Elected posts for oversight: Strengthening or damaging police accountability?
A fundamental shift in the architecture of police accountability is set to take place in the United Kingdom (UK). This shift will occur at the most local level of policing, and raises critical questions for the future of police accountability in the UK. Considering the extent to which the UK model of police accountability is regarded as international best practice, it is important to reflect on this new aspect of the accountability model.
In November 2012, voters will elect a police and crime commissioner (PCC) to oversee their local police forces. These directly elected commissioners will replace the existing local Police Authorities, which are independent bodies with diverse membership that currently exert oversight at the local level. In terms of accountability, this marks a paradigm shift from public oversight bodies with independently appointed members based on objective criteria to elected posts that come with the compulsions to campaign and entice voters. The main argument behind replacing the Authorities is that they have been too silent and invisible. The hope is that an elected post will be visibly representative of local policing needs and concerns. But this also raises the question of whether elections and voting for these posts will further politicise policing. Can an elected post truly serve the cause of police accountability ?
This is arguably one of the most radical changes adopted in decades, introduced by the Conservative Party after it came to power in a coalition government in mid-2010. The initial proposals spurred immense debate, sharp criticism, and stiff opposition from many quarters, including the Labour Party, police chiefs, the police authorities, and civil liberties organisations such as Liberty. The primary (and valid) concern was that the PCCs will lead to greater politicisation of the police. But this was not enough to prevent legislation establishing PCCs from being passed by Parliament in September 2011, titled the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011. The Conservatives conceded to its coalition partner’s concerns by delaying the PCC elections to November 2012 to allow more time for the transition from the Authorities to the PCCs.
The PCCs are likely to be powerful figures compared to the Police Authorities as they are single individuals with all the same functions of the Authorities in relation to local police forces. Additionally, they will also be responsible for ensuring public safety and crime reduction. In both legislation and supporting policy, the government has stressed that PCCs are not to interfere in police operational independence. Nevertheless, concerns about politicisation seeping into policing cannot be shrugged aside when examining the powers of the PCCs. They will set the strategic direction for the police in accordance with national priorities by drafting a local Police and Crime Plan, oversee and decide local police budgets, appoint and dismiss local police chiefs, monitor all complaints against police officers, and act as a link between the police and local communities.
Who can stand for PCC elections? Eligibility for PCC posts is fortunately not restrictive or exclusive, but does focus on keeping the candidate pool local. The candidate must be at least 18 years of age, a British, Commonwealth, or European Union citizen, and registered to vote in the local police force area where they wish to stand. It is somewhat worrying that the eligibility criteria do not call for specialised knowledge on policing or relevant skills, it is hoped this will be addressed at a later stage. Serving judges, police officers, civil servants, government officers, local councillors, or anyone convicted of a serious offence, are ineligible to stand for PCC posts (all criteria taken from the Home Office website). Notably, members of Parliament (this includes members of the Scottish Parliament and Wales Assembly) can contest PCC elections, but will have to stand down from their existing post before they can accept the PCC post. This has left some room open for the entrance of party politics into police accountability – both the Labour and Conservative parties have already put forward candidates for PCC posts. Realistically, the inclusion of candidates with political backgrounds, and presumably some political clout and campaigning know-how, does not bode well to create a level playing field to attract candidates from diverse backgrounds. In addition, media reports are already pointing to a lack of logistical preparedness for the elections, as well as the absence so far of rules and guidelines to govern the PCC elections.
