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25 October 2012

We can now elect police officers: but will anyone bother?

Let’s not waste this opportunity.

By Shane Britton

It is now less than a month until the first police and crime commissioners are elected across the country. The policing minister Damien Green has described this as “the most significant democratic reform of policing in our lifetime”, and yet there is a real danger that hardly anybody, especially young people like me, will turn out to vote. Indeed, yesterday saw former Metropolitan Police Chief Sir Ian Blair urge us to boycott the election, telling Sky News “I actually hope people don’t vote because that is the only way we are going to stop this”.

Sir Ian is wrong: the Home Secretary has repeatedly stated that the elections will be legitimate whatever the turnout. The reforms are going ahead. However, there is a real danger that he will get at least part of his wish. The Electoral Reform Society recently estimated that only 18.5 per cent of the electorate will brave the November chill and head to the polls. Surveys suggest that 82 per cent don’t know who their candidates are, and the figures are probably even higher for us traditionally apathetic young people. An informal poll of friends in my home constituency of Essex drew nothing but blank expressions, and polite but uninterested questions as to what a ‘police and crime commissioner’ actually was.

This is a concern, because we are precisely the age group that should be paying the most attention to the election of PCCs. As research by the Transition to Adulthood Alliance shows, young people (16-24) are disproportionately likely to come into contact with the police, and are massively overrepresented in the criminal justice system – we make up 10 per cent of the population but one-third of those commencing a community sentence, one-third on the probation caseload and almost one-third of those sentenced to prison each year. We are also the most likely age group to be a victim of crime; 31.8 per cent of young people were victims of a crime in 2011.

The decisions PCCs will make will therefore have a disproportionate impact on us. The introduction of PCCs, however, also provides us with a huge opportunity to have our voices heard directly. PCCs have a duty to engage with the whole community, and hold the local chief constable to account on their behalf. They can set strategic priorities, and shine a light on poor practice in policing locally. This election is a chance to raise those issues around policing and crime that matter most to young people.

Despite the apathy about PCC elections, many young people have strong feelings towards the police, whether this is to do with the policing of protests or feeling marginalized and bullied by the police presence in their community. Young people involved in the riots, interviewed as part of the Guardian and LSE report, commonly cited anger at the police as a cause of their behaviour.  

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Stop and search is one such issue highlighted in the riots report. These powers were used more than a million times by police in 2009/10, with a crime detection rate of just 9 per cent. We are more likely than any other age group to be stopped, while it is well known that black and ethnic minority groups in particular are disproportionately stopped. Organizations such as StopWatch are already lobbying candidates on these issues, and young people should take this opportunity, and use their vote, to push for a change in the way we are policed.

Other issues that are likely to have a disproportionate effect on young people are already being discussed. Candidates are issuing their manifestos and taking to social media to share their thoughts on issues such as zero-tolerance policing, anti-social behaviour and the policing of town centres at night. Candidates are already talking about us, even if we are largely not listening yet. Last year’s riots, as well as pervading negative perceptions of young people as “yobs” and “hoodies”, make us a hot topic for some PCCs, particularly those who want to sound “tough on crime”.

A boycott will not change these perceptions. It is vital that we do not let this national conversation on policing and crime become yet another case of politicians talking about us, but not with us. Young people need to grasp this opportunity to engage, register and vote, and get involved – move the debate beyond its current stale focus on turnout and implementation and have a say in how we are policed. Let’s not waste this opportunity.