A Police Commissioner’s Lot is Not a Happy One…

The appointment of Police and Crime Commissioners throughout England and Wales, outside London, provides an opportunity for me to offer thanks and support for the members of the police authorities who have now been kicked out without a hint of thanks for the work they have done over the last century and a half. Time to put something in writing, I thought.

I will happily accept that many people will neither have heard of police authorities or given a moment’s thought to who ‘controls’ the police, unless they imagine (and not without some justification) that it is all done by the Home Secretary.

Policing in Britain has a long history, though the word itself was nearly unknown in England until the late eighteenth century and was regarded for some years with suspicion as a French predilection for maintaining state control. Throughout the middle ages communities in Britain were generally quite small and largely responsible for maintaining their own law and order and apprehending villains, if necessary by means of the ‘hue and cry’; failure to do so could result in communities as a whole being fined. Assistance was provided by means of constables, an unpaid and not very popular job. There were two flavours of constable, the high constable (usually responsible within the hundred) and the petty constable (usually acting just within his manor, or when manorial decay had firmly set in, within his parish). The constables had conflicting responsibilities that included assisting the high constable if required for some specific purpose, undertaking duties set by the local justices and delivering miscreants to him for hearing, and undertaking duties set out by statute, many of which had no very close connection with policing (like collecting the rates). Sometimes a constable appointed a deputy (if he could find anyone so to act) and for keeping an eye on things at night watchmen could be appointed who were responsible to the constable. To the extent that the constable was accountable to anyone it was the local magistrates, appointed (usually) to the various shires.

In towns arrangements were different and varied widely. If a town had achieved municipal status as a Borough it would be managed by a corporation that was to a varying, and usually unsatisfactory degree, elected. That body would appoint however many constables its charter set out, who would be accountable directly to the corporation. The constable’s policing (as opposed to ceremonial) duties were usually scrutinized by the Borough’s own justices who would also give executive orders where appropriate, notwithstanding that constables were increasingly regarded as peace-keeping officers accountable for their actions directly to the crown (those presiding over the court system being regarded as the crown’s representatives, in the absence of any other means of control). In large boroughs, constables might be supervised in their administrative functions by a committee of the corporation, often called the watch committee. Again watchmen could be appointed to try and discourage crime at night (crime prevention during the day was ‘the ward’ (a Norman French variant of guard) while at night it was called ‘the watch’, a function assisted where street lighting was available – the watch committee was often also responsible for lighting).

Rising population and the first rumblings of industrialization have given rise to a prevailing historic commentary that suggests this form of policing was hopelessly inefficient and failed to check crime. More recently it has been suggested that in many areas it was regarded by those who lived there as largely fit for purpose. There is little doubt, though, that in major towns and cities it couldn’t match developments and was near to collapse. Various ad hoc systems were tried, an early example being in Dublin in 1786. By the early 1820s a number of towns had police commissioners, though the term police had not yet evolved its exclusive association with crime and its prevention and the commissioners may or may not have had control of the constables and watchmen. In London the first organized police was the Marine Police, from 1798, a body of constables placed under the control of a magistrate (a paid justice of the Peace); this was initially a private force paid for largely by the shipping interests but became ‘public’ in 1800. Arguably, the Bow Street runners (and horse patrol) have a place here from about 1750, but they were really more akin to a detective force, also under the control of a magistrate. It wasn’t until 1829 that after considerable argument and attempts to allay concerns over cost and ‘police state’ a Metropolitan Police Act was passed to create a body of constables to act within 7 miles of central London (later 15 miles); these were placed under the control of two justices (magistrates), which was the fashion of the time. They were not ordinary justices in that they could not try crimes (arguably a conflict of interest) and though appointed by the monarch in practice they were selected by the home secretary. These two individuals (later just one) only later became known as commissioner(s) but until the 1970s continued to give instructions in their capacity of justices of the peace and were not sworn constables, or even in general had a police background. Assistant Commissioners and their deputies were in the same position, giving rise to a peculiar Metropolitan Police rank of Chief Constable (of whom there were four) who, though well down the pecking order, were the most senior sworn constables (it roughly equates to Commander now). Being a magistrate was useful in allowing chief officers to swear their own constables whereas anywhere else local magistrates had to do it. The tidy-minded bureaucrats in the 1970s decided all this was an aberration and we now have all ranks sworn officers, no justices and the law even requires the Commissioner to have been a constable though special legislation allows the chief officers to swear their own constables (though evidence suggests magistrates can be caused to do it where more convenient).

The Metropolitan Police commissioner, incidentally, was for well over a century only responsible for operational policing. The buildings, property and financing were all the responsibility of the Receiver of the Metropolitan Police District, who also looked after courts. This official was separately responsible to the Home Secretary. The same 1970s hiatus placed the receiver under the Commissioner’s control. The Bow Street and Marine forces were absorbed by the Metropolitan Police by 1850 and that force until the 1930s also had responsibility for royal palaces and residences wherever situated and many naval dockyards.

The apparent success of the London Police caused a degree of reform elsewhere. The Boroughs (which included most of the growing cities) were first on the list, and there were 178 of them, some unbelievably small. In essence, in 1835, they were all required to establish watch committees and each watch committee was required to establish a body of paid uniformed constables; inevitably the Metropolitan Police model was there to follow but unlike the Metropolitan Police the responsibility for directly controlling, appointing, promoting and dismissing constables was operated by the committee itself, which also had the power to discipline constables. There was necessarily a rank system and the senior officer (often called the head constable) was not necessarily very senior in grade though it depended on the size of the force. He was always the senior sworn constable and the conduit of communication with the watch committee, but what actual power he had was very variable given what the watch committee held to itself. In many cases the existing policing arrangements were merely adapted to suit the new form, in many cases employing or otherwise using the same people. The watch committees had to comprise a ‘sufficient number’ of the new elected corporations (and their aldermen) together with the mayor who sat as a magistrate. They were otherwise unfettered in their control, though fettering in 1882 reduced their number to no more than a third of the council (it was not unknown for the entire council to sit as a watch committee and demand constant attendance of the poor head constable). There were large cities that were not in fact boroughs and whose policing was not affected by the 1835 legislation. In some cases special legislation was required (notably in Birmingham, Manchester and Bolton, largely following London model).

In country areas a County Police Act was passed in 1839, but this was not compulsory and could be adopted locally as necessary. The county justices of the peace were not persuaded action was necessary, but the concession was that if they chose to set up organized bodies of constables in their counties (constabularies) then they would remain in charge. The permissive legislation was only adopted in 24 counties, not all immediately and in some counties in some divisions only. In each case a Chief Constable was appointed in whom was vested all day to day policing matters, the appointment and dismissal of the Chief Constable (and later his deputy) and oversight of finance and policy remaining with the county justices. The operation of county forces was therefore quite unlike that in boroughs. A few more county forces were started later but it wasn’t until 1856 that the creation of an organized police in every county became mandatory. At the same time inspectors of constabulary were appointed (beginning a long process of direct home office involvement, including an attractive grant if the force were ‘efficient’) and county constables were given authority to act as constables in neighbouring boroughs (the converse was already true). One can see that in counties a Chief Constable was a very influential and important person, whereas in towns the police chief was hugely less powerful, even though some adopted the name ‘chief’ constable, in some cases operating forces of fewer than ten officers. The justices of the peace for the county, in quarter sessions, were in effect the police authority for counties as this was the only form of county administration there was.

It soon became very obvious that the vast majority of borough forces were far too small to be remotely efficient and legislation was passed to allow these forces to combine with the neighbouring county. Not very much use of this was made of this, though in 1856 the prospect of getting a grant if an obviously inefficient borough combined began to alter things, especially as forces serving populations of under 5000 were disbarred. It took perhaps a decade, but the outcome was a drastic reduction in small and sometimes farcical borough forces and even a few combinations of counties. This trend of encouraging combination carried on until the present day (recall recent Labour attempts to do so). 

It was only as late as 1889 that county councils were established, with elections for local councillors and indirect elections for aldermen. With the arrival of county councils the supervision of county police was placed in the hands of new police authorities (called standing joint committees) comprising half councillors (or aldermen) and half magistrates, thus preserving the historical links with what had been ‘the establishment’. Chief constables continued to be accountable for the whole force and its actions, but it was assumed that the elected element of the police authority would ensure that overall control of the force and selection of chief officers would be undertaken by those who had an elected mandate (putting them in a comparable position to borough watch committees, who retained their more hands-on responsibilities). County Boroughs were created at the same time, these had the form of boroughs but all the powers of a county; for policing they had a watch committee and chief constable and his force had only ‘borough’ status (with commensurately lower rank and pay).

Further control by the Home Secretary has been evident ever since. No chief constable, for example, can be appointed without the approval of the home secretary, and in the matter of police procedures, uniforms, pay, mutual support and so on the Home Secretary has made endless regulations that seriously restrict what the police authorities can actually do. Further amalgamation has been forced on us all. As I recall, until 1948 a borough’s watch committee could on its own authority request the county within which it was situated to take over its policing in return for a suitable financial contribution, and many chose (or were encouraged) to do so. After that date this was no longer possible and joint police committees had to be established, which was more cumbersome and so less popular. More central coercion was therefore needed. By the mid-1950s the only borough forces that survived were the County Boroughs, and by no means all of them.

In 1964 the powers of police authorities was harmonized. Essentially all police authorities were given identical powers, with the result that all chief officers now had full control of their forces. Standing joint committees became ‘police committees’; the name watch committee was retained but the committee itself was stripped of powers to interfere with day to day operation. Constitutionally all were now composed two-thirds of those appointed from local councillors (or aldermen) and one third magistrates. As before, the Home Secretary (a politician) was the police authority for the Metropolitan Police and the Common Council the authority for the City of London police. Joint police committees had a similar constitution, but sourced proportionately from the constituent authorities. The 1972 Local Government Act did away with county boroughs altogether and this did away with many joint police committees as previously joint areas now became part of a single county. A few carried on until recently, such as one for Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire that supervised Thames Valley Police. The 1972 Act saw off the last County Borough forces and their watch committees, ending a name in use for probably a couple of centuries.

This arrangement pretty much endured until 1996, and will be seen to include local elected representatives, despite recent government ‘spin’ that suggested otherwise. After that date a selection panel was established to identify from relevant local authorities and others prepared to become independent members the approved number of people from whom to select the approved numbers of members of the police authority, all according to very detailed rules (and opinions) of the Secretary of State. Although magistrates as a group were finally taken out of the equation, after many centuries of involvement, they were represented. Police Authorities latterly comprised (usually) 17 members of whom nine would be local councillors and eight were independent members selected from those offering services as a consequence of an advert and of whom one had to be a magistrate. Special arrangements were made in London following the election of mayor, but the Commissioner is still appointed by the Queen.

So, now we have police commissioners (and a mayor in London who fulfils many but not all of those functions). We now have one elected person taking over the role of numerous elected officials who formed the majority of the old committees. Whether or not this is ‘better’ and what criteria, exactly, would indicate ‘betterness’ only time will tell. Of course the paraphernalia of the appointments committees has had to be kept in case a commissioner resigns, whether voluntarily or not, so simplicity is not guaranteed. Commissioners will also need a staff. The Home Secretary will maintain ever closer vigilance and oversight of forces, and of course control over a number of national police bodies that used to be part of local forces. Whether this represents ‘democracy’ in any rational meaning of the word I would not care to say, but I am far from enthused and have concerns over ‘political’ control of the police as exercised by a single individual. This view is evidently shared by many others. I spent time just after the elections reading the comments in the Sunday press about attitudes to all this and it seems that many more visited their polling stations than the numbers of votes cast suggested in order to spoil their ballot papers in an attempt to protest the only way that seemed possible. It is also telling that those who were voted for included a larger than expected number of independents, simply (say the reports) on the basis that voters didn’t want party politics getting too close to the police. I realize reading the Sundays is hardly scientific, but clearly what happened was not entirely satisfactory for anyone, whatever the reason.

Personally I think it is regrettable that someone interested in their local area cannot simply put their name forward to a selection panel in order to participate on a committee, because real people will do that; to have to go through an all-or-nothing election will simply put most people off and as only certain types of individual will want a high profile job this must surely diminish the pool of suitable people prepared to put up with all this (and encourage some very unsuitable people). Perhaps the only advantage of the new system is that there is an elected person to challenge the Home Secretary’s command and control inclinations; that might not be a bad thing. In the meantime spend a moment to consider the thanks we have given to those who have loyally served on police authorities of one kind or another since 1835.

One wonders what one earth we’re going to get next. I don’t suppose the idea that we have less criminalization and fewer laws, but more enforcement of those that survive, would ever catch on? That’d get my vote.


About machorne

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is http://www.metadyne.co.uk
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