History as Britain elects police commissioner

November 13, 2012 7:25 am
Police officers patrol in Notting Hill, in London.Photo/ FILE

, LONDON, Nov 13 – Britain goes to the polls Thursday to choose the country’s first ever elected police and crime commissioners — but the biggest shake-up in British policing for decades is threatening to end up a damp squib.

Charged with setting out a vision and budget for 41 forces across England and Wales and with the power to sack their chief constables, elected commissioners were billed as the new public face of crime-fighting, holding police to account.

But the elections have failed to fire up the public imagination, with some polls predicting the lowest turnout in British history.

“It’s the most significant change for half a century in terms of police governance,” Tim Newburn, Professor of Criminology at the London School of Economics, told AFP.

“These people will have very significant powers over policing. But they’re just not part of the public consciousness at the moment.”

The Electoral Reform Society predicts that just 18.5 percent of voters will cast their ballots — the fewest ever in a British election.

Critics have blamed the lack of enthusiasm on everything from the November chill to the dearth of big names running for office, with the exception of the former deputy prime minister John Prescott.

The colourful Labour veteran, who famously punched a protester during the 2001 general election campaign, is running for the commissioner job in Humberside, the home of his former seat in parliament.

Many voters have scant understanding of the commissioners’ role, which will see them installed for four-year terms across England and Wales except in London, where the mayor already acts as a quasi-commissioner.

Critics say ministers have failed to publicise the policy, a flagship manifesto promise of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party before it came to power in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010.

The prime minister, who is under pressure to reverse his party’s slide in popularity, has admitted it could take years for voters to get behind the idea of elected commissioners.

“Trying to get people to turn out and vote in an age of cynicism and apathy, it’s difficult,” he told the Times newspaper. “That doesn’t mean it’s the wrong thing to do.”

The British police traditionally enjoy a reputation for integrity.

But forces have suffered a string of negative headlines in recent months, not least revelations of a police cover-up over the 1989 Hillsborough football stadium disaster in which 96 Liverpool supporters died.

The police also became embroiled in the 2011 phone hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s British newspapers, which claimed the jobs of two top Scotland Yard officials.

Several police officers have since been arrested for allegedly selling stories to journalists.

Experts say that elected commissioners could act more swiftly over such scandals.

“The police have a much better reputation than politicians, but there are some issues — Hillsborough and the phone-hacking scandal do raise questions,” said Sam Chapman, editor of the Top of the Cops blog.

“I don’t think the commissioners were set up to challenge those things, but once you have people elected locally, it does give a channel for those things to be addressed.”

Police themselves are suspicious that their new overseers will pursue headline-grabbing policies instead of long-term ones.

File photo shows armed police officers on patrol at Manchester Airport. Photo/AFP

“Police see these reforms as being likely to clip their wings,” Newburn said. “There are worries this will politicise the police, and there are worries the commissioners will have undue influence.”

Ministers insist the commissioners will not be able to interfere with investigations or arrests, unlike in the United States where in many counties elected sheriffs wield direct power over operations.

And while talk of the elections is met by many Britons with a blank stare, analysts say commissioners could catch on if they make the police more responsive to local needs.

Across the country, forces are straining under steep budget cuts as Cameron attempts to slash Britain’s deficit.

Lawrence Sherman, Professor of Criminology at Cambridge University, said the commissioners’ success may depend on whether they can cut crime in this tough environment.

“It’s really quite an extraordinary constitutional creation, and we can’t predict quite how it will work out,” he said.


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