“Elected police and crime commissioners are described as “bleeding hopeless”, “not that bright”, abusive and politically driven in a report that exposes the crisis at the top of policing.
Retired chief constables claim that they were forced to do “dreadful things” by PCCs looking for votes, while senior officers say that they have been put off going for the top jobs because there is a risk of being “thrown under a bus for political expediency”.
The report on police leadership, commissioned by the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC), reveals that applications for chief constable vacancies in the 43 forces in England and Wales are at the lowest level on record, while tenure in the post has fallen to an average of less than four years.
The report, seen by The Times, points to a range of factors including the troubled relationship between some chief constables and PCCs, who replaced police authorities when they were introduced in 2012 by Theresa May, when she was home secretary. They have the power to hire and fire chief constables and set budgets.
PCCs’ ability to “seemingly arbitrarily” sack police chiefs is cited as a factor in the lack of applications for the top posts. Senior officers are also reluctant to apply for jobs outside their force area because of a perceived chumminess between incumbent deputies and their PCC. One officer claimed that the system was being “fiddled”. More than half of chief constables appointed in 2015 were the only candidate for the job.
Sara Thornton, chairwoman of the NPCC, ‘said that the report “is a warning to us that we need to deal with these problems”. She added that the majority of PCCs and chief constables worked well together and that both parties wanted to resolve the leadership issues and had the same goal of getting the best people into the top jobs. Chief constables and PCCs will hold a discussion on the issues next month.
‘Six PCCs are good, 22 are hopeless’
The comments by anonymous chief constables were negative enough but it was the assessment from within the ranks of police and crime commissioners that landed a killer blow.
Speaking about their colleagues in 2015, one anonymous PCC told researchers: “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… and about 22 who are absolutely bleeding hopeless.”
The damning quote was contained in the report commissioned by the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) to highlight concerns about the “vulnerabilities” of the elected PCC system and the absence of checks on their behaviour.
The superintendent who compiled the report — with input from 13 retired chiefs, one incumbent chief, and 70 assistant chief constables and deputy chief constables — said that in most cases chiefs worked effectively with PCCs. However, retired chiefs said it was a matter of luck depending on the PCC they got and that some were “difficult, unhelpful and unprofessional”. One said: “Why would any sane person place their operational independence and financial security at the whim of a politician? I have worked too long to place my personal reputation on the line, to place it at risk of being thrown under a bus for political expediency.” Another claimed that “power and ego” went to the PCC’s head.
The report highlighted an “unprecedented” average period of chief constable tenure of under four years, a higher turnover of female chief constables compared with their male counterparts since the introduction of PCCs, and low numbers of applications for the top job.
The report highlighted other significant problems including heavy handed investigations of chiefs by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Retired chiefs reported feeling beleaguered, under pressure, undervalued and “subject to no leadership from the Home Office”.
The report’s findings will be considered next month at a roundtable of chief constables, PCCs and other interested parties such as the College of Policing, the standards body.
Sara Thornton, the NPCC chairwoman, said that there were clearly retired chief constables who had been “damaged” by their experiences and she wanted to prevent that happening again.
Small changes such as encouraging mediation when a relationship between chief and PCC broke down, and requiring PCCs to put their reasons for suspending a chief into writing, could help to fix the problems. Mark Burns-Williamson, chairman of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, said that the NPCC report was based on research with a small sample size that had “no formal status”. He said he did not agree with the negative descriptions of PCCs.
Behind the story
Police and crime commissioners were introduced in 2012 to scrutinise chief constables, replacing police authorities.
David Cameron, prime minister at the time, was impressed by the US system of vesting broad police oversight powers in a single elected figure. So it is not surprising that the relationship between chief constables and PCCs can be a testing one.
The leadership report underlines entrenched problems that are unlikely to be resolved without significant changes to the system.
One chief constable said yesterday: “A number of people have left because their positions have been made intolerable.” While PCCs have the power to hire and fire chief constables, and set budgets, they are not supposed to encroach on operational policing.
However, it is widely accepted that some have, and that some chief constables have let them. There is also a perception among chief constables that they can be discarded by PCCs without proper checks and balances.”