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7 August 2014

If Labour scraps Police and Crime Commissioners, it will be rowing back on democracy

The Labour Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) for Northumbria calls on Labour to retain PCCs, or a variant of the position, to allow transparency in policing.

By Vera Baird

Almost two years since the election of the first Police and Crime Commissioners, it’s a role that has continued to develop and evolve.

Labour has vowed to reform the system following Lord Stevens’ 2013 review of policing. However, there are currently 13 Labour commissioners, in office, with power and budgets, working to deliver services for the benefit of their communities, whose hands-on experience can inform policy development.

Commissioners are the elected voice of the people. Their duty is to consult communities to ascertain what they want from the police, shaping those priorities into a police and crime plan which gives strategic direction to the force. Our control of the local policing budget and our democratic leverage ensures that what the people want does happen. This represents a significant shift of power towards the public. Our “and crime” responsibilities empower us to coordinate local community safety work and elements of the criminal justice process. We will shortly be responsible for commissioning victims’ services and we are developing local restorative solutions.

We have renewed focus on neighbourhood policing. These popular teams of police and community support officers, dedicated to serving a specific community, are the bedrock of modern policing, well defined as such by Lord Stevens. They work with the public and with partners to solve problems before they develop into crime or disorder, looking for longer term resolutions that help stability and community safety.

Neighbourhood policing has not only been overwhelmingly positive for communities, but it has helped to model a new kind of police officer. Remote from hierarchical management, they are directly accountable to the local communities with whom they work. They become committed to the public as well as to the police force and the trust they evoke contrasts with the distrust with which the national policing hierarchy is regarded for being too often steeped in their own sectional self-interest. The Hillsborough and Orgreave issues and contemporary concerns such as apparent inaccuracies around the deaths of Jean Charles de Menezes, Ian Tomlinson and Mark Duggan have done immeasurable damage to public trust. Now local police are, for the first time being overseen intrusively at command level by an elected figure and any tendency to put force self-interest over public well-being can be challenged, so that it becomes, at least more difficult for these kind of events to recur.

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In the same vein, police complaints have often been dealt with through a prism of institutional defensiveness, which exacerbates grievances and loses the police friends as surely as national scandals do. Labour Commissioners are tackling this with the aim of getting police to admit minor bad behaviour where it has occurred and to trust the public to understand. In Northumbria, 36 per cent of police complaints are resolved within 48 hours by a customer focussed telephone team, based in the Commissioner’s office which has a 96 per cent satisfaction rate. Public involvement, emanating from an elected Commissioner, is breaking down barriers between the police and the communities they serve and restoring trust.

All of this is taking place amidst shrinking budgets and there are further challenges ahead. Police numbers are critically low. Last December saw extra reductions to police budgets to boost the Independent Police Complaints Commission without, so far, any transfer of work. Splitting the probation service to sell part of it off could undermine crime reduction by unsettling Integrated Offender Management. Harsh reductions in legal aid will mean fewer defence lawyers, perhaps heralding a matching return to police officer prosecutions.

In a time of upheaval as well as innovation, Labour Police and Crime Commissioners will continue to navigate pathways to improve policing in their local communities. Whether the role remains or a variant takes over, the current Labour Commissioners are letting light into policing and agree with Lord Stevens that the next Labour government should not row back on democracy.

Vera Baird is the Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria