Elected police and crime commissioners can be 'absolutely bleeding hopeless', report told

Lizzie Dearden
PCCs are in charge of force funding and have the power to hire and fire chief constables: PA

Elected police and crime commissioners (PCCs) are “not that bright”, make “perverse decisions” and are mainly “absolutely bleeding hopeless”, a damning report has found.

Research commissioned by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) found police officers may be increasingly reluctant to lead forces across England and Wales because of a perceived “hostile environment” created by PCCs, government cuts and rising crime.

One retired chief constable described the PCC who decided his force’s budget as “totally politically-driven and not that bright”, adding: “He was the most difficult person I’ve ever worked with in my public service.”

Another retired chief told how they were pressured to allocate more officers to an area where their PCC’s political supporters were based to boost their campaign, while another said their PCC: “Wanted to do dreadful things to the force’s budget that would not have been sustainable just so he could get re-elected.”

Another PCC “became a politician”, said a different chief constable. “He made some obtuse and perverse decisions and would not see a different perspective. The evidence and facts would make no difference.”

Even a person who served as a PCC themselves had a dim view of their colleagues, saying: “You must not assume that being eccentric and having lousy judgment are prerequisites for the job, even though some of my PCC colleagues exhibit these characteristics in spades.

“There are six or seven really good PCCs who are transforming the policing landscape, perhaps up to a dozen who have opened up the system and made policing transparent, and about 22 who are absolutely bleeding hopeless.”

NPCC’s chair Sara Thornton says findings ‘reinforce the importance and urgency of addressing a number of familiar issues’ (PA)

The research was commissioned by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) to investigate why the number of officers applying to lead forces has dropped.

It found an “unprecedented turnover of chief constables”, meaning current post-holders are less experienced and will serve for under four years on average.

MPs on the Home Affairs Committee have raised concerns about the low number of applications for the role, with more than half of chief constables appointed in 2015 as the only candidate.

The outlook was – in public at least – more positive at the joint NPCC and APCC annual conference in November, where Ms Thornton said police chiefs and PCCs were “increasingly working together” in their “important and different roles”.

But criticism of elected PCCs, in concept and practice, has not gone away.

Some senior officers have told The Independent they feel the move politicised policing after the majority of candidates were voted in on party tickets.

Others complained of bloated and overlapping leadership structures, where clashes between big egos in senior roles can frustrate those working further down the chain.

PCCs were introduced by the Coalition government to replace police authorities after being proposed in both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat manifestos. The first elections took place in 2012.

They fall along the same regional lines as the 43 Home Office police forces in England and Wales and are charged with holding the chief constable to account, controlling finances and taking money from council tax.

The reforms were intended to make policing more transparent and publicly accountable, but respondents to the NPCC’s report called the resulting structure “bonkers” and “bizarre, unhelpful and dysfunctional”.

Several raised fears the addition of 43 PCCs to 43 chiefs had made calls for some smaller forces to amalgamate to save money and pool their abilities impossible to take forward.

One PCC was accused of ordering their chief constable not to publicly call for the move, while other officers said they felt pressured to agree with the PCCs or put their jobs on the line.

PCCs are able to fire chief constables and can ignore advice from HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and the Police and Crime Panel to do it.

One retired chief constable complained there were “no checks” on their decision-making, and another asked: “How can you put so much power in the hands of one person?”

There were suggestions that fears of dismissal were discouraging experienced officers from applying to become chief constables, alongside their pensions entitlement and the impact on their family and working lives.

“The PCC’s ability to almost arbitrarily remove the chief constable is very worrying,” one candidate said.

“Why would any sane person place their operational independence and financial security at the whim of a politician?” another asked.

“I have worked too long to place my personal reputation on the line and place it at risk of being thrown under a bus for political expediency. The private sector is now more attractive than ever.”

The report contained isolated examples of chief constables who had good relationships with their PCCs, but they acknowledged their situations were “lucky”.

It raised concerns over four female chief constables who left their posts early because of conflict with male PCCs who were retired police officers, including one who was described as a “vindictive, misogynistic bully”.

The NPCC recommended strengthening oversight of PCC decisions, demanded greater clarity around the different roles and called on the government to draw up new laws banning recently-retired officers applying for the post.

Chief Constable Sara Thornton, chair of the NPCC, said the findings “reinforce the importance and urgency of addressing a number of familiar issues”.

Describing the officers’ comments as “candid”, she added: “We must listen to them, properly consider what they have to say and look at where we can make positive change.

“Police chiefs and PCCs all agree on this and we will be working together as part of a roundtable hosted by the College of Policing, looking at all the evidence, to help us do exactly that.”

Mark Burns-Williamson, chair of the Association of PCCs, said it was committed to addressing the “barriers and obstacles” stopping new chief constables applying.

“The current group of chief constables are highly capable and experienced,” he added. “However, it must be in the interests of the public and policing to ensure a strong and diverse flow of talent through the ranks.”

Chief Constable Mike Cunningham, CEO of the College of Policing, said it was reviewing selection and training processes.