Within that dissatisfaction is frustration over lack of democratic control. Incredible as this sounds, police forces are only indirectly accountable to central government. The main leverage is funding, which is a moral hazard because whenever police forces fail they can blame funding. Boris Johnson has just celebrated the recruitment of 3,000 extra police officers towards his target of 20,000 (announced in 2019). But this is little comfort to those who don’t see police officers unless they’re dancing with Extinction Rebellion or marching in gay pride parades.
Home Secretary Priti Patel has just got around to asking the police to give up the recording of ‘non-crime hate incidents’ (i.e. your misgendered tweets). Note how she is exercising her power here: she is ‘asking’. That policy wasn’t set by the Home Office, it was set by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), which is not accountable to government, except in drawing some of its budget.
In theory, the advent of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) should bring democratic accountability back to policing at the county level. They were first elected in 2012, and you get your third chance to elect them today.
The trouble is that few voters understand PCCs, so few vote for them. The turnout is routinely below 25 per cent. The PCCs who get elected are those best at mobilising very small interest groups, which tend to be the police themselves. If you’re a candidate who promises to hold the police to account, expect a shadowy campaign of misinformation against you, whispers about your partisanship, ideology and extremism, complaints that you don’t know anything about policing.
Take Dorset, a rural county with no motorways but with a violent crime rate that has risen annually since 2011. You won’t get that picture from Dorset Police itself. Its website has a page on ‘statistics’ where the data are buried in a long list of obtuse questions and answers.
Dorset Police won’t come out for trespass, shoplifting, car break-ins, traffic offences, even burglaries. You don’t need to have heard of the ‘broken windows theory’ to imagine that wherever petty crimes are tolerated, serious crimes will follow.
Telephoning 101 to report crimes will keep you waiting ten minutes before anybody picks up the phone, then you will be treated with hostility for bothering the police. While you’re on hold, you’ll hear a recording that reporting online is easier. Yes, easier for the police, not for you. Online, you’ll go through five webpages of invasive and unnecessary questions about your demographics and motivations. The first webpage asks you if the crime is ongoing. Tick that box, and you’ll be directed to telephone 101. The automated recording on the 101 line will tell you to call 999 if the crime is ‘happening now’. But if you call 999 (which also, shockingly, will keep you on hold for minutes at a time) you’ll be angrily told to get off the line if the crime is not an ‘emergency’, whatever that means.
The police seem to think that they are some sort of exotic quick-reaction force, to sally forth only if terrorists are storming the beaches. But Dorset Police can’t handle the big stuff either, as they proved during the running battles between London gangs on Bournemouth’s beaches in summer 2020. The residents of Dorset dread the end of spring and the end of lockdown 2021, even though the businesses of Dorset need the tourists to survive.
A busy county needs a busy police force. So far as the police are busy, they are busy with non-crime hate incidents, harassing locals on whether their journey is really necessary (while turning a blind eye to long-distance lockdown-breakers on the beaches, probably because they are more likely to be ‘minorities’), virtue signalling online, and liaising with Stonewall and the latest transgender advocates. Police are invisible where it matters, oppressive where it doesn’t.
If you complain, eventually the police will just ignore you altogether. In any case residents are wary of complaining, lest the police retaliate by searching for non-crime hate incidents.
Dorset’s Police and Crime Commissioner is an apologist for bad policing. A former copper, Martyn Underhill ran in 2012 on the promise to ‘keep politics out of policing’. This promise was easy for voters to misinterpret as non-partisan. Indeed, he didn’t affiliate with any party. Nevertheless, he was political – a master of political spin. Complaints to the PCC will elicit, weeks later, a convoluted email about how the police don’t have the powers and/or resources to do anything, and the PCC doesn’t have the powers and/or resources to do anything. The PCC’s website is a glossy self-advertisement about ‘what we’ve achieved’ and the importance of ‘Stephen Lawrence Day’. Underhill has two staff dedicated to ‘communications’, two personal assistants, a head of operations, a chief executive – in total 13 full-time staff. The PCC is a protection racket – protecting the police more than the public.
Underhill has served nine years: two terms of four years each, and an extension when local elections were postponed from 2020 to 2021. Violent crime in Dorset continued to rise at the same rate every year he was in charge. He is retiring after drawing about £100,000 per year for doing nothing material, except to sign reports for the ACPO and ‘crime plans’ written by the police force itself.
Predictably, having seen the success of Underhill’s strategy, imitators want to repeat it. One of the candidates for Dorset’s PCC this year is also a former police officer, promising to be ‘independent’, asking the people to vote for ‘experience’, promising a ‘safer’ Dorset, but specifying no policies. He has an effusive endorsement from Underhill, who says he ‘knows him well’ and that he will keep party politics out of the police.
Britain’s policing needs party politics. Otherwise the police are unaccountable. Bring democracy back to policing. End the protection racket. Vote for a PCC who is not a former copper and who specifies an end to woke and irresponsible policing.