Police and Crime Commissioners’ power “corrosive,” research finds

  • Date

    Thu 23 Apr 20

Policeman stood looking ahead at a road

The power of Police and Crime Commissioners [PCCs] to remove Chief Constables from office is having a “corrosive” effect on policing and police accountability, research undertaken at the University of Essex indicates.

The research, by Dr Simon Cooper of our School of Law, identifies two new and significant concerns regarding Police and Crime Commissoners’ (PCCs) powers. He is calling for a select committee inquiry to re-examine the system for holding Chief Constables to account.

Dr Cooper gained unprecedented access to key figures from all sides, interviewing PCCs, Chief Constables and members of Police and Crime Panels [PCPs] in five police forces, as well as the person directly involved with introducing the current system and one of the most senior figures in policing at a national level.

Dr Cooper said: “The interviews conducted for this research find the PCC’s power to remove their Chief Constable has already compromised the independence of these senior officers. As currently formulated, the PCC’s s.38 power creates an environment in which it would be possible for a PCC – effectively a lay person – to command, overrule and potentially even control a Chief Constable. We urgently require a select committee inquiry to re-examine a PCC’s power to remove their Chief Constable.”

The introduction, in 2012, of elected PCC’s was a key element of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Big Society, billed as the replacement of an outdated bureaucracy with devolved, democratically-accountable oversight.

The PCC’s s.38 power, which gives a PCC the exclusive power to remove their Chief Constable from power, and to exercise a broad discretion in reaching this decision, was seen as vital to delivering accountability.

Dr Cooper’s research, published in the Criminal Law Review (2020 (4), 291-305), identifies two new areas of concern.

First, a PCC’s ability to remove their Chief Constable could cause an instability in police leadership and a potential culture of compliance, as Chief Constables – many close to retirement - avoid conflict with their PCC. The ease with which a PCC could remove a Chief Constable – contrasted with the complex process for removing a PCC – is seen as having resulted in a concentration of power at odds with the principles of good governance.

Second, Chief Constables could be developing a practice of abstention and risk, becoming indebted to their PCC.

Senior figures interviewed by Dr Cooper also noted a ripple effect at the rank of Chief Constable, as progression to the most senior rank is no longer seen as attractive.

Interviewed by Dr Cooper, one PCC noted: “There has been a power shift, it’s a significant change and it’s no surprise that about half of the Chief Constables have gone.”

Dr Cooper’s call is for a select committee inquiry to re-examine the s.38 power, with the suggestion that the currently-limited powers of PCPs could be increased, a Code of Practice introduced and the Policing Protocol amended to encourage PCPs to proactively seek the professional advice of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Service when a PCC decides to remove a Chief Constable.

The s.38 power has proven highly controversial. In May 2013, The House of Commons Home Office Committee argued it was “operationally disruptive, and costly, and damaging to the police and individuals concerned.” In the same year, the Stevens Review suggested that this power risked “exerting a damaging chilling effect over the leadership of the police service.”