We expect and openly tolerate close, even cosy, relations between politicians and the media – each relies on the other for survival in a society that is less deferential and where politicians find it difficult to be heard, let alone trusted. The police need to tell their side of the story. But the police are not politicians. When senior police officers begin to behave like politicians – and 18 dinners with one media group looks like a politician’s diary – they damage the wider reputation of the service.
First, officers who meet with the press are still public servants with a duty of discretion, and yet insight and understanding can quickly descend into un-attributable briefings that demean the police. Relationships become compromising when they become too close – even though no real collusion of any sort takes place. Second, by acting in a politician-like way, senior officers become fair game – exposed to the scrutiny we demand of politicians and are therefore seen as politically accountable. We need senior officers to be answerable for their record on crime, but political accountability is a burden that should rest with a politician.
So, it’s ironic that the resignation of Sir Paul Stephenson is now being used by some to question the coalition’s plans for elected Police & Crime Commissioners (PCCs). These figures would replace Police Authorities – invisible and costly committees of appointees – with a single directly-elected personality, who would provide civilian oversight of the police.
Opponents have been propagating scare stories about extremist candidates and other bogus arguments for months. Equally, many of the policing establishment continue to make a constitutional argument about politicisation of the police. The Association of Chief Police Officers has lobbied hard to defend the status quo under the banner of the office of constable and on numerous occasions has implied that this is somehow under threat from an elected Police Commissioner.