We were going to get here sooner or later. A Police and Crime Commissioner recently exercised his power and asked a Chief Constable to retire. This was always going to be a sensitive moment. Amidst all the fuss, we have heard a lot about protecting chief officers’ interests - but very little about strengthening accountability to the public. Whatever the details, the reaction demonstrated exactly why police reform was needed.
Directly elected commissioners were introduced to give people a say about how they are policed. They are firmly in the tradition of British policing - in which local forces are answerable to local people through democratic controls. They set budgets, priorities and employ Chief Constables.
The commissioner in question, Ian Johnston, asked his Chief Constable, Carmel Napier, to retire. She agreed. So far, so normal. This could have been a retirement like any other, on a full pension with both parties’ dignity intact. We have since been told that this retirement was "not a time of her choosing". Notes of the meeting leaked. What followed was a deliberate effort to question the reforms on the politically emotive premise of "operational independence".
The police must be accountable. In a local system like ours, that accountability must also be local. In creating Police and Crime Commissioners, Parliament quite deliberately changed the relationship between people and their police forces. It tipped the balance in favour of the public, making Chief Constables answer to an elected local representative. The relationships are clear. Commissioners hold Chief Constables to account. They, in turn, are accountable to the public at the ballot box.
To be accountable, commissioners must be able and willing to act. Nothing frustrates voters more than politicians who are incapable of doing anything. Yes, they hold significant powers. But, like the Mayor of London, we also face our electorates alone. If we don’t deliver, we get voted out. Before commissioners, unelected and largely invisible Police Authorities might have made decisions like this. ACPO would have made the same kind of fuss, aimed at the Authority Chairman. You can bet on that.
In fact, seventeen members on a committee did not improve accountability. They hid it. Like most committees, they diffused rather than strengthened responsibility. Difficult decisions were ducked. As a result, Police Authorities became shields for the police rather than a voice for the public. Commissioners must not do the same. I, like many colleagues, inherited a creaking and grossly inefficient governance structure and some eye-watering senior staff contracts. Chief Constables ran forces largely unchecked. That might explain the discomfort some are so eager to express now.
Where is the public in this debate? What matters to them is that their homes and families are kept safe. They will pass their judgement on their Commissioners’ ability to deliver that in May 2016. We are acutely aware after our first few months just how much we have to do.
The nub of the issue in Gwent was that the Chief Constable refused to accept Parliament’s decision and the role of the Commissioner. That is not in the public interest. The relationship between Commissioner and Chief Constable is crucial. If it is broken, any responsible Commissioner would have a duty to correct it. Of course operational independence is sacrosanct. Just as an NHS manager would not tell a surgeon how to conduct open heart surgery, Commissioners cannot direct police investigations, arrests or operations. No Chief Constable would allow it. No Commissioner would wish it.
But much of the recent discussion has been about protecting insider interests and attempting to unpick the reforms. Both are indicative of a culture that is still struggling to adapt. ACPO’s leadership have ridden into political territory with a freedom that no senior civil servant or General would dare assume. Arguments like this detract from the fact that the majority of Commissioners are settling in remarkably well. Ours was not an easy birth. Everyone accepts that. But within these new arrangements are huge opportunities to improve public safety - with less bureaucracy, clearer direction and greater accountability.
There is a power to direct accountability - with clearly defined budgets and responsibilities - that local government sorely lacks. Witness the success of London's mayor. The new generation of Commissioners can bring that to their forces. With Chief Constables we are now able to put the public firmly back at the heart of policing.
Chief Constables will always be the policing experts. Police and Crime Commissioners’ job is to challenge and question. The police must change. Over the years, police forces have become increasingly remote from ordinary people. Technology has transformed crime and society alike. The police are still typing up paper notes. Within every force are thousands of people dedicated to protecting their communities. Too often the institution around them is preoccupied with protecting itself, whether by resisting outsiders or piling management targets on its staff.
Changing that is about culture and leadership. It will take time. It will only succeed where relationships at the top are respectful, clear and unambiguous. That is why the accountability of Chief Constables to Commissioners is so important, as is Commissioners’ accountability to the public. Politics and police make uncomfortable bedfellows, but bedfellows they have always been. We will succeed best where we focus on our strengths. Senior officers would do well to let politicians do the politics, then the police can get on with policing.