The dust has finally settled on the Police and Crime Commissioner elections and there was a clear winner: apathy. In the West Midlands, turnout was just under 12%, the second lowest in the country and a figure that includes over 7,000 spoilt ballots. This is hardly a ringing endorsement for such a much-vaunted role.
The trouble is, the commissioner was always going to face a huge task: the region covered by West Midlands Police includes three million people, seven local authorities, and a geographical area encompassing wards of urban deprivation and rural affluence. Talking to people about their concerns during the election period revealed a range of worries, ranging from anti-social behaviour, to the closure of police stations and the need for quicker response times. So what are we to make of all this? Based on conversations with ordinary voters, I would suggest three key areas the new commissioner may want to consider.
The first is the issue of accountability and independence. While the low turnout was blamed heavily on the government’s reluctance to invest in awareness-raising flyers and mailshots another answer was apparent to anyone who spent time knocking on doors and talking to voters: people, rather than being indifferent, actively opposed the PCC role. The number of spoilt votes bears this out: there were 10 times more than in a normal general election. People were protesting and the reasons behind this protest cropped up time and time again. Voters were concerned about spending £100,000 a year on another politician with an ill-defined role. They were worried about the politicisation of policing, and the capacity of any party-affiliated commissioner to act independently solely in the interests of local communities. As such the new Commissioner needs to quickly and effectively establish his credentials as a voice of communities. Previously, a third of the public have said they have no idea who to complain to if they are not happy with the way their local area is being policed. The Commissioner needs to make the most of the visibility afforded by his new role to act as a lightning rod for complaints and concerns. Rather than be a remote overseer of the police, the new commissioner needs to act as a champion of the people. The difference is slight, but the public will recognise it.
The second issue is around developing more strategic thinking, especially with regard to the PCC’s commissioning function. The newly elected commissioner will have to work with a range of bodies,: ranging from Drug and Alcohol Teams, clinical commissioning groups, and community safety partnerships. At the moment, many of the problems the city faces require a joined up approach to the commissioning and delivery of services. Take gang crime, for example. In Birmingham alone there are an estimated 42 urban gangs, involving about 400 individuals. Between 2007 and 2010 the city recorded four gang-related murders and 22 attempted murders, costing Birmingham an estimated £6.15m to investigate. A brief conversation with many delivering anti-gang interventions will reveal a widespread feeling that there are gaps in the system. It can be hard to identify a clear ‘pathway’ of services that can be seen in other fields like healthcare (where people receive continuous support over time and where people are quickly signposted to different service options based on a thorough understanding of their needs). In contrast, our approach to gang crime tends to be a series of one-off interventions. Tackling this sort of piecemeal provision should be central to the commissioner’s approach to many of the issues worrying ordinary people: drug use, knife crime, and so on. A lot of these issues have been blighting the city for years. It’s time for a new approach.
Finally, there is the question of how to resolve the key issue our campaign centred around: stop and search. The winning candidate has made a pledge to reinstate the recording of stop and account and review how stop and search powers are conducted. It is important to recognise, however, that this is only the first step in the process of reducing inequalities in this area. Assuming a review of stop and search shows it is ineffective and discriminatory, what then? Unless we view stop and search within the wider picture of how the police interact with Black and minority ethnic communities (BME) – both on a day-to-day and strategic level – we’ll never address the causes, as opposed to the symptoms, of the problem. People repeatedly told us of negative experiences with police officers not necessarily connected with stop and search (in some cases, for example, it might be officers interacting with BME people when they’re victims of crime). If the new commissioner is to get to the heart of these issues, we need to think critically about what exactly dignity, respect, and fairness look like in terms of the police’s interaction with the public. What aspects of the experience are important? Why, precisely, do people have an uneasy feeling that police officers aren’t taking their concerns seriously? What exactly is it that happens when two people talk that stops them from engaging in a manner that is friendly and respectful? The new commissioner has the chance to change decades of negative press by stimulating some really radical thinking in this area.