Police and Crime Commissioners: A Voyage of Discovery

Having just read the Bernard Rix story about lack of interest in the upcoming first police and crime commissioner (PCC) by-election in the West Midlands, I found the lack of interest interesting.

If I said PCC to a passing member of the public they would probably say ‘Press Complaints Commission’, possibly ‘Primary Care Commission’. And, if I’m still shaking my head, they may have a stab at ‘Pembrokeshire County Council’.

Let’s not just single out ordinary folk in the street. I’m usually promoting some show or other and am often interviewed by local BBC types. One of their favourite questions, (albeit off air), and usually delivered with a slightly screwed up face is “What do these police and crime commissioners do?” To be honest I’m sick of responding by screwing up my face and saying “I’m not really sure”.

History lesson

I know that we used to have something called a police authority. This was an elected committee that had representatives from the local authority and also independents that had the same voting power. Then we replaced it with one person. But why? I needed to make some enquiries to stop embarrassing myself.

I tried to keep it simple by asking serving cops but they didn’t seem to have much of an idea either. Even a superintendent’s best effort was “they’re politicians who hold the police budget”.

Politicians? Hang on I thought the government keep banging on about depoliticising the police? This being the case, surely PCCs should be completely independent. But they’re not are they? In fact most of them are directly affiliated to a political party.

I needed further research. As an experienced cop (with 18 years’ service) obviously I take active measures to avoid reading any mind-bending online drivel that has the letters .gov.uk/ anywhere in its address.

So I tried to do it the easy way and watched a recording of Channel 4’s ‘copumentary’ entitled ‘Meet the Police and Crime Commissioner’ (originally broadcast in May). As I’m a bit ‘street’ these days I’d sum up my response in contemporary fashion – OMG! Less eye-opening and more sadistically cruel retinal abusing.

Now I know we’ve all made mistakes (I once volunteered to chair a multi-agency anti-social behaviour committee in Scunthorpe) but when I watched this show I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or self-harm. And at the end of the experience I was little the wiser in respect of the actual role of PCCs.

I ought to just add that I’ve been a ‘candidate’ on a reality TV show and so ‘there but for the grace of God’ and all that but really, what’s the first thing a basic plod learns about the media? Answer: Their agenda versus your agenda. Maybe if Kent PCC Ann Barnes – the focus of the Channel 4 show – had been a tad more approachable then one of the cops would have whispered that basic piece of info into her shell-like.

London calling

My search for the meaning of PCC continued. Perhaps I needed to start at the beginning. Why did we need them? Were police authorities underperforming? Were PCCs proving a big hit elsewhere and we wanted some of the action?

We tried it first in London. Obviously somebody considered that Mayor of London was only a part-time job and someone thought we could tag on the role of PCC. That astute academic strategist in fools clothing Boris Johnson was the first, and clearly Theresa May was of the opinion that he had done such a superb job of eradicating police scandals, building trust and keeping public order problems to an absolute minimum that it was a no-brainer to churn out PCCs on a national level.

In fact Boris is so community conscious that he’s decided to keep Londoners nice and cool this summer by ordering some big mechanical water sprayers just in case we have a heatwave.

How forgiving those Londoners are. Boris didn’t even rush back from his jolly holidays when rioting broke out in 2011 but as soon as he picked up a sweeping brush and grinned for the Evening Standard the avuncular one was a shoe-in for re-election using the old absent fathers line of ‘I know I wasn’t always here for you but I was thinking of you and…I’ve bought you a new bike (well quite a lot of them actually but you do have to pay to use them).’

Information is power

There was a slight flaw in The Home Secretary’s strategy of imposing PCCs on us. Her biggest error was in assuming that in the absence of readily available (and more importantly palatable) information the public would be interested enough to do their own research. No chance – I’ve had to motivate myself just to enter PCC into the search engine, let alone get off my arse and go to the ballot box.

So now we have our first PCC by-election in the West Midlands and the same air of apathy prevails. Will people cast their vote? No of course they won’t because they don’t understand what they’re voting for or why. You won’t ‘sell’ PCCs until people understand what they are ‘buying’ Mrs May and it’s no good saying loads of information went out blah, blah, blah. If the ordinary person in the street doesn’t understand the purpose of PCCs then you have failed – no excuses.

I know that you know best Home Secretary but the public aren’t naughty children to be told what to do. If you want to get us on board then treat us like grown-ups and make us feel involved in the process. Until then my search for the answer to question what do those PCCs do continues.

As this article will be online I’ve asked PoliceOracle.com not to use the word PCC in the title in case it confuses people trying to locate the Pocklington Cycle Club.

Article written originally for the Police Oracle – 19th August 2014

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