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Lisa Townsend is the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey.
It’s not unusual to be called or emailed by a local councillor or resident and asked to ‘order’ or ‘instruct’ the police to do something. I will explain that as a PCC my role is strictly non-operational. I am not a police officer, and haven’t undergone the long training or earned a warrant card. I am a politician, elected to represent Surrey residents and hold the chief constable to account on their behalf.
There are many more statutory and non-statutory duties PCCs undertake, but governance and representing our community are at the heart of our role, and appointing a chief constable is central to this. Selecting the right person to head up Surrey Police, to represent our Force, and to ensure that our residents are safe is a huge responsibility.
I am grateful that I had been in the role for 18 months before the process of finding a new chief constable began. Understanding the Force and its requirements, as well as the type of person who would be right for Surrey, has taken me time but means that I am confident I made the right choice. I spent a lot of time before the official process began talking to staff, officers, and Surrey residents about what they wanted from a chief constable. Those conversations were foremost in my mind as I spoke to the candidates.
When it comes to chief constables, Surrey has an impressive record. The last 25 years have seen Ian Blair, Mark Rowley, Nick Ephgrave, and Lynne Owens all go on to senior roles in the Met. The latest chief constable is leaving to take up the role of chairman at the National Police Chiefs’ Council – whatever Surrey’s reputation, it is not an area senior officers come to for a quiet slide into retirement. I feel the pressure to select a candidate who will live up to their predecessors.
We were fortunate to have four strong applicants. This may not sound like a large pool, but one of the issues felt by all PCCs is a lack of leadership candidates within policing (demonstrated in part by the recent Met Commissioner process). That Surrey attracted twice the number of candidates than many other recently recruiting forces in the South East was an achievement in itself. That they were all of a high calibre was a nice problem for any PCC to have.
That was only half the challenge. The right chief constable for Manchester (for example) won’t necessarily be right for a smaller force with different challenges. I was looking for someone who complements my own skills and experience. Who understands that while my role is political, the chief must not be. Someone who respects my office but who will push back when necessary. We must be able to engage in robust but respectful debate when it’s required, both understanding the duty the other has towards Surrey’s residents.
The right chief constable must also be the operational embodiment of the PCC’s police and crime plan. I spent over six months consulting with Surrey’s residents, businesses, schools, and other organisations to ensure their priorities were reflected in my Plan. My role is to ensure our new chief has the resources they need to deliver on residents’ priorities and use their own operational experience to identify and appropriately prioritise those areas of policing and crime often hidden from public view, such as online sexual abuse.
While the appointment is a decision for the PCC alone, the right interview panel is vital and I was fortunate enough to have a senior member of Neighbourhood Watch, a serving Chief Constable from a different force, and a former senior minister on my panel, as well as an independent member to ensure transparency and correct procedures were followed. Each brought very different experiences to the process and offered perspectives I couldn’t. The three of us on the Panel who were new to appointing a chief constable commented on how incredibly thorough (and time-consuming) the process was. I’m enormously grateful to them for giving up their time for free.
Each of the four applicants went through detailed assessment criteria at shortlisting, assessing their individual competencies with a rigorous scoring regime. The three candidates at the interview stage faced a stakeholder group made up of senior local leaders and younger representatives, chaired by the Deputy PCC, followed by an hour-long interview with the panel. They all performed well under pressure and a genuine debate afterward assessed the strengths and weaknesses of each.
As someone elected, not appointed, it is easy to make comparisons with the political process we use to fill roles in Westminster and beyond. Clearly, we rely heavily on getting the right MPs in the first place, and then (so the theory goes) the best will rise to ministerial office. Perhaps we could learn from the transparency and rigour policing provides for its top jobs.
Whether or not I appointed the right candidate, only time will tell, and the Surrey public will be the ultimate judge. What I am very confident of is that he was put through an incredibly rigorous and thorough series of tasks and performed in a way that impressed every member of the appointment panel. I am sure the public will see what we did.