Sir Hugh Orde, the chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), has had a pretty successful career in the Police, handling difficult jobs like the inquiry into the the circumstances of the murder of Stephen Lawrence and ultimately becoming second head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. He is not a man with a political axe to grind.
Therefore, his forceful criticism of Conservative proposals to place local Police forces under the control of new directly elected commissioners should be taken seriously. In recent years, there has been much discussion of the problems of modern policing. The challenges of international terrorism, drug trafficking and organised crime are said to require a wholesale reform to the smaller county-based forces that are the backbone of British crime fighting. Leaving aside the fact that the largest crime investigation of recent years- the search for the Lockerbie bombers- was led by the smallest force, that of Dumfries and Galloway, there clearly are questions about how the pooling of expensive resources such as forensics can be done in the most effective way.
Despite this emerging debate around policing, public accountability is not the major problem. Police Forces are already supervised by local Police Authorities which are made up of elected local councillors and independent members who are appointed through public advertisements and at least one of which should be a Magistrate. The role of these Independent Police Authorities is to set the policies and the budget for local forces and ensure that it is followed. The Authority already has the power to hire and fire chief constables.
On the face of it, the Conservative proposal to replace this committee system with directly elected commissioners looks like gimmickry in its purest form. Sir Hugh Orde is right to point out that this commissioner would be a political figure that would not supervise but essentially command the force- and this breaks a fundamental principle that underlies the non-political operations of Policing in the UK.
The Tories say they would "consult" on this proposal, but the fact that they say that they "remain committed" to Commissioners suggests that this will be a pretty one-sided exercise. A real consultation would focus on issues of resources rather than on issues of public accountability. When senior professional Police officers say that they would rather resign rather than operate under a system of commissioners, it is not just minor adjustments to the idea that are needed- it should be sent straight back to the drawing board.
Policing is too important to be subjected to the half thought out and unworkable gimmickry dreamed up by the adolescent back rooms of Conservative think tanks.