It’s still too early to judge new Police Commissioners

April 9, 2013

One of the criticisms of November’s elections for the new Police and Crime Commissioners was the lack of publicity garnered by the Government and the low turnout that inevitably greeted a vote held on a dark November day. Well, we’ve all certainly heard of one of the newly-elected PCCs now. The past few days has seen Kent’s PCC inadvertently pushing the maxim “any publicity is good publicity” to the limit.

On Thursday, Ann Barnes was busy touring TV stations with her newly-appointed, seventeen year old ‘Youth Commissioner’. For about 48 hours, it seemed like great PR – with Paris Brown talking eloquently about her desire to reconnect the police with young people.

By yesterday morning, as the Mail on Sunday splashed on the contents of Miss Brown’s juvenile, silly and sometimes offensive Twitter feed, it was looking altogether a far less clever move.

The fact that someone in Ann Barnes’s office should have vetted Paris Brown’s internet history before recruiting her to a £15,000 a year job is indisputable. This failure (and, of course, Brown’s own immaturity) has  unfortunately led to a seventeen year old girl bearing the brunt of the kind of hostile media attention that even the most seasoned politician would struggle to deal with.

Kent’s electorate will come to their own views about whether a Youth Commissioner, part-funded by the PCC’s own salary, is a good idea. But there are now, inevitably, question marks about Paris Brown’s ability to perform a useful function in effectively representing young people’s views. And it’s also possible we’ll see further stories, as pictures and posts from other social media sites will no doubt be being hunted down by reporters.

Let’s be clear: this is bad publicity. What has happened in Kent was avoidable and embarrassing. But the idea that it tells us anything deep and meaningful about the government’s police reforms is clearly nonsense.

The Mail on Sunday took the opportunity, in its accompanying editorial, to call the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners a “gimmick”, arguing that PCCs have done little to change an “unresponsive and remote” police service, which has grown apart from local communities.

But PCCs have been in post for just over four months. They are still recruiting key staff and setting up their offices – often in the face of criticism from people who seem to believe PCCs can effectively function without any help whatsoever (and have the time to trawl old Twitter feeds for offensive material). And even though they took office in these brand new roles just a few months ago, many – including Ann Barnes – have already published bold reform plans aiming to deal with forces’ challenging financial situations, protect front-line policing services and help ensure that the record crime reductions of the last few years are maintained.

Policy Exchange was the first think tank to advocate for the introduction of PCCs almost a decade ago. We strongly believe that these new figures can hold the key to bringing about a more locally-responsive, joined-up response to crime – and increase public confidence at the same time. Yes, it’s true that if the Lib Dems hadn’t insisted on November elections, PCCs would have much stronger mandates. And, of course, there will be a bit of ‘bumping into the furniture’ while PCCs establish themselves and get to grips with their complex, challenging roles. But PCCs are far from being a gimmick and it’s simply too early to judge their introduction now – and far too easy to write them off before they’ve even got started.

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