Matthew Davies writes:

Last Friday, Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) were elected across 41 police force areas in England and Wales – charged with making their local police forces more democratically accountable.  In the run-up to the elections, members of the centre were involved in several events which touched upon various issues surrounding the policy.

Oxford hosted public hustings for the 6 candidates in Thames Valley, chaired by Ian Loader. Turnout to the event was one of highest of all the hustings events in Thames Valley. However, it seemed that this did not translate into turnout at the elections - just 10.9% came to the polls in Oxford. Perhaps the candidates did little to inspire those at the hustings – indeed, there was little between the candidates in terms of substantive policy. But of course this was not the only issue, and there has been a plethora of post-mortem analyses concerning low turnouts nationally (e.g. lack of publicity, novelty of the role, timing of the elections, voter apathy etc.). But everyone had been expecting a low turnout anyway.  The elections have passed, and until the next elections in 3 and a half years, we won’t have a choice about the candidates representing our force areas. Inevitably attention is starting to consider what comes next: how PCCs will undertake the role, whether they will offer anything really different to what went before, and what kind of implications their introduction will have on policing.

It was this last point – the effects of PCCs on policing – that was discussed at the Police and Policing Research Discussion Group seminar a week before the elections. The final segment of the afternoon was a debate (featuring myself and Ian Loader, among others), which explored what policing might be like after a decade of electing PCCs. Out of the discussion it emerged that there may be some cause for optimism beyond meagre election turnouts – greater space for public engagement, more transparency, fruitful partnerships, opportunities for removing ‘immovable’ chief constables and less central management. But of course, equally there are concerns – a simplification of the police mandate (i.e. ‘cutting crime’), pandering to popular wishes to the detriment of other less visible important police work, and whether the Home Office will be able to ‘let go’ in practice.

Further questions were also raised at the All Souls seminar on PCCs, featuring Jon Collins and Mike Hough, that took place on the day of the elections. Jon Collins’ analysis of all the standing candidates suggested that little would initially change, in a context where budgets are constrained and where many of the candidates were coming from police authority backgrounds.  Mike Hough also pondered on the workability of the artificial divide between operational independence of the police and strategic responsibility of the PCC.

But these are challenges, not inevitabilities. As the success of independent candidates illustrated, many of us make predictions which are merely that, and not reflections of what will happen. Of course, for a policy that purports to democratically reinvigorate the police, such low voter turnout is no doubt embarrassing. But it is not necessarily an indictment of the next few months and years to come. Answering the question of whether PCCs will work in the long run depends on what is meant by ‘work’, but it is clear that there will not be a uniform answer – there are 41 experiments in democratic accountability taking place around the country and the most exciting developments may be yet to come.