As the results of the first elections to the position of police and crime commissioner come in, the over-riding impression is that nobody gives a shit.
Turnout in Wiltshire, the first of the areas to declare, was just 15.7 per cent – lower than any national election since 1918, and lower than any individual constituency result in a general election since 1945. Meanwhile, Stuart Wilks-Heeg, of the independent research organisation Democratic Audit, reports that at least three polling stations had exactly zero voters, which sounds like it could be a first.
But perhaps we ought to be thankful that the public is showing so much apathy.
A brief glance at the election statements of candidates shows how hard it is to stand out. One explicitly promises to "reduce crime by 20%"; another vaguely claims he will "put victims at the heart of the criminal justice process". Some didn't even write forward-looking statements at all, instead focusing entirely on their past: "17 years of local authority experience… 24 years of managing a successful business… Police Neighbourhood Tasking group chair".
There is nothing stopping people running entirely on claims that "I have done a good job in the past, so I will probably do a good job in the future" – although it does raise the question of why we bothered to switch from job interviews, which are normally predicated on that sort of claim anyway – but the problem is, it leaves the position vulnerable to candidates running on more interesting platforms.
The entire reasoning behind PCC elections is basically that there are low-hanging fruit of innovative policing techniques which the "career coppers" haven't been able to spot because they're too disconnected from the real world. The problem is that if that turns out not to be true – if policing is, broadly, done as well as it can be – then the low-hanging fruit turns out to be rotten.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio is the elected sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. He was first elected in November 1992, and has held the post for 21 years straight. In that time, Arpaio has hit the press for:
- Serving inmates in county jails leftovers;
- Feeding them only twice a day;
- Extending the county jail into a "tent city", where temperatures have risen to 63˚ in the summer. Arpaio himself has described the extension as a "concentration camp" (video, 3:20);
- Reinstituting chain gangs, including for young-offenders;
- His office staging an assassination plot as part of a publicity stunt;
- Numerous deaths and injuries of inmates in custody, including Scott Norberg, who died "as detention officers held him in a restraint chair", and Richard Post, a paraplegic whose neck was broken by county jailers.
To be clear, many of these problems are as much to do with America and its third-world jail system as they are to do with Joe Arpaio and the process of electing police chiefs. But to suggest that elections will introduce "accountability" into the process, when someone like Arpaio has been re-elected five times, is nothing more than wishful thinking.
The best we can hope for with PCC elections is a continuation of dull, technocratic manifestos leading to minuscule turnout along party lines – because the methods people might use to really stoke up the electorate don't bear thinking about.