In the Media

A people's revolution is under way in the fight against crime

PUBLISHED August 22, 2012

Historians will remember 2012 not for the Olympic Games, but for the most profound change in the British constitution in decades: the introduction of elected police and crime commissioners. Britons who vote in this year's election, on November 15, will have an unprecedented chance to affect public policy - and to protect the rule of law from populist excesses.

Voters in England and Wales will be able to do something no one has ever done before. By voting for a police and crime commissioner in their area, they will choose a citizen to hire and fire chief constables, determine the rate of local taxation to pay for policing, set policing policy and outsource police tasks to private firms.

This change is truly radical. There are other countries with some electoral control over policing, but no other nation has ever been so bold in using direct democracy to govern police policy.

The boldness lies not just in giving citizens the power to hold a single politician to account for both a (big) tax bite and how it is spent. The less apparent, but more important, factor will be the mix of politics and police professionalism.

Americans in some counties can elect their sheriff, who then runs a police agency as a chief executive. Australia, India and other countries elect state or national parliaments, whose cabinets include a minister who hires and fires police executives on behalf of the government. But in none of those places are the elected officials constrained to hire senior police leaders who have been fully vetted by a professionally controlled peer review process for their knowledge and performance.

In this way, the new system for England and Wales will contain strong safeguards against a free-wheeling populist sheriff, such as Joe Arpaio in Arizona, who personally leads dawn raids hunting down illegal immigrants - and even ordered his officers to investigate Barack Obama's birth certificate. No one - and no professional body - stands between Arpaio and the operational work of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, where the police chief is the politician.

The vast majority of police in the United States work not for a sheriff but for an elected mayor, who appoints a chief from the ranks of officers already in the police agency. But that model also lacks any independent professional standards. It has often seen inexperienced police sergeants transformed into chiefs of police overnight by the mayor's magic wand - and the result is the mayor making operational decisions.

Thankfully, that can't happen here. The new British model will limit the commissioner's choices for chief constable to the several hundred people who have been selected by their peers through a national assessment centre. As it stands, this country's law already forbids elected politicians from giving any constable a direct order about who to arrest or not to arrest. But in tandem with the elected commissioners, the new British model will create a more powerful professional body - a College of Policing - which will be launched on December 1.

The College of Policing will encompass police of all ranks. Modelled in part on such professional bodies as those for physicians and engineers, the new college will strive to advance professional knowledge by using rigorously scientific testing for recommending police policy. By demanding the same rigour in testing the outcomes of policing as the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) does in medicine, the college will be able to improve the cost-effectiveness and legitimacy of policing. The policing college will provide the public with facts, not just opinions, as the basis for trusting police decisions on what works - and what doesn't. What the college will mean for elected police commissioners is that they will be held in check not just by a single chief constable, but by the entire College of Policing. Commissioners may still wish to tackle issues that have already been addressed by the entire profession of policing, in committees comprised of beat constables, crime victims, detectives, crime analysts, academics, superintendents and chief officers. But they will not pick such fights on a whim.

The college will also help liberate policing from "politically correct" mandates imposed by national governments. For two decades, for example, governments have mandated police to make arrests on sufficient evidence for all domestic violence cases, despite strong field-test evidence that in some cases arrest can double the risk of further violence against the victim. This kind of complex, case-by-case problem is no more appropriate for ministerial involvement than is the choice of treatment for each patient's lung cancer. The College of Policing will bring new meaning to independent police professionalism in the public interest, standing firmly on scientific evidence rather than being bullied by conventional wisdom.

The commissioners will have overall control over a local police budget, but will have no say over the wheels of justice. This approach, I predict, will foster a creative tension between liberal democracy and professional policing. It will cause almost daily confrontations - some of them no doubt explosive - between politics and the rule of law. Compared with any other country with politically controlled police, the result is likely to be much less corruption, better protection of minorities, and increased efficiency. But it's crucial to remember that policing and politics can be a dangerous mix if voters fail to make responsible choices.

Politicians of all parties agree that the new law on police commissioners is unlikely to be repealed, even by a new government. But it doesn't make policing less judicial than before; it simply joins that role at the hip to a radical new form of democracy. The most serious risk of elected police commissioners is that they will provide more policing to the local areas that voted for them, and less to areas where the public didn't bother to go to the polls. Low-turnout areas are also likely to be high-crime areas, needing more policing rather than less. Repeated field tests show that the most effective use of police patrols is to concentrate on high-crime hot spots, rather than wasting patrols on areas where crime rarely happens. Yet low-crime areas often make the most demands for extra policing. A clear statement of professional standards for patrol allocation from the College of Policing would help both commissioners and chief constables to build public support for police policies that prevent the most crime.

Working together, the College of Policing and elected commissioners can add new energy and focus to the fight against crime. Commissioners will be able to use college policies to audit police practice, just as chief constables will be able use college policies to challenge a commissioner's budget decisions. In the long run, then, it may be the independent College of Policing, not the commi
ssioners, by which historians mark 2012 as the biggest change in policing since Robert Peel's reforms in 1829. It is now up to the voters to make it work - by using their votes to choose commissioners who understand and support professional, evidence-based policing.

Professor Lawrence W Sherman is director of the Police Executive Programme at Cambridge University, where he teaches police chiefs from the UK, US, Australia, India and Latin America.