Keith Hunter gives his personal perspective on operational independence, based on his experiences as a senior police officer in Humberside, where he hopes to be the Labour candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner. If you have a perspective to share on TopOfTheCops.com let us know.
The creation of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) initiated widespread debate and significant resistance. The objection that most often came to the fore concerned politicisation and loss of independence of the police. As a former senior police officer I have personal experience of the potential effects of political interference in policing.
Whilst Chairing the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland, Lord Patten preferred the term ‘operational responsibility’ because of the implied accountability attached to ‘responsibility’, as opposed to the unfettered discretion implied by ‘independence’. I am happy to accept that as the basis for the relationship between the police and PCC.
It would be naive to believe there is no political influence in policing. The Home Secretary is a politician and sets the national agenda for policing; the majority of members of police authorities are also politicians. There is, however, a world of difference between setting the broad political context within which a strategy is formulated and becoming involved in decision making in specific operations. Where between those two points is the line drawn for PCCs? This will undoubtedly be tested once they are in place.
Some potential candidates may feel inclined to become involved in obviously operational decisions if they consider there are political considerations; I would argue this would undermine the whole basis of British policing.
I was the Gold Commander (in overall charge of policing) for the Round the World Clipper Yacht Race and Freedom Festival in Hull a few years ago. This was probably the largest series of events ever held in the Humberside area. After listening to advice I made a decision to close the major arterial route through Hull on public safety grounds. This was agreed by partners. I then came under significant pressure, channelled through political routes, to rescind my decision due to the effect this would have on some interests in the east of the city. I did not bow to this pressure and unprecedented numbers of people attended the event. General opinion was that there would have been a disaster if the road had not been closed. Politics would have left it open.
If I had bowed to pressure and left open the road and members of the public had been seriously injured or killed, would the people influencing my decision have taken one step forward or a few steps back when the subsequent enquiry called to account those responsible? Police officers are trained and paid to make those decisions and expect to be held to account for making them.
Some areas are less clear. For example, is it considered an operational matter or one of strategic direction to move from policing districts coterminous with local authority areas to a non-geographically based organisation? Police chiefs would argue it was operational but I suspect a number of potential PCCs would disagree. There is, of course, the new Policing Protocol which specifies the respective responsibilities of PCCs, Chief Constables and the Home Secretary. This document lacks any real detail however and can not be used as a practical guide. PCCs will have to tread carefully if we are to avoid a rush of judicial reviews and/or resignations of Chief Constables disrupting an already complex policing landscape.
This is a matter of the greatest significance in this election and beyond. I believe the instincts, ethics and record of every potential PCC should be carefully scrutinised during the coming campaign to ensure candidates understand and appreciate the significance of this issue and can be trusted to deal with the subtleties on behalf of the electorate.