Usually people are too polite to put it that directly, but it’s always the question they want to ask.
They are right to. I’m paid a good salary from their taxes. I answer to them at the ballot box. I am responsible for a vital public service.
Last week provided two answers which, to me, capture the essence of the role: giving the public control. My first is local. The other is national.
A little over a year ago I raised my concerns about the police use of cautions in public. You can read how it was reported here.
When I arrived at Dyfed Powys, all I heard from senior staff was that we had the lowest crime and the highest detection rates in the country. I, being new, barely knew what that meant. I was sure that the public didn’t either.
What I knew was the many people had raised their concerns about how few cases made it to court. I knew from the figures that we were the highest users of cautions in the country. What I suspected was that officers were under pressure to get their ‘detection rates’ up.
One of the easiest ways to do that is to slap cautions on a bunch of relatively minor crimes, which usually means young people and often for possession of small amounts of cannabis (the one set of crime figures that officers were told should rise were drug crimes, because it supposedly meant the police were being more proactive).
Now, cannabis is illegal and possessing it a crime. I am not questioning that. But all law enforcement – all justice – is about balance and proportion. Creating crimes and criminal records for the young to meet bureaucratic targets is not justice, nor good law enforcement. So, I raised my concerns.
What followed were howls of outrage from parts of the police and grumbling about interference.
A year later I find myself looking at figures which show Dyfed Powys Police’s use of cautions has fallen 17%. More cases are going to court, where they are open to the public. Fewer are being dealt with in silence between officers and the accused.
We have a scrutiny panel which looks at how cautions are being used. As many as 60% of one early sample were ‘inappropriate’, i.e. the case should have gone to court. In the latest sample, 33% are. That’s still too many but it is a great improvement.
On Friday, as we discussed these figures in our Police Accountability Board, a statement was released in London.
The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) is to be scrapped. Its President, Sir Hugh Orde, will step down shortly. I have written about ACPO before, so I won’t rehearse the arguments. You can read them here.
Make no mistake. PCCs finished ACPO.
We stopped its funding because it had grown like a creeper around the brickwork of British policing. Local forces, local decision making, local needs were smothered in unchallengeable bureaucratese. ‘ACPO guidance’ assumed the writ of a holy text. Challenging it was all but impossible.
The end of ACPO is a credit to the work of Jane Kennedy, Martyn Underhill and particularly Matthew Ellis who led the painstaking work. I am delighted that a new generation of Chief Constables have now decided what they would like to replace it. And I wish Sir Hugh a happy, much deserved retirement.
Police policy must be subject to democratic scrutiny. It must reflect the needs of the times and the needs of different areas. That will become the job of the College of Policing, which must work hard not to fall into the same trap.
What connects these answers?
The public connects them. By giving the public power over their police, PCCs have ensured that the system serves the public, not the other way round.
Cautions are not there for police convenience. They are there as a deterrent to minor offenders. The police do not work for ACPO. They work for their public.
Nothing frustrates the public more than politicians who talk and cannot deliver. That much should be clear, from Scotland, to UKIP, to Westminster and Europe. A very basic lesson lies at the heart of this: nothing, no matter how high-minded or well-intentioned, lasts without public consent.
People are demanding power and politicians who deliver. That means power must be exercised closer to people, through devolution. But it also requires power to shift from officials towards the public, though stronger local democracy.
PCCs are already delivering this for the police. I hope the next Parliament will deliver still wider reforms in the years to come.