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The changing face of the police force

Rachel Potter

Policemen in high viz jackets on patrol

The police force has been transformed by the recent introduction of elected police and crime commissioners – but there are challenges still to overcome, says Rachel Potter

The introduction of directly elected police and crime commissioners earlier this month marked a historic change in how our police forces are run.

For the first time ever, the work of 41 forces in England and Wales are now  overseen by elected officials.

It represents a major challenge for everyone in the police service, and in particular for chief constables and other senior officers.

While they will retain responsibility for operational decision-making, the new police and crime commissioners will have the power to appoint (and dismiss) chief constables, set out local policing priorities and set the annual force budget.

Clear, regular and sensible communication will be key to making it work
Commissioners will hold police chiefs to account for the delivery of efficient and effective policing, the management of resources and spending, and ultimately the delivery of policing across the force. Their decisions will impact on how an area looks and feels – from CCTV, street lighting and graffiti to tackling gang culture and drug dealing.

"For the first time a directly elected person, in the majority of cases on a party [political] ticket, is introduced into the British policing model,” says Sir Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), adding that the elections represent "probably the biggest change to policing since 1829".

For this reason, ACPO is working to ensure that its members (which also include deputy and assistant chief constables) can carry on unhindered with their job of managing police forces. It has pressed the government for checks and balances to ensure that chief officers retain the ability to take professional decisions about the best way of keeping people safe.

The Home Office says that the introduction of police and crime commissioners will be the most effective way of meeting the policing needs of communities. The move will bring communities closer to the police, build confidence in the system and restore trust, say ministers.

Police forces are public bodies, and holding them to account is not a new idea. Since 1964 the job has been done by police authorities, panels of around 17 members including some nominated by the local council, independent members and magistrates. These bodies will cease to exist when the elections take place.

Robust and rational

Chief police officers are the most senior managers within a force, and each of them has risen through the ranks of policing. “Of course there are potentially tensions,” says Orde of the relationship between chiefs and commissioners. “Clear, regular and sensible communication will be key to making it work.”

Police chiefs recognise that they must be held to account for their decisions, he adds. “We absolutely expect [commissioners] to do so in a robust, rational and challenging way.”

Supporters of the new system say it will make policing more accountable and more responsive to local needs. Commissioners will consult with victims of crime when setting policing priorities and will bring valuable experience from outside the service.

Officers and staff concerned about issues such as the potential outsourcing of services (including call handling, police and community support officers, and forensic staff) will be able to vote for candidates who have campaigned against such moves.

The government has proposed a 20% cut to police budgets, and these elections also provide the public with some element of choice over how those cuts should be managed.

However, opponents of the plans are concerned about the introduction of a party political element to policing. They say the commissioners could opt to spend money on headline-grabbing initiatives to secure their victory in future elections, rather than tackling serious crime. There is also the fear that some may be tempted to interfere with the day-to-day running of forces.

Alex Marshall, chief constable of Hampshire, says that all senior officers will work to ensure that the transition period goes smoothly.
Some important areas of shared work will have to be addressed as soon as the commissioners are elected, he adds. These include managing the short timeframe for creating a police and crime plan and the 2013/14 budgets, and ensuring that governance, decision-making and accountability models work for each force and the communities they serve.

Each commissioner will appoint a chief executive, who will employ administrative staff and will have a monitoring role to ensure that standards are upheld. They will also appoint a chief finance officer. The chief constable will continue to oversee the appointment of all police officers.

Police and crime commissioners have been elected in 41 of the 44 police force areas in England and Wales. The exceptions are forces covering Northern Ireland, the City of London and the Metropolitan police service.

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