“I want to know why they threatened to arrest me.”
That was what a visitor to my surgery told me they wanted from their complaint against the police.
“I want to know why they threatened to use the Mental Health Act, when I have no mental health issue. I want to know why they assumed I did.”
The Mental Health Act is but one example of the powers the police have over us. Stop and search is another, and similarly contentious.
Exercising police powers is enormously tricky, and usually performed with great skill by officers in difficult circumstances.
But sometimes things go wrong. Sometimes individuals get things wrong. Sometimes the system just doesn’t work as it should. When that happens, we need to be able to hold the police to account. They hold their powers on our behalf, with our consent. In order to retain that consent they must exercise them in line with our expectations.
That is why this government introduced Police and Crime Commissioners. And that is why Conservative PCCs are launching an online pamphlet, ThinkBlueLine, to explain their work so far.
PCCs hold the police to account, on your behalf. They raise the money for policing, via the precept which they set. They set the priorities for policing and crime. They employ the people to deliver those priorities, most significantly, the Chief Constable.
Police and Crime Commissioners have faced much criticism in the national press. Less remarked on is the vast amount of positive coverage in the local press. Local relationships are strong.
As the Home Secretary notes in her foreword, 70 per cent of people knew about their PCC where 7 per cent knew of a Police Authority. Commissioners handle ten times the correspondence of their predecessor bodies. They deliver a wider remit –joining up services across the public sector, as David Lloyd and Angus Macpherson demonstrate in their essays.
Perhaps it is inevitable that a reform so fundamental should face early challenges. For Police and Crime Commissioners represent a massive shift in power – from the centre to localities and from officialdom to the public.
We want ThinkBlueLine to be a platform to share right-of-centre thinking on crime and justice, promote successful innovations and challenge received wisdom.
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of this reform is the scope it has allowed for new ideas, for public sector entrepreneurs to step forward, take risks and respond to need.
Although the Rotherham scandal saw a Labour PCC lose his job, it his direct accountability to the public which left him nowhere to hide. He was accountable as PCC in a way he never was as a committee chair. The people of South Yorkshire now have a say in who cleans up their police force.
Katy Bourne (Sussex) explains how “you said, I listened, this happened”, when residents in Brighton and Hove raised concerns about burglary. Tony Hogg (Devon and Cornwall) describes how he is using his powers as PCC to tackle alcohol related crime. Anthony Stansfeld looks at rural crime. Adam Simmonds (Northamptonshire) looks at the future of policing, particularly the role of Special Constables and volunteers.
Meanwhile Mark Reckless MP, member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, describes why the powers of the police had to be made accountable. Tim Burton and Paul Robinson, both Deputy PCCs, explain their role and what it has brought. Richard Rhodes (Cumbria) describes how he forced reluctant local authorities to recognise the reality of sexual abuse.
Finally, Julia Mulligan explains how direct democracy delivers for victims. I offer some thoughts on what next for PCCs, particularly as questions about power and where it sits move to the centre of the political stage.
What this work, and PCCs in general, represent is a movement of law and order policy-making out of the shadows. Labour PCCs have produced their own Fabian Society pamphlet, Letting in the Light. Independent PCCs such as Sue Mountstevens in Avon and Somerset and Martyn Underhill in Dorset are promoting new models for victim services.
We will not always agree but where once ‘national guidance’predominated, we now have open debate and local discretion.
Ultimately, the public will decide. Direct accountability is a searing experience. There is nowhere to hide, as some PCCs have already discovered.
Those seeking answers from their police now have somewhere to go. Where powers are misused, or policies misguided, the public can demand an answer.
We can look at powers under the Mental Health Act, or stop and search, and ask why. We can oversee complaints and challenge procedures, policy and culture.
And if we don’t? We lose our jobs, one way or another.
Finally, the public have a voice.