I’ve been quoted in the Mail on Sunday today. In the true spirit of journalism – first simplify, then exaggerate – not quite all of what I said made it through.
So, here’s the full text of what I wrote for them…
Plebgate strikes at the heart of our democracy. Police culture must change.
Do scandals get bigger than this? When Andrew Mitchell lost his cool at the gates of Downing Street last year, he can hardly have expected to pay with his job. What followed were leaked police logs, apparently falsified statements, denial and police briefings against his integrity. As public pressure grew, he had little choice but to resign.
It now turns out that his version is rather more consistent than the police version.
In our ancient democracy, an elected minister has had his career ruined by what appears uncomfortably close to a police conspiracy. It doesn’t get much more serious.
In truth, though, the plebgate affair highlights much wider problems. Of course the vast majority of officers serve with great distinction. They are an honour to work with and the very best of our communities. They are selfless, dedicated and a source of national pride.
But the culture around them is too closed, too defensive, too politicised and, in some cases, feral. Police representatives have merrily trotted into political territory in a way that would shame a solider or civil servant. But they have neglected problems in their own back yard.
For the sake of all those dedicated officers who wince every time they read a plebgate headline we must break open that culture. That requires greater transparency and fresh leadership.
The government introduced Police and Crime Commissioners to give the public greater control over their police – to put the law-abiding in charge of law enforcement. The good ones are doing just that, speaking for their public; not their police.
A new generation of Chief Constables is also emerging, determined to address the smears against their profession. Even more importantly, they will soon be joined by officers who have entered directly into higher ranks. This will include Chief Constables from other common law jurisdictions, such as Canada and Australia. All this will help break the closed shop culture.
Meanwhile we must tackle the problem of the police investigating themselves. There are three problems. The complaints process is too complicated, too legalistic and – crucially – lacks public involvement.
There will always be things only the police can investigate. Officers must be able to make unpopular decisions with confidence that they will be supported. But the public must have confidence too and it’s not just Andrew Mitchell whose faith has been shaken.
Since being elected as Police and Crime Commissioner in Dyfed Powys last year I have received hundreds of letters from the public. None will attract the attention that Mitchell’s case has but they reflect the same concerns.
Small issues get lost in a complicated and legalistic process. There are delays, poor communication and obscure legal technicalities to navigate. In one recent appeal, the IPCC said it would take up to twenty-six weeks to deal with the case. In the meantime you are left to dwell on injustice. Resentment and frustration festers.
Eventually, people give up and assume the police are simply protecting themselves. Even if they’re not, the suspicion is very hard to remove. The very complexity of the system is weighted against the public.
The vast majority of cases can be solved with a polite word or an apology. That’s what most people want. Increasingly, thanks to the work of local officers, that’s what they’re receiving.
But, for more complicated cases we need a system of local oversight to give confidence to the public and police alike. The best way to help is to keep them out of Byzantine bureaucracies where delays, lawyers and appeal bodies create mountains of paperwork and a sea of angst.
Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Many PCCs want to give the public greater oversight of police complaints. We are already experimenting with different models to make the system more local and more transparent. That way we can fix things quickly, with public confindence. Of course the IPCC must always be there for appeals and serious cases.
Avon and Somerset have a residents panel to scrutinise police complaint files. The Wiltshire Police and Crime Commissioner has an independent adjudicator. The Yorkshire forces and Humberside are exploring other models. That is the strength of local innovation and the power of local accountability.
We are clear that we are here to speak for our public. Our jobs depend on it. The police do not need Police and Crime Commissioners to defend them. They are quite capable of that themselves. The greatest service we can offer the police is the same as what we give the public. That is to challenge, to question and to demand better.
Not all officers will like this. No doubt the Police Federation will resist. But all those who love British policing should reflect on the fact that an elected cabinet minister has lost his job in decidedly murky circumstances. So far, a year on, apparently no officer has a case to answer. What does that say about our democracy?
Trust in our police is a fundamental principle in our society. We cannot operate without it. That is not something I am prepared to let slip. Nor are the majority of my fellow PCCs.