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Ensuring appropriate use of extraordinary powers

In her latest blog, Alison talks about the scrutiny process and the upcoming Police and Crime Panel.

Police officers are sometimes described as superheroes, and as a Police and Crime Commissioner I have met many officers who I think really deserve that title. For the Spiderman fans amongst us, the Marvel universe gave us the phrase “With great power comes great responsibility” and that’s a phrase that’s really relevant to policing today. 

The police have an extraordinary amount of power. Police officers have the legal power to use force when and where necessary, to deprive individuals of their liberty and even in some extreme cases of their lives. Our police force as an organisation also operates on a budget of about £300m a year, around 40% of which comes from local council tax payers.

Where there is such significant power in our society it is only right that there is a process to check - and sometimes challenge - how decisions are made and services are run, and that those in positions of power are held to account. I believe that all residents and businesses in Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly have a right to know that the police are using their powers legally, appropriately and without discrimination, and that their money is being spent appropriately.

Part of my role as an elected Police and Crime Commissioner is to check those things on behalf of the public and one of the ways I do that is by using the scrutiny process.

I use scrutiny to explore and test information from lots of different perspectives and in a number of ways. For example, I have a panel of members of the public who look very specifically at how the police use force. Devon and Cornwall Police recently announced to the public that it would soon be using spit and bite guards, which is a type of force, so my panel will be scrutinising that issue later in the year and have already started preparing for that activity.

Scrutiny is also used to examine how the police use their power to issue out of court disposals. These are used as a way of dealing with a crime without having to go to court, a process which has real implications for people, so it’s really important to be sure that they are being used properly.

Because my role is completely independent of the police and my office is a separate organisation, my staff also have the independence to carry out internal scrutiny.

Recently I’ve been looking at new ways to develop my scrutiny even further, including making more opportunities for the public to join in with it. Over the next 12 months I’ll be publishing even more information in the public domain about my scrutiny of police performance, as well as details about how efficient and effective the organisation is, and what the relationship is like between the police and the public.

This follows the approval of a new scrutiny framework by a joint board formed by my office and senior officers which has the support of the Centre for Public Scrutiny.

I’ll also be using the process to help raise awareness of different parts of the policing family, how they work and what they deliver and where I find outstanding police performance and good practice, I’ll be sharing that information too.

This week my office will be undergoing some scrutiny of its own when we go in front of the Police and Crime Panel, which is made up of councillors from around the peninsula. It’s a chance for them to review the work of my office and examine the decisions taken by me. The panel members have a range of backgrounds and experiences and are therefore able to make a valuable contribution. Being examined in a public forum helps me consider alternative points of view and hopefully improves my work and that of my office.

At the top of the agenda will be the budget for the next financial year and the proposal to increase the council tax ‘precept’ by £24 a year (for a band D property). This is not a course of action I would recommend lightly but our force is busier than ever. An increase would allow the chief constable to implement his plans to recruit another 85 officers, including one for each of the 27 sectors in the force area. This is something I am sure our communities want.

Nonetheless it will be good to have this proposal explored in public on Friday (February 8) in a meeting that will be webcast live via Plymouth City Council’s website.

If you’d like to find out more about the scrutiny part of my role and the work of my office I have published a document explaining it on my website.

Alison Hernandez