One of the key areas I really wanted to explore in our recent evidence gathering visit in Essex was how the PCC tried to engage with local people about local policing issues. What we heard was that Nick Alston had made it his business to hold public meetings Essex-wide to ensure that the public had the chance to meet him face to face. He is, after all, the ‘voice of the public’ as an elected PCC. He also told us about challenge meetings which he comperes a session where the public can question the Chief Constable. The sessions are webcast and available on the PCC’s website afterwards. This is an important part of the PCC’s role of holding the Chief Constable to account.
Like many organisations in similar positions, Nick Alston reported that these sessions were not always very well attended. On a key issue like policing sometimes only as many as 30 people might turn up. Is that a signal of lack of interest or does it mean things are actually going well?
On the other hand, we heard from the councillors on the Police and Crime Panel that a move by the police to hold larger public sessions rather than small parish-level local meetings with police had caused an outcry that they were feeling in their postbags.
The Committee itself holds public hearings from time to time and knows that the public don’t always turn up to hear key evidence sessions unless they have a specialist interest or have a particular bugbear. That’s life. People have busy lives and often more pressing things to attend to.
But what does public engagement mean? Poor turnout doesn’t mean the openness demonstrated by offering the session is worthless.
The Home Secretary has just announced that PCCs might, in future, consider complaints about the police. Will this bring about a new level of public engagement?
When it was devised the role of PCC was intended to bring a more public focus to local policing. The PCC will hold the Chief Constable to account, the local Police and Crime panel scrutinises the PCC and the public can deal with the PCC at the ballot box.
But PCC elections were noted for poor electoral turnout. So what works to engage the public in an age of disengagement? It’s a question all PCCs must be asking themselves.
Comment by davidbfpo posted on
There is certainly an argument that in the last twenty years the police service has disengaged from the public.
Police priorities have always been different from the public's, as polling by 'Which' magazine showed awhile ago (not aware if they still do such polling now). The public want an emergency service, some serious crime investigated (murder notably) and then attention to 'low level' disorder e.g. kids playing football.
Along came nationally set KPIs and the police responded by an almost total dedication to 'fighting crime' by the numbers. Street robbery, house burglary and vehicle crime - which even today public meetings glaze over at the announced figures / successes.
Add in such factors as the police use of weapons, alleged harassment of the lawful motorist, deaths in custody and many more - the gap between the police and the public has grown wider.
Yes the police hold a few public meetings. It is rare for local senior officers, let alone a chief constable to engage directly with an unpredictable audience. Use is made of social media and some cite it is a 'two-way' process - though that is rare. One senior officer blogs regularly, but only once were any comments shown.
Have the still new PCC's made an impact on public engagement? My own PCC has certainly tried, although being a political party PCC some of their engagement was with their party, ostensibly in public meetings that were not advertised widely. "Letting off steam" can be valuable, on a topic like Stop & Search.
Now we face budget cuts (20-25%) which will change policing as we know it. The police's leaders will say 'neighbourhood policing' is the bedrock of British policing, time will tell if that is really true.
Being honest with the public would be a start. Is crime really down? Which parts of policing will cease soon? How many officers are patrolling a city centre on a Saturday night?
It is hard to recall an example of where either public engagement by a PCC and / or by a Chief Constable has actually led to a change of policy.
Why should the public engage if the politician and the professional continue as they want?