You don’t need to look far to establish the reasons for a low turnout for the police and crime commissioner elections last year. Like most days in mid-November, today is cold and wet, yet this is the day the coalition government thought appropriate to entice people to the polling station.
To make matters worse, the government decided that they weren’t going to tell anyone what the role was about or pay for any leaflets to allow the public to know for what policies each of the candidates were standing. My team and I had to try and contact a million voters ourselves. I was pleased to be elected on first preferences alone.
The Fabians have some of the same principles that I want to see encapsulated in Northumbria such as greater equality of power. I have the police budget so when the people tell me what they want the police to do, I can make sure they do it. The public set the five priorities in my police and crime plan and I scrutinize how it is being delivered – checking the performance figures, questioning the chief constable and triangulating via local councillors, frontline junior officers and the great Northumbrian public.
We tackle inequalities. I have an inclusive way of working which involves local residents, who volunteer as independent custody visitors, serve on my scrutiny panel to dip sample police complaints, and support women and children who have experienced domestic violence.
There is a growing cohort of special constables, who match the communities they police quite closely and bring experience into policing from a great range of day jobs. My advisory panels are diverse and represent the protected strands in the Equality Act. We meet bi-monthly so that the communities least likely to get good public services, and more likely to be victims such as the disabled and the elderly have my ear directly.
Under the old regime of Police Authorities, the committee-based structure was slower and decision-making was bureaucratic. The commitment and knowledge of seconded members was very variable and nobody was voted by the public into their role.
As a visible single elected representative I have to be fully and wholly committed to this job and so police governance has been not only democratised but also professionalised. There is no doubt that even after the low profile start caused by the government mishandling the election, more and more people and organisations know who I am and what a commissioner does. Our postbag is testimony to that.
I’m also particularly proud that my personal office is £1.2 million cheaper to run that that of the old Police Authority in its last year of operation and this money has been reinvested into policing.
Now, decisions can be taken quickly and plans translated into action. My role as police and crime commissioner allows me to bring together all the responsible partners and take effective action when it’s needed most.
Let me give an example. A 17 year old girl in Newcastle had been on a night out with friends, got separated from them and was ejected from a nightclub for being drunk. She was raped.
Although there had been a lot of work done in Newcastle city centre by the local area command and the Safe Newcastle Partnership, it was clear that we had to do more.
Door staff needed to see that their work obligation could not oust their ordinary duty of care to someone needing help. Their employers had to agree. Police officers who see a woman, worse for drink, walking down an unlit alley with a man, need to check if all is well. It seemed little known that having sex with a person who is too drunk to decide whether to consent or refuse is the criminal offence of rape. It was not appreciated that an ordinary-looking male who says he is seeing a woman safely home, may be a predator not a Samaritan.
We developed what is a simple training package for all police officers and door staff. We accounted for the need for people in the night time economy to look after themselves, and there have been many campaigns to that effect, but all we are encouraging is for people to take a protective step for someone who isn’t safe.
The package was delivered within weeks and has been taken on nationally by the Security Industry Authority and ACPO as compulsory for both cohorts. A quick win for a PCC. Where the system works, it works well, and democracy in police governance is unlikely to be rowed backwards now.
Looking at the years ahead, we pioneers must try to shape the development of the role or perhaps build a directly elected collective.