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Criminal justice

Police & Crime Commissioners vs Bobbies on the Beat: A zero-sum game?

Crowded street

In the wake of the latest local elections, Chi Kavindele, Catch22 Director of Local Development, discusses Police & Crime Commissioners, front-line policing and the role democracy plays in fighting crime.

As the dust settles on the recent local elections, new and re-elected Police & Crime Commissioners (PCCs) and Police, Fire & Crime Commissioners (PFCCs) have been getting on with the important business of being the voice of the people and holding the police to account.

At Catch22, we work with several PCCs across England. Together, we deliver a range of services such as helping victims of crime of all ages, supporting young people who are missing from home and young people involved in criminal or sexual exploitation by organised gangs.

We strongly support the notion that the PCC model has a positive impact on local communities. Catch22’s Assistant Director of Victim Services, Emma Jones, recently told BBC Politics East that we have found our partnerships with PCCs beneficial to ensuring that local services are fit for purpose and work for the local community.

Despite this, the existence of democratically-elected PCCs is contested. Of the arguments against PCCs, the one I come across frequently is that they are expensive and divert vital funds from much needed frontline policing. It is true that PCCs come at a cost. Research from the Liberal Democrat Party suggests that PCCs cost the taxpayer over £100m between 2019 and 2023, while over 1,200 community police officers have been lost over the same period. The research estimates that 3,800 community support officers (with an average salary of £26,634) could have been recruited with the funds used for PCCs. James Sandbach, the Liberal Democrat candidate for PCC for Suffolk at the May 2024 elections, even stood with a clear platform to abolish the Office of PCC in favour of more frontline policing if he were elected.

Therefore for some, PCCs vis-à-vis frontline police numbers is a zero sum game i.e. to have more of one you will must have less of the other. The major political parties say similar things about increasing police numbers. The Labour Party has made “getting neighbourhood policing back on the streets” their mission and the Conservative Party plan for 20,000 more police officers. So it’s clear that no one is arguing for less frontline police (apart from criminals maybe?). So where does that leave PCCs?

Unsurprisingly, I disagree with the view that the relationship between PCCs and frontline policing is a zero sum game. Rather, PCCs allow what funds we do have to be directed in a way that is reflective and accountable to local need. While PCCs may or may not be the perfect mechanism for this – in light of a gradual shift of responsibilities from PCCs to Regional Mayors, with PCC powers already held by the mayors of Greater London, Greater Manchester, York and North Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire – nevertheless the principle of democratic accountability driving effectiveness and efficiency is one which I believe we cannot afford to take for granted.

To my mind, democracy is about compromise, which in turn leads to better more meaningful outcomes. Jon Yates, author and head of the Youth Endowment Fund puts it well in his 2021 book Fractured, where he argues that more democracy in and of itself is not better. Rather, democracy is a means to allowing us to make better decisions using our finite resources. He cites the US as the country with the most elections – presidential elections all the way down to school boards, mosquito control boards and in Duxbury, Vermont, they even elect the local dog catcher! But as Jon Yates says – and I am inclined to agree – all these elections are useless if democracy fails to make compromise work, including where to spend money and on what.

Therefore, whether via PCCs, or via Regional Mayors over time, democratically elected office holders, holding the police to account, and setting budgets and objectives is an effective and efficient model, and it certainly should not be seen as being at the cost of frontline policing.

If you would like to find out more about our work with PCCs, don’t hesitate to get in touch at information@catch-22.org.uk