This has been a turbulent week for the police; significant cuts in funding have been announced and the new Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill is set to address the accountability deficit inherent in the current governance structure.

Last week, Home Secretary Theresa May told the Police Federation Conference in Bournemouth that the service will “bear a fair share of the burden” of pending cuts in public spending. This became a reality on Monday when the coalition government announced that the Police force in England and Wales would shoulder £135 million of £367 million in Home Office cuts. The police force is already in the throes of an efficiency drive which seeks to make savings of £500 million through spending cuts on overtime pay, recruitment and consultancy. The force is currently struggling with existing requirements so the new cuts are likely to have big implications for services.

In such gruelling financial times, it will be interesting to see whether public engagement is seen as surplus to requirements, or that if done well, good engagement represents an opportunity and not a luxury during the recession by building public acceptance and ownership of tough spending decisions, whilst effectively conveying what institutional changes that lie ahead.

Presently, the police have several mechanisms which they use to engage communities in the services they provide: Local Strategic Partnerships (LSP’s), Community Safety Partnerships (CSPs), Community & Police Engagement Groups (CPEG’s) and Safer Neighbourhood teams. This is in addition to large numbers of Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs). To varying degrees of success, all the above place communities at the heart of police decisions. Such policy mechanisms strive to incorporate the needs of local people, yet none are directly accountable (by formal election) to the communities they serve.

For this reason, those seeking direct accountability in policing will welcome the new Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill outlined in the Queen’s speech on Tuesday (25th May). The central pillar of the bill is to “to make the police service more accountable to local people”. This is to be achieved through elected individuals representing the concerns of their local population. It should be noted that in 2008 similar proposals were put forward by the then Home Secretary Jacquie Smith, these were shelved at the last minute due to opposition from senior officers and many in local government.

Advocates of the bill suggest that a providing the chief constable with a clear mandate may improve police performance and provide a visible individual who the public know is responsible for policing, whilst having the capacity to hold such an individual to account. Proponents of the direct election of Police Commissioners cite the USA as a case in point, where elected sheriffs have the power to control policing in their counties, enabling them to have the flexibility to implement innovative approaches in dealing with crime.

Despite these potential benefits, this week some members of local government have argued that the police will be left vulnerable to populist political predators, whilst some sections of the police force fear their independence will be jeopardised. Further potential criticisms levelled at the new bill include: the potential risk of low levels of participation when democratising a level of governance that the public are not fully aware of. Geographical scale – a directly elected force commissioner would not provide the public with an immediate say on how their local community is policed, as accountability at a force level may be too distant from the needs of local neighbourhoods.

Without any meaningful process of public engagement, the new bill could well fall victim to such concerns. In order for the public to truly engage and participate in the shaping of their local police services, surely it is imperative that they are appropriately informed, in light of the influence they will soon possess? Such significant structural system reorganisation manifestly requires the public to be sufficiently aware of and engaged with some of the tangible differences this new bill will engender. Indeed, its very name- the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill- is indicative of the crucial role an engaged public must play in strengthening the synergy between people and police force.

It has been consistently shown that public engagement in decision making leads to more effective outcomes, responsive to the needs local communities. In times of economic austerity, where service rationalisation is a reality, choices regarding where such cuts should be made need to be given consideration by the communities they affect. This would empower local communities to identify local needs and set local priorities. Perhaps at this juncture, it is worth reflecting on Robert Peel’s second principal of policing “The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions”.

By Omar Deedat