Whatever the shortcomings of the Police Authorities (which are not within the purview of this article), their design is certainly representative and appropriate for an independent police oversight body. Each Police Authority is made up of about 17 members, with nine local councillors and eight independent members, a balance between political and non-political. The local councillors are appointed by the local council (the local government body). The independent members are appointed through an objective selection process (following local advertisements) that is laid down in law and regulations. From a body of 17 with political as well as non-political members, the same oversight functions will now move to a single person. In Commonwealth and indeed global best practice, oversight functions such as deciding police budgets, appointment and dismissal of police chiefs, as well as setting strategic direction are usually done through consensus and undergo the requisite democratic checks and balances. Each PCC will have a huge amount of power – this much concentrated power in a single person is a danger signal in any context. Also, a PCC’s continuity will depend on winning the public’s votes, which demands a different set of pressures than those on an autonomous body with a statutory tenure that is ultimately accountable to the legislature.
The 2011 Act does establish “police and crime panels” which will hold the PCCs to account, including the ability to review the police and crime plan and annual report, veto decisions, request PCC papers, and summon PCCs and chief constables to public hearings. These panels will comprise of one elected representative from the local area and two independent members. While it is absolutely necessary to have a mechanism in place to scrutinise the PCCs, this also inserts an additional layer of bureaucracy.
It is no surprise that police chiefs across England and Wales have expressed serious concerns over the new PCC posts, pointing to the possibility of undue interference by the PCCs into operational matters, or even small-scale corruption in the worst scenario. Police chiefs have also raised apprehensions of potentially politically-motivated decisions in the exercise of PCC dismissal powers. These concerns are of course purely speculative and there is now a tacit acceptance of the impending PCCs, but these concerns are valid and rightly signal real potential dangers which could irrevocably damage police accountability in the UK.
The government has published statutory guidance  which clarifies the role and responsibilities of the PCCs, the chief constables, the mayor’s office for policing and crime, and the police and crime panels to help articulate how these new arrangements will work in practice. While a positive and necessary step, this is not enough to allay fears that the concerns expressed will not materialise in practice. More than assigning responsibilities, there is an urgent need to devise clearly thought out processes and procedures, as well as sufficient safeguards, to guide the new accountability relationships and prevent undue discretion.
None of this is to say that it will not work; in fact, commentators have spelled out how the new PCCs could be progressive and beneficial. At this stage, before the elections have even taken place, it is hoped that the numerous relevant concerns are addressed soon by policy-makers.
Considering the enormity of the change, are there any lessons for South Asia? After all, in the region, independent oversight of the police is grappling with formidable challenges mainly because it is fiercely resisted. Could an elected post model lessen the political/bureaucratic hold over the police? It is argued here that opening up accountability processes or structures to elections in the South Asian context would be a catastrophic mistake. Democracy must be fully embedded for this to be even considered, and even then, as expressed in the UK context, the unique requirements of police accountability call elected oversight posts into question. Our societies are too fuelled by all manner of divisions – caste, religion, gender, socio-economic – for there to be even a semblance of a level playing field.
At present, there is too much illicit gain and overt illegitimate political interference in policing; elected posts would only enable this. Accountability by consensus in the form of independent policy-setting buffer bodies – called variously State Security Commissions in India, Public Safety Commissions in Pakistan, and Police Service Commissions in Bangladesh – is fiercely resisted in the region, when this is what is most needed. In India, even in states which have passed Police Acts establishing these bodies, not a single State Security Commission is operational. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, modern progressive police legislation itself is being resisted. In the South Asian context, accountability is best served through the combined pressure of numerous stakeholders and democratic checks and balances. Creating a single PCC-type post, with the extent of powers bestowed on the PCCs, in any South Asian country would surely irrevocably damage democratic police accountability. It is fervently hoped that the UK will fare better.
Elections will take place in 42 local police force areas across the country, excluding Greater London.
 BBC News, “’Concern’ over police and crime commissioner elections”, February 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-16954305
 This is called the Policing Protocol Order 2011, and can be found at: http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/publications/police/pcc/policing-protocol/.
Ian Loader and Rick Muir, “Progressive police and crime commissioners: An opportunity for the centre-left”, September 2011, http://www.ippr.org/articles/56/7957/progressive-police-and-crime-commissioners-an-opportunity-for-the-centre-left