Police and crime commissioners and the democratic governance of policing

The introduction of directly elected police and crime commissioners (PCCs) has reignited debates about the characteristics of ‘democratic policing’. Whilst policing commentators have frequently repeated variations on the refrain that PCCs are ‘the most radical police reform in half a century’, the novelty of this new structure for police governance and accountability means that we don’t yet know what its impact will be.  It is, as Ian Loader has argued, an ‘experiment in democracy’ (Loader, 2012).

Policing carried out by state agents is, and always has been, a ‘form of governing’ (Neocleous, 2000: 4). Historically, it was often the case that particularly fierce debates about how this ‘form of governing’ should itself be governed erupted at times when police tactics or operations were seen to bear down particularly heavily on working class or ethnic minority communities, or on sections of those communities. In other words debates about police governance heated up whenever the police were perceived to be ‘governing’ particular groups and activities in a manner which had more to do with giving expression to political prejudice, pursuing non-crime government objectives or supporting particular class interests, than with upholding the law. When, in short, policing got political.

But of course policing will always be political: the suppression of crime and anti-social activity is always ‘incomplete’; scarce resources will always have to be targeted in certain directions; decisions will have to be made; priorities set (Jefferson and Grimshaw, 1984; Jones, Newburn and Smith, 1994). The 1980s saw ongoing debate about whether the governance of the police should be achieved on the basis of what Marshall (1978) called an ‘explanatory and cooperative’ relationship between Chief Constables and their police authorities or whether, rather, Chief Constables should be ‘subordinate and obedient’ to the wishes of the local community as transmitted to them through their elected representatives. Labour local authorities were particularly vocal in advocating for the latter whereas the government and Chief Constables tended to favour the former, along with the retention of Lord Denning’s formulation of ‘operational independence’ (which tended, in practice, to work in favour of the Chief Constable).

Later, during the 1990s, a third model for achieving the governance of policing arose, which Reiner (2010) has described as ‘calculative and contractual’. This model hinged upon the adoption of performance measures and the setting of performance targets, and had its roots in the ‘New Public Management’ (NPM) approach to public services. This approach championed the adoption of a business-like mind-set throughout public services, with a particular focus on efficiency and effectiveness in the pursuit of clear and measurable objectives which were reflective of the demands made by the public as ‘consumers’. This mind-set fed into the Sheehy Report, the White Paper on police reform, and the Police and Magistrates’ Courts Act 1994, which some commentators described as instituting the effective quango-isation of police authorities, leaving them, in McLaughlin’s words ‘depoliticized and managerialized’ (McLaughlin, 2007: 183). Governing the police, then, came to mean something very different. And power, which had once been seen to rest with individual positions, shifted, at least partially, into the systems and ‘ways of knowing’ used to measure police performance.

But what has happened to power and politics under the new PCC model for governing policing? Under the PCC model:

  1. Policing activity should be focused on addressing the ‘priorities’ of the local community as identified by the PCC
  2. Chief Constables will be required to address those priorities effectively, or risk dismissal by their PCC
  3. PCCs will be monitored by Police and Crime Panels, who will be responsible for making information on the performance of the police and their progress against public priorities available to the public
  4. PCCs who are perceived to be failing to make their forces sufficiently ‘effective’ at addressing public priorities can be removed at election

Under this model policing is regarded as a business-like service which must be responsive to its consumers and efficient and effective at addressing their concerns. As such, the trappings of the ‘calculative and contractual’ model of police governance are being utilised as tools, some might weapons, by means of which it is assumed that chief constables will be rendered ‘subordinate and obedient’ to their PCCs (and thus to the voice of the people). Meanwhile, PCCs themselves only have to fear an ‘explanatory and cooperative’ level of governance via what appears to be the relatively toothless mechanism of Police and Crime Panels. (Although PCCs will, of course, also be subject to the much revered ‘discipline’ of the electoral process).

In a recent conference paper I attempted to think about the ways in which we might analyse the influence of PCCs on the local governance of policing. I was particularly interested in thinking about where the power to shape policing might now reside under this new model. I argued that as most PCCs say that they are going to listen to ‘the voice’ of the public we might want to start looking for power by examining just how they intend to do this. The claim to be able to hear local voices is quite significant, and we should not necessarily accept that because PCCs have been elected that they have somehow developed a special ability to ‘tune in’ to what the public are saying. Indeed, given that PCCs are required to make ‘arrangements’ for consulting with local people (and victims, and ratepayers) then we might assume that many PCCs, supported by their staff, will develop special mechanisms designed to help them ‘hear’ the public. The question is: what kind of mechanisms will they use?

In order to gauge the extent to which PCCs are indeed democratising policing it may well be useful to analyse how they and the people who work for them, understand a ‘voice’ and the act of ‘hearing’ that voice. Their research and consultation activities with members of the public are likely to include varied combinations of surveys, focus groups, community meetings, informal chats on walkabouts and so on. Through these activities PCCs and people working on their behalf will produce knowledge about what local people ‘want’ from their police. But before we accept this knowledge at face value we would do well to remember Foucault’s counsel that ‘[k]nowledge can only be a violation of the things to be known’ (Foucault, 2000 [1974]: 9 cited in O’Farrall, 2005: 67).

Foucault argued that in attempting to capture, categorise, analyse and represent reality researchers apply ‘procedures of intervention’ (Hughes and Sharrock, 2007: 331): their methods, categories and analytical frameworks intervene between the ‘things to be known’ and possible understandings of those things. As such, Foucault suggests that we should pay close attention to ‘how men govern (themselves and others) by the production of truth’ (Foucault, 1991: 9), or what he called ‘governmentality’.

Thinking in terms of governmentality moves us away from the traditional approach of thinking about the governance of the public police in terms of clashes of power between different individuals and groups over the control of policing and instead encourages us to think about the influence which different ways of knowing about what the public want from their police, have on the ‘pattern of policing’. By thinking in these terms we might start to think about how democratic ideals are (or are not) enacted in the way that different PCCs approach the matter of consulting with local people.

Dr Liz Turner is Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology in the Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology, University of Liverpool. Email: lizt@liv.ac.uk

One thought on “Police and crime commissioners and the democratic governance of policing

  1. Great blog! Thanks, Liz. I wonder – have you any initial thoughts on the ‘ways of knowning’ which have been demonstrated by any PCCs so far?

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