21 May 2021

Top of the cops – the new generation of PCCs shaking up the police force

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Amidst the tsunami of elections results that came in after May 6, those for Police and Crime Commissioners got relatively little attention. That is understandable. The role came into existence in 2012 and the impact has been modest. They are an improvement on the talking shops that existed previously, called Police Authorities. But that is a pretty low bar.

Yet among the sweeping Conservative gains in PCC elections were some in areas where Labour had big majorities last time around. Cleveland, Nottinghamshire, Lancashire, Humberside.  Why was there not more attention for these triumphs? The dreary bureaucratic title of the job doesn’t help. The idea came from a paper published in 2005 by Dan Hannan and Douglas Carswell called “Direct Democracy”. They would have preferred to call them sheriffs. This was rejected as sounding too American. This shows a limited appreciation for British history – after all, where did the Americans get the name from?

But the more fundamental problem is that PCCs have so far failed to make a great difference to the lives of those they represent. They have considerable power – they set policy, determine budgets, and hire and fire chief constables – but they haven’t put it to very good use.

Part of the problem has been ambiguity over their authority. The mentality among the Chief Constables is to nod politely to what the PCC has to say, then follow the centralised guidance from the National Police Chiefs’ Council or the College of Policing. The NPCC acts as a sort of club or trade union for the chief constables. But it also has a statutory footing. It has a legal role in the “coordination” for police strategy and law enforcement. Which master should the chief constable serve? Earlier this year Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, made clear it is the PCCs. That should help.

There has also been some muddled thinking over what constitutes “operational policing”. A PCC is not allowed to say to a chief constable: “Go and arrest Brown. Release Smith at once.” Thank goodness. Such a power would be at odds with our principles as a society based on individual liberty and the rule of law.

But the PCC can and should insist that the law be upheld. That means, for example, taking robust precautions to defeat mob rule under the guise of “protest”. High profile examples include Extinction Rebellion activists digging up a lawn at Trinity College, Cambridge or blocking the delivery of newspapers. Or Black Lives Matter supporters knocking down statues and vandalising war memorials.

It is also important that the police do not exceed their authority. Part of the role of a PCC is to produce a Police and Crime Plan, which the police are then obliged to follow. These have generally been pretty bland documents. They don’t need to be. They could, for example, include a clause on the importance of free speech. This has prompted much controversy with the definition of ‘hate crime’ and ‘non-crime hate incidents’. The PCC’s plan could state that the focus will be on genuine incitement to violence. But that expressions of opinion – even opinions that most people might regard as extreme, offensive or upsetting – are entirely legitimate. The police should not be going round interviewing people for “mis-pronouning” someone on Twitter.

I predict that we will see more assertiveness from a new breed of Police of Crime Commissioners elected this month. Those Conservatives returned in traditionally Labour working class areas can be expected to take a tough approach. The communities they represent do not wish them to preside over a “woke” police force constrained by mushy groupthink. Nor do they want police time and money wasted on bureaucracy, form-filling and diversity awareness training. They certainly don’t want this when entire categories of crime, such as shoplifting, are routinely indulged.

Rupert Matthews, the new Conservative PCC for Leicestershire is one to watch. He promises a “no-nonsense approach” and for the police to be “more responsive to the public”. Matthews is concerned to have heard “of cases where car owners who have their vehicles damaged by vandals have not been interviewed for three weeks,” adding that all crimes should receive a response within 24 hours of being reported.

Festus Akinbusoye is Britain’s first black PCC, representing Bedfordshire. The son of a former Nigerian politician, who was forced to flee his homeland in the early 1990s, Akinbusoye now runs a company providing security guards to cinemas and shopping malls. He has defended the use of stop and search, despite being pulled over six times himself, and his top priority for the county is tackling organised crime and county lines gangs. As The Sunday Times reports: “He also believes that fly-tippers should routinely have their vehicles seized and crushed and wants a mandatory minimum sentence for those who assault police officers.”

David Sidwick, a businessman from Bournemouth, is the new Conservative PCC for Dorset (the post was previously held by an independent). Sidwick opposes “letting the police run themselves via the National Police Chiefs Council – leaving aside the fact this removes the local democratic accountability it also means that the institution will no longer serve the public but themselves having an internal view not accountable to the public is a very dangerous path.” He can be expected to take a keen interest in value for money and a close eye on why one constabulary might be performing better than another.

Angelique Foster, the new PCC for Derbyshire, promises “to bring tougher policing and a tougher approach to fighting crime.” She is also pledged to apply “prudent budgeting and robust financial management” to “setting and managing Derbyshire Police multi-million-pound budget.”

Attempting to change our policing culture will not be easy. Yet despite nine wasted years, I remain optimistic. The dismay from the public at the direction the police force has been heading in is shared by many rank-and-file officers. That is the pressure from below. With a Home Secretary on the same wavelength, there is also pressure from on high. This new cohort of Conservative PCCs – with their unapologetic determination to transform policing – will also be able to take encouragement from each other on their challenging journey.

There will be setbacks, mistakes and gaffes. No doubt success will be uneven. But at least enough will have been achieved that when they are seeking re-election in 2025 the role of Police and Crime Commissioner is no longer regarded as risible.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.