One of the most popular questions raised by Labour Party members and all those interested when discussing the role of the newly created Police and Crime Commissioners, was that of how the police would retain their operational independence. Members were worried that there would be an element of political interference in everyday policing.
What follows is former Divisional Commander, and candidate for the Labour nomination Keith Hunter’s personal perspective on this key issue. Personally I believe it is of the utmost importance that each candidate, from whatever Party or background, is able to prove that they have a clear and unambiguous understanding that policing must never become an area for political meddling.
Operational Independence and the role of Police and Crime Commissioners. (By Keith Hunter).
The creation of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) initiated widespread debate and significant initial resistance. The objection that most often came to the fore concerned politicisation and loss of independence of the police. As a former senior police officer I have personal experience of the potential effects of political interference in policing.
Whilst Chairing the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland, Lord Patten preferred the term ‘operational responsibility’ because of the implied accountability attached to ‘responsibility’, as opposed to the unfettered discretion implied by ‘independence’. I am happy to accept that as the basis for the relationship between the police and PCC.
It would be naive to believe there is no political influence in policing. The Home Secretary is a politician and sets the national agenda for policing; the majority of members of police authorities are also politicians. There is, however, a world of difference between setting the broad political context within which a strategy is formulated and becoming involved in decision making in specific operations.
Where between those two points is the line drawn for PCCs? This will undoubtedly be tested once the election is over and the Commissioners start work.
Some potential candidates may feel inclined to become involved in obviously operational decisions if they consider there are political considerations; I would argue this would undermine the whole basis of British policing.
I was the Gold Commander (in overall charge of policing) for the Round the World Clipper Yacht Race and Freedom Festival in Hull a few years ago. This was probably the largest series of events ever held in the Humberside area. After listening to advice I made a decision to close the major arterial route through Hull on public safety grounds. This was agreed by the other agencies involved in putting on the event.
I then came under significant pressure, channelled through political routes, to rescind my decision due to the effect this would have on some interests in the east of the city. I did not bow to this pressure and unprecedented numbers of people attended the event. General opinion was that there would have been a disaster if the road had not been closed. Political considerations would have left it open.
If I had bowed to pressure and left open the road and members of the public had been seriously injured or killed, would the people influencing my decision have taken one step forward or a few steps back when the subsequent enquiry called to account those responsible?
Police officers are trained and paid to make those decisions and expect to be held to account for making them.
Some areas are less clear. For example, is it considered an operational matter or one of strategic direction to move from policing districts that reflect and are contained within local authority boundaries, to a non-geographically based organisation? Police chiefs would argue it was operational but I suspect a number of potential PCCs would disagree.
There is the new Policing Protocol, which came into force in January 2012. It was an attempt by the Home Office to specify the respective responsibilities of PCCs, Chief Constables and the Home Secretary. But this document lacks any real detail and cannot be used as a practical day-to-day guide. PCCs will have to tread carefully if we are to avoid a rush of judicial reviews and/or resignations of Chief Constables disrupting an already complex policing landscape.
This is a matter of the greatest significance in this election and beyond. I believe the instincts, ethics and record of every potential PCC should be carefully scrutinised during the coming campaign to ensure candidates understand and appreciate the significance of this issue and can be trusted to deal with the subtleties on behalf of the electorate.