Professor Lawrence Sherman On Police Commissioners

07:52 Wednesday 7th November 2012
Bigger Breakfast Show
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

PAUL STAINTON: All about elections on the Bigger Breakfast this morning. And just as the excitement drops from the US Presidential election, we get excited again in eight days time, don’t we, for the Police and Crime Commissioners’ elections. What? Seven candidates fighting for your vote. .. Let’s speak to Professor Lawrence Sherman. He’s Director of the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge University. Now I was particularly apathetic in my cue there because somebody texted in yesterday and said “apart from you mentioned it on your show, and Andy Harper mentioned it“, he’s not seen a thing. No posters, no people, nobody knocking on his doors, and that’s a bit of a problem, isn’t it?
LAWRENCE SHERMAN: Yes. There is a website, with a lot of information, BBC Radio Cambridgeshire has one, so does the Home Office. And the positions of these seven candidates are spelled out, and I think they’re really important policy issues that people ought to pay attention to. For example, if they don’t want to have their police department outsourced to G4S, which is one of the issues the candidates address.
PAUL STAINTON: It’s difficult to make people care it seems at the moment. Hopefully there’ll be a last minute burst of enthusiasm. Hopefully. But you don’t even think this is a great idea, to be rolling it out straight away, do you?
LAWRENCE SHERMAN: Well I think all new policies need to be tested. I’ve been saying that for years. There was an attempt in the House of Lords to introduce this as a pilot in a few places, rather than rolling it out all at once. But this is actually different from a policy on traffic control or speed cameras. It’s a constitutional change that’s not only unprecedented in England, it’s unprecedented anywhere in the world. There’s never been direct control of somebody with the power to tax the population for a police service, with the power to abolish a police department and hire a private company, to hire and fire a professionally certified chief constable, which is something that’s never happened in the United States, because we don’t have professional chief constables in the United States. So it’s really such a different way of doing policing that I think you can make the argument that the only way to really find out how it works is to try it in 41 different places at once and see what the verdict is across the whole sweep. And in some ways Cambridgeshire might wind up having some of the best candidates. It has a very nice range of candidates, which I think was the original idea, and not just party political. On the other hand, nobody is really making the case for why it shouldn’t be party political, and some of the best candidates may be in your listeners’ opinions people who are actually running with the party endorsement.
PAUL STAINTON: It’s a bit of a recipe for disaster if you pick the wrong bloke, or the wrong lady.
LAWRENCE SHERMAN: Well that’s why I actually disagree with my good friend Lord Blair, who said people shouldn’t vote. I think people should vote, because the obligation to have good government is so great for all citizens, and the wrong person in that job could really wreak havoc. I think in a way the whole thing is an experiment in British voters having enough responsibility to turn out and vote for sensible people who will not throw away the best police service in the world, which is exactly what England has at the moment. It ain’t broke, but we keep trying to fix it, as we should. we can always improve things. And whether this is going to do that may depend on this new thing called a College of Policing, that for the first time will have research based standards for police practice and what’s cost-effective. And that’s going to resolve a lot of potential conflicts between the police commissioners and the chief constables.
PAUL STAINTON: But their hands are going to be tied to a certain degree with decisions that have already been made. Effectively they’re going to be crowd pleasers, aren’t they, like Mitt Romney, standing up and saying I’m going to rebuild the American economy. Well no you’re not actually, because your hands are behind your back. It’s going to be similar for these guys, isn’t it?
LAWRENCE SHERMAN: Well no, actually a police commissioner has enormous power, and there’s a lot they can do to change the way policing is done. They could for example they could force the police not to concentrate on high crime areas, but to concentrate on the places where people are voting. And that’s possibly the biggest risk. So I think everybody’s got to be on the lookout for a policy of politics-based policing, rather than crime-based policing.
PAUL STAINTON: As far as you go, if you could ask them a question, what would you ask them?
LAWRENCE SHERMAN: I’d ask them the question whether they’d read the Home Office website on research on what works in policing. And I frankly haven’t seen that reflected in the candidates’ position. But if you go to the Inspectorate of Constabulary website, you can see a very crisp summary of all of the research that’s been done for thirty forty years on how to reduce c rime. And I venture to say that not even the majority of the chief constables in the UK are aware of that research base. But that’s why you’ve had an Institute of Criminology at Cambridge for fifty years, and similar institutions all over the United States, to figure out what works in policing. And we’ve got to get that information front and centre in police operations. Any good police and crime commissioner ought to be able to do that.
PAUL STAINTON: Are we becoming more like the US because of this, and how they police in the US? You’re from Philadelphia. You were a victim of crime over there. Are we safer here, or is this putting that at risk?
LAWRENCE SHERMAN: This is one of the safest countries on earth. And it’s only getting safer with the recent improvements in the police leadership that have been driving better results in policing. So we’re on a terrific trajectory, and that’s why a lot of people argued against having the elected commissioners, because things were going so well without them. But they could be even better, and you could have good commissioners being honest brokers between what the research evidence shows, and what the police department is or isn’t doing that’s consistent with that research. I think if the voters get behind that theme, and in the next election, four years from now, which will be with the local elections, it will be a lot easier to get information about it than this time around for example. I think the voters really can make this thing work, and maybe we’d be much better off if everybody knows more about the research, and the fact that policing is a very scientifically based discipline now, and not just a matter of saying, it’s a fair cop guv.