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How to keep politics out of policing

Just how independent are the non-party-affiliated candidates for the new Police and Crime Commissioner positions?

New Statesman
Photograph: Getty Images

The Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections are almost upon us. On 15 November 2012, we go to the polls, in what will likely be an extremely disappointing turnout, to elect the future leaders of the criminal justice system in our local areas. Elections are taking place in 41 separate areas, with a mix of party-affiliated and independent candidates vying for our votes. The question is – how “independent” are these independents?

Much has been made recently about the fairness of the PCC elections. Independent candidates, whilst trying to keep up with their party counterparts, are still required to find a deposit of £5,000 just to get on the ballot paper – ten times the amount needed to stand in Parliamentary General Elections – and that’s before the campaigning starts. Additionally, in ordinary elections, candidates are only allowed to spend around £12,000 on their campaigns. For the PCC elections, the figure is closer to £100,000. So the question being posed in the press is: do party candidates have an unfair advantage?

Well, yes and no.

They do have access to party funds, making it easier to enter the race to begin with, and to campaign on a grand scale. However, a recent survey commissioned by YouGov found that 61 per cent of people were against the idea of party candidates being elected into PCC positions. When taking account of age, 74 per cent of the "over 60s" category (the group most likely to act upon their voting intentions) stated that PCCs should not represent a political party. Of everyone sampled, only 11 per cent thought it was acceptable for candidates to have party allegiances.

This sentiment has been a key argument in many independent manifestos. “Free from political pressure” seems to be the mantra of the day. However, upon delving into the manifestos of some independent PCC candidates, proposed policies seem to be dripping with popular punitiveness – the policies of the extreme right of Conservative thinking. For this reason, I suggest that, although candidates may be independent from party interference, they are certainly not independent from political ideology.

Take, for example, the following statements:

“I am advocating a hardline approach. Hardcore thugs must go to jail, not be let off as many are at present. Letting people off just makes things worse and in the end creates more problems.”

“First you may be reprimanded (several times), given final warnings and then formally depending upon age cautioned and then eventually end up in court. Court sanctions can be modest and even then often not complied with. The learned behaviour for this small group of individuals is one of petty crime pays, because the risk of real sanctions is frankly negligible. The sanctions available to the police and others who work hard in the criminal justice system are just not there. Outrageously prison sentencing policy is driven by the number of places available, not protecting us.”

Both of these statements refer to antisocial behaviour in local areas. The first was made by a Conservative MP – the newly-appointed justice secretary, Chris Grayling. The second is from a collection of soundbites from the website of Lincolnshire’s “only truly independent” candidate for the PCC role, David Bowles. These statements seem to portray the same thing, and it should not be forgotten that Chris Grayling was bought in to replace former justice secretary Ken Clarke – predominantly for ideological reasons – to appease the punitive Conservative right. It is evident, just from these short quotes, that, although some Independent candidates do not have party allegiances to contend with, the remnants of ideological thinking are absolutely on show in some of the Independent manifestos. 

So what would a truly independent manifesto look like?

For me, it would draw on evidence from the fields of criminology, and desistance-based research. Naturally, the topic that is foremost in people’s minds – antisocial behaviour – would take centre stage, as it has done in the majority of PCC candidates’ campaigns. Research shows that, after being reprimanded a small number of times, young people in particular will cease their antisocial actions. For this reason, an evidence-based manifesto would encourage community payback initiatives, incorporating the principles of restorative justice, as opposed to a more punitive approach, such as imprisonment, as advocated by the likes of Grayling and Bowles. 

To take this further, non-criminal arrangements, such as informal warnings from police officers, will often be enough to deter young people from engaging in antisocial behaviour. A scheme such as this non-criminal approach would also result in the young person not obtaining a criminal record, meaning that the negative impact of having a record – such as poorer long-term employment prospects – can be avoided, enhancing the likelihood of long-term desistance from crime.

Police visibility is also a hot topic. However, Officer numbers need to be balanced with the requirement set by central Government to make financial cutbacks. One way of doing this could be to recruit increased numbers of volunteers – Special Constables who, unlike expensive Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs), have the same powers of arrest as regular Officers. This increases local visibility levels, and harnesses volunteers’ enthusiasm and knowledge of their local areas, whilst keeping costs down.

It should be borne in mind that, eventually, the PCC role is likely to incorporate all aspects of local criminal justice, including the Courts, Probation, and some Prisons. With this in mind, a complete manifesto would address the challenges faced by these institutions, as well as the police. For example, PCC candidates should outline their support for sentencing policy that keeps many low-level offenders out of prison, and encourages community sentences that provide opportunities for community payback, as well as providing the offender with a chance to improve their employment prospects and education level.

To conclude, if we really want to keep politics out of policing, and develop an effective and efficient criminal justice system, we should leave ideological thinking at the polling station door, and vote for evidence-based policies. Only then can a candidate call themselves “truly independent”.

A full list of candidates for Lincolnshire, and the rest of the country, along with further information about PCCs and the election, can be viewed at www.policeelections.com.

 

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