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Be accountable.


'THERE aren't enough bobbies on the beat!" "Why don't the police clear the streets of yobs?" "Motorists are easy prey, while big-time criminals go scot free!"

Everyone has a view about how their neighbourhood should be policed, and while there has been a significant reduction in crime on Merseyside, there's a debate under way about police accountability.

Currently this is achieved through the Merseyside Police Authority, which is composed of councillors and magistrates. The politicians are not directly elected. They are nominated from the five councils in the sub-region.

As a TV journalist, I didn't find police authorities very accessible. The Chairs are low profile to the point of invisibility.

In the case of Merseyside, I'm sure the current incumbent (Cllr Bill Weightman of Knowsley) does an excellent job, but he is hardly a household name. That was also the case with his predecessor (Cllr Linda Gustafson of Sefton).

Having recently chaired a major public meeting with Bernard Hogan-Howe in Toxteth, I concede we have a Chief Constable who's more than willing to discuss the policing of Merseyside with the public. However, that doesn't deal with the democratic accountability of the authority he formally reports to.

While Cllrs Weightman and Gustafson may be low profile, they have a good relationship with the Chief Constable. That's not always been the case.

The duel in the 1980s between the then Merseyside Police Authority Chair, Margaret Simey, and Chief Constable Ken Oxford, is still vivid in my mind.

The breakdown in relations between the black community and the police at the time led to tension between Oxford and Simey over the forces's accountability.

That episode brings me to consider the current proposals being made by a host of organisations including the Government, Tory Opposition and a bevy of think tanks.

The Home Secretary would like the public to directly elect a representative on to police authorities. Communities Secretary Hazel Blears has attempted to revive interest in elected mayors by saying they would be the police representative for the area. David Cameron seems to want directly elected police commissioners.

All these propositions come up against the insistence of police chiefs that they retain operational control of their forces.

The reform ideas have the potential for building conflict between Chief Constables and directly elected representatives claiming a mandate from the voters to set different priorities.

Opponents of change, like the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, question whether there is public demand for change.

The Government is planning to legislate in the new session of Parliament. The accountability of the police on Merseyside and elsewhere is going to be a lively topic as the autumn leaves fall.

Everyone has a view about how their community should be policed
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Aug 25, 2008
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