Monday, 26 July 2010

Direct police elections: a recipe for vigliantes, racists and homophobes

Home Secretary Theresa May is set to unveil her plans to replace police authorities with directly elected or police commissioners today: a move that will cost the taxpayer millions and allow extremists to take control of policing in many of our communities.

I'm all for democracy and accountability of policing, of course, but do we really need another set of elections, just as millions are being slashed from police budgets?

We already elect the majority of members – I, for example, was elected to represent the Queen’s Park area of Brighton before being appointed to Sussex Police Authority – and these are balanced with independent members, including magistrates, lawyers and criminologists. This means the management of the police in Sussex is not dominated by party politics.

Introducing direct elections as the Government has suggested will mean an end to this. All elections to public office in this country are dominated by political parties and police authority elections would be no different. Before long, the appointment of senior police officers would be more about party allegiance than ability to do the job.

This is exactly what we have seen in London, with the last Commissioner Ian Blair resigning not because of a policing failure but a political one – that he did not enjoy the patronage and support of the new mayor. Is this what we want to see here?

Neighbourhood policing in Sussex has been a great success.

People like having a beat officer team to serve their communities, giving our police a human face – and the same one every day.

But just as we should be increasing our budget for neighbourhood policing, the Government has thrown the whole approach into turmoil by slashing existing budgets and proposing an expensive new tier of elections without explaining how they will be paid for. Will the millions of pounds it will cost be found simply by taking officers off our streets?

But perhaps worst of all, direct elections to Sussex Police Authority will allow single-issue campaigners to be elected on the back of vigilantism, racism or homophobia.

I daresay a “No Travellers’ Camp In Brighton” party would pick up a few votes, judging from recent coverage in The Argus, but it would hardly represent the views of the majority and would drown out the voices of our city’s distinct and vulnerable groups and communities.

Of course we need communities to become more involved in decisions about policing. The way to do that is to allow them to participate in spending decisions, with a more participatory style to budgeting.

The reality is that talk of these elections is a smokescreen designed to obscure the fact this Government wants to centralise and politicise decisions about crime, policing and human rights while slashing budgets - and is more committed to saving cash than to giving neighbourhoods any real control over policing.

If we want to make our communities safer we need more money for neighbourhood policing and some spending decisions should be devolved to the communities themselves.

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