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24 Feb 2016

Matter of Interest | Police Boards

The Hon. A.L. McLACHLAN ( 15:51 :16 ): The police perform a vital role in protecting the community by preventing, detecting and investigating crime. All in this chamber would be aware of my strong support for the police who work diligently to serve our community. Policing, by its very nature, attracts significant responsibilities and powers, including the ability to use force in certain circumstances. Mature democracies acknowledge that police legitimacy and procedural justice are critical to strong and robust governance. Police legitimacy is built on open and transparent accountability mechanisms that include citizen involvement in oversight.

There are studies that assert that over 60 per cent of the top 20 democracies in the world have police oversight mechanisms that include citizens. Perhaps it is time South Australia considered joining the trend towards including considering more citizen involvement in the oversight of its police force.

For many years, the UK police were governed by police authorities. They were traditionally made up of a mix of elected members and independent members. The Conservative Party went to the 2010 election with a policy to abolish police authorities and replace them with elected police and crime commissioners. The commissioner would be responsible for securing efficient and effective policing of a police area.

The Liberal Democrats also sought to reform police authorities. They proposed direct elections for police authorities and a strengthening of their powers. Both parties expressed concerns about the perceived lack of accountability of police authorities to the communities they served. This in turn motivated their policies of reform. Upon forming a coalition government, legislation was passed to provide for police and crime commissioners. The first election for commissioners took place in 2012. It should be noted that there are distinct arrangements in some parts of the UK, for example in London and Scotland, and I will come to that later.

The stated purpose of police and crime commissioners is to ensure that the policing needs of the communities are met as effectively as possible. It is argued that the commissioners improve police accountability, free up officers for frontline duties, and increase public confidence in the police service. Their aim is to cut crime and deliver an effective but also efficient police service in their area of responsibility. They are designed to create a bridge between the police and the local community. Their duties include appointing and dismissing chief constables and setting budgets and policing priorities.

What I find of particular interest is that commissioners also seek out and work in partnership with the not-for-profit sector and other community groups to not just support policing but also develop and execute strategies in an effort to reduce crime. They also provide support not just for victims but offenders as well, encouraging rehabilitation. In short, commissioners seek to develop a range of community support, diversion and preventative activity. They are seen as important facilitators of social action. Those advocating for this initiative suggest that involving citizens in decisions that impact their communities will in turn lead to more accountable and transparent decision-making.

There has been criticism of the initiative, in particular as it ends the tradition of keeping politics out of policing. There was also a low voter turnout and, as a consequence, some questioned their democratic legitimacy. Nevertheless, all parties in the UK, including Labour, had policies that would increase local accountability in oversight of policing.

As I indicated earlier, there are distinct arrangements in some parts of the UK, but all have a role for citizens in the oversight of police. In London, the Metropolitan Police Service is governed by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime and reports to the Police and Crime Committee of the London Assembly. The London Assembly is an elected body, part of the Greater London Authority that scrutinises the activities of the Mayor of London. The City of London Police reports to the City of London Corporation; the police committee is in effect the police authority and is constituted by the elected body that runs the corporation.

In Scotland, as part of the devolution process, the Scottish Police Authority was created. The authority was established to maintain policing, promote policing principles and continuous improvement of policing, and to hold the Chief Constable to account. The authority board states that it would do this through a robust governance approach focused on securing best value, reducing duplication and keeping police officers out in the community and tackling crime. This role, and the operation of this body, may be of particular interest to members of this chamber, in particular whether it is a model that may have application in this state.

Contemporary demographic governments that facilitate direct citizen participation in the governance of police ensure that they have checks and balances that are consistent with the ideals of citizen participation in the governance of their state. Perhaps we should begin to consider as a parliament whether we need to do the same in this state.

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