In Depth

What are police and crime commissioners - and have they made a difference?

Second PCC elections take place tomorrow, but tensions over their power and functions remain

150520-police.jpg

On Thursday 5 May, voters in England and Wales will be able to elect their local police and crime commissioner (PCC) for the second time since the position was created in 2012. However, public enthusiasm for the elections has been low and PCCs themselves have criticised the role.

What is the purpose of PCCs?

The role was created in the 2011 Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act to make policing more transparent to the community. PCCs are tasked with holding to account their local police force, the chief constable in particular.

It may sound a little wishy washy on the surface, but PCCs wield important powers, including control of the policing budget and strategy and the power to appoint or dismiss a chief constable.

How can I find out who my candidates are?

Voters can log on to the government's Choose My PCC site and access information about the candidates battling to represent their local police force in England and Wales.

The Home Office will be hoping turnout will be higher than in the inaugural 2012 elections, when less than 15 per cent of the electorate opted to cast their vote. In Gwent, south-east Wales, not a single person turned up at the polling station, the New Statesman reports.

However, that vote was a standalone affair while this year's will be integrated with other local elections, meaning a better turnout is likely.

Why are PCCs controversial?

To its supporters, the role of police and crime commissioners represents a victory for direct democracy and accountability, but detractors say they are a waste of money and can even be an obstacle to efficient policing.

Surprisingly, one of the most outspoken critics of the post was a PCC himself. West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner Bob Jones, who died last year, summed up the PCCs' impact as "£100m spent so far on making police accountability less effective".

Citing low electoral turnout, "hostile publicity" and "record numbers of investigations into PCCs and clashes between chief constables and PCCs", Jones concluded there was "not much evidence that PCCs have led to more confidence in policing or the governance of policing".

The fact that anyone can run for office has been a particular source of tension. "How the hell can you do the job if you don't know anything about policing?" Ian Johnston, a former police officer and the PCC for Gwent, asked.

High-profile embarrassments, such as the resignation of the first ever youth PCC, 17-year-old Paris Brown, over a string of racist and homophobic tweets, have done little to improve the public image of the role. More seriously, South Yorkshire PCC Shaun Wright was forced to step down because of his role as head of children's services in Rotherham between 2005 and 2010, during the time hundreds of vulnerable children were abused in the town.

Concerns have also been raised about a lack of appropriate checks and balances to the PCC's power. While a decision to dismiss a chief constable is subject to legal processes, the Home Select Committee said they provide "little safeguard".

"There is nobody - not the police and crime panel, not the Inspectorate of Constabulary, not even the Home Secretary herself - who can overrule a commissioner who has set his face to dismissing a chief constable," they warned in a 2013 report.

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