University  criminologist Professor Peter Squires writes of his fears that the new police commissioners will lead to populist “tough justice”.

The Police Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections are to be held today (November 15) but despite the late smattering of advertisements on TV and elsewhere, there is still substantial uncertainty about what these new commissioners are for; there are ambiguities about their role; and, in the light of these uncertainties, there is a degree of trepidation about just how many people will actually bother to go out and vote for them.

Some commentators are anticipating the lowest turn-outs ever achieved in modern British elections.

Only last week a former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Ian Blair, ventured the opinion that he thought the PCCs were a bad idea and he hoped no-one would vote for them. Other senior police officers, in more or less unguarded moments, have likewise added their own thoughts along the spectrum of reactions.

And here, of course, lies the dilemma. The PCCs have been introduced, it is said, to bolster the accountability of local police chiefs to their communities; to help local people to ‘have a say’ in the determination of local policing priorities.


This direct local accountability has been deemed to be lacking in the existing structure of the 17-member- strong police authorities, comprised of councillors, magistrates and key community figures, and so these bodies are being replaced by directly elected individuals – the PCCs.

PCCs will oversee the hiring and firing of chief constables, will bring financial accountability to police budgets, and will have to be consulted over local issues and police strategic priorities. But, of course, all this falls flat, the democratic accountability argument flounders, if no one – or only a small minority – bother to vote.

One of the initial issues about direct PCC elections has involved the concern that the office might be “captured” by advocates of a special or minority interest; something that is rather more likely to happen with a low turn-out.

As it happens, candidates from the established political parties now dominate the candidate lists, so the further argument that local elections – though just how ‘local’ is an election covering the whole of Sussex – would help the ‘best candidates for the job’ to emerge, also loses credibility if people simply vote for the party line.

Commentators have also questioned the PCC role itself, concerned that it may entail the ‘politicisation’ of local law and order.

Nationally, law and order is clearly political, but the local police, it is argued, should not to be drawn into politics; so just what does it mean to say that police priorities will be influenced by local interests.


It cannot be that, in any given police force area, certain crimes will be overlooked as a matter of policy but if, as a matter of policy, officers are deployed in some areas of work, rather than others, then this is likely to amount to the same thing.

Some research undertaken in the School for Applied Social Science, UoB, casts a little light on this. A few years ago we analysed some results from a local authority survey of residents about their ‘policing priorities’ and while – no surprises here – virtually everyone responding wanted more police on the beat (though, remember, police budgets are currently facing 20-25% cuts, so this ‘public priority’ might be difficult to sustain today) those responding were drawn overwhelmingly from white, middle-aged, middle-class and predominantly male, householders.

The priorities emerging reflected their particular interests, and no-one at all mentioned offences involving racial harassment, homophobia, or domestic violence.

We called these “submerged priorities” although no-one would seriously argue that, today, the police should not prioritise these issues.

I made these points in a recent talk to a Sussex Police Authority conference. A similar point relates to the ‘youth question’.

Interviewed in the street by a journalist, many members of the public, challenged to say something about the crime and disorder problems of their area, mention the ubiquitous “youths hanging about and anti-social behaviour”.

In case we needed a reminder, even the TV advertising about the PCC elections shows a few grainy CCTV images of yobbish behaviour by youths – maybe the broadcasters felt we wouldn’t recognise it.

Again, there are no surprises here, the late teens are, after all, the peak age for offending by males, but, and here is the point: how does this factor into police priority setting?

The PCC elections provide an opportunity for people to cast a priority about youth, but they do not provide a vehicle for the views of youth. As it is, young people generally are the least likely to report criminal victimisation against themselves – the recent Savile revelations confirm this yet again – and they invariably report the lowest rates of trust and confidence in the police.

These “citizens of the future” are still a submerged priority.

Youth issues

And this brings us on to the final points, whether we are discussing youth or any other local crime problems, we are electing Police and Crime Commissioners, but why is it automatically implied that policing is necessarily the most efficacious response to our crime problems?

To continue the youth-related point, if most police time is taken up with the behaviour of young people perhaps more value for money could be derived from investing in youth clubs and youth services – this would have the added benefit of helping prevent crime, and youth criminalisation, rather than merely responding to it.

Interestingly, the really radical potential of the PCCs is that they can, if convinced of the finance and crime reduction arguments, reallocate funding around the crime management services they have available, even laying off police officers and appointing more youth workers.

Other commentators have anticipated an even greater danger in the possibility of cash-strapped PCCs contracting out – privatising – substantial areas of expensive policing activities to rather cheaper private security agencies, although Labour’s slate of PCC candidates appear to have vowed not to do this.

Of course, there is something about the election of a Police and Crime Commissioner that implies that policing is, above all, the appropriate primary response to crime and, in that sense, electing local law enforcement officials does, finally, fall into the trap exposed by the American precedent we are following in this ‘reform’.

‘Punitive’ I’m not suggesting that electing PCCs is the thin end of a long wedge and that, in a matter of years, we will also be directly electing our local truant catcher, dog warden and so on (although this is not an argument against directly electing local Fire Service commissioners, or health, housing or education chiefs – indeed, why not?).

On the contrary, the lesson of our American precedent is that electing local law enforcement officials does politicise local policing, and, more than that, it acts as a vehicle for mobilising a tough, some call it ‘populist’ or ‘punitive’, response to crime whereby throwing more police at social problems is seen as the only way to go, and certainly the only way to get elected.

More 'light'

Speaking as a criminologist, I’m convinced that in dealing with crime we need more ‘light’ rather than more ‘heat’ on these issues.

Beyond that we need a process that allows multiple interests and issues to surface as priorities: accountabilities rather than accountability.

How achievable this is in a process to elect a single PCC remains a question, especially when the Government has invested so little democratic resource into these elections.

Our best hope, for the moment, however, is that enough people participate in the election to prevent the process becoming a vehicle for a narrow and partisan set of interests and that, once elected, PCCs make strenuous efforts to draw around them a wide and diverse range of interest groups truly reflective of the communities they are intended to serve.

Find out more about the candidates and see more news about the Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner election at The Argus' dedicated page: