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How do I scrutinise the police – and why?

When people ask the question ‘what does a Police and Crime Commissioner actually do’ one of the most common responses my colleagues and I often give is we’re there to hold the police to account.

What does that actually mean? It’s a good question, and an important one.

There are very good reasons why the police need to be scrutinised by an independent organisation.

In this country, we have always operated a model of ‘policing by consent’ – going right back to the days of Robert Peel. What this means is that the police’s power comes, not through fear, but through the fact that the public chooses to accept their authority.

British policing is not about force, but about drawing strength and support from those who are being policed. That is a tradition that differentiates us from many other countries – and is something of which I think we should be proud.

The public trusts the police – and despite what we may read in the media, 78 per cent of people aged 16 and over in England and Wales say they have confidence in their local force.

But that trust is something which has to be earned – and local accountability is an important part of the relationship between the police and the public.

In Dorset, my office leads on scrutinising the police through a series of independent panels.

Local people from a wide range of different backgrounds, and with a range of different points of view, volunteer to sit on these Independent Scrutiny Panels, and share their thoughts on how the Force is performing and what it could do better.

We have four separate panels, each of which looks in depth at a different aspect of policing.

One of the panels delves into how Dorset Police uses force against members of the public when responding to incidents, analyses statistics for everything from the use of Tasers and batons to handcuffing suspects who have agreed to be cuffed. Panel members also look into how officers are trained in using these tactics.

Another panel looks at how officers use their stop and search powers – who they are stopping, why and how often.

The Out Of Court Disposals panel investigates how officers use powers to resolve investigations against offenders who have committed low-level crime and anti social behaviour without taking them before a magistrates’ court.

These powers include cautions, warnings, and penalty notices, and the panel looks at whether they have been administered appropriately.

The Customer Service Improvement Panel examines the Force’s interactions with the public, through its 101 non-emergency phone line, website and social media channels, as well as services such as Neighbourhood Policing and Victims’ Bureau. The panel looks at waiting times for people phoning the 101 line, examines how quality is assessed, and takes ideas from other organisations and private companies who deal with large numbers of calls from the public.

One important function shared by all of these panels is they take a detailed look at a set of cases dealt with by Dorset Police which have been independently selected at random by my office – which are usually based around a particular theme and have taken place over the previous three months.

The cases are anonymised, so the panel members have no information about names, but they are given detailed information about how officers responded to particular scenarios.

They then discuss whether or not they think the officers collectively acted appropriately, whether they have any concerns or thoughts about how the situation could have been handled better.

Feedback – both good and bad – is then passed on to chief officers based on these discussions, and this is used as a way of helping drive up standards across the Force.

Let me be honest. When I served as a police officer, as I did for three decades, the thought of having somebody picking apart my every action and deciding whether or not I’d done the right thing wasn’t one I would have relished. Nobody enjoys the prospect of having their work dissected – least of all by somebody they don’t know, who doesn’t even do the same job as them. 

But as I examine these anonymous cases with the panel, we are constantly reminded of how incredibly difficult and dangerous the role of a frontline officer is, and of how much they need our thanks for what they do.

It’s often said that any piece of work is improved by having a fresh pair of eyes take a look at it – and that is very much my approach when it comes to scrutinising the police.

Scrutiny panels are a way in which ordinary members of the public get to look at the work of Dorset Police, have their say and help make a difference.

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