applause whilst remaining clueless about what really needs to be done.
You see, the Achilles heal of this whole PCC thing, lies in the simple truth that the public doesn’t really know much about crime. So in listening to us, the police and crime commissioners will gain nothing of any real usefulness to assist in reducing it. Those who know about crime are the criminals themselves and those who deal with it every day – the police, probation officers, youth offending teams and the courts. I reckon we should just let them get on with it.
© Jonny Matthew 2012