The election of police and crime commissioners (PCCs) across England and Wales last month was met with overwhelming public indifference. But the record low turnouts have led to fears that the new commissioners’ agendas will be dominated by the local concerns of the fewer than 15 per cent of voters who engaged with the process.
A police officer for 33 years, George Gallimore is principal officer at the Police Federation, and speaks on its behalf on drugs and harm reduction issues. ‘The electorate will worry about lower level anti-social behaviour, dog fouling, litter and the minor things that you worry about when you live in an area,’ he says. ‘People don’t generally worry about drugs, because it doesn’t affect them directly – that’s why it never gets anywhere. Drugs has never been top of police priorities, but I fear the pressure is going to be dealing with the neighbourhood stuff that attracts voters to the polls.’
Gallimore has been involved in drug enforcement policing since the early 1980s, but it was in the mid ’90s, he says, that things really started to change, with much more partnership work. ‘We can do little alone and I think most people and organisations have come round to that,’ he states. ‘The biggest challenge will come with the PCC era, and I think that will affect the partnerships more than the police, to be honest.
The PCCs will have control of the community safety fund and the Home Office portion of the Drug Intervention Programme (DIP) budget, and will inevitably be a major influence on commissioning and how partnerships address local issues. In terms of changes on the ground, however, it’s important to remember that the police are also facing a 20 per cent funding cut, Gallimore stresses.
‘We’ll have far fewer resources – you can’t take off 20 per cent and not expect something to give. They’ve told us that the service won’t be harmed, but the fact is that you’re now bringing in a political appointment – and most of them will be on a party ticket – to be given oversight and some control of local policing and the police budget. They’ll provide all the funding for the community safety partnership and any other group, so DAATs will have to get their funds from someone else. You can only expect your police to do so much with less – if it’s not pressing for you, you don’t deal with it.’
While there’s concern that some directors of public health won’t necessarily see drugs and alcohol as important, none of the DIP money or community safety fund will be ring-fenced for drugs and alcohol either. Are drug and alcohol teams right to be concerned they might not be high on the list of priorities?
‘I think they are, to be honest. If something else becomes flavour of the month they might well say, “We don’t need funding for that DAAT”, and the current fondness for payment by results may not assist either. It’s difficult in the substance misuse world to say, “There’s the result” – long term is the only success you can look at, and nobody wants to wait for the long term. It will be, “I’m not going to be here in four years’ time, why should I worry about that? I need to do something that gets me noticed now”.
We’ll still have to deliver national policing objectives or someone will jump in, but if you’re not delivering local drug and alcohol schemes who’s going to come and shout for that?’
The official line is that the new system will actually improve partnership working, however. ‘We’ll see,’ he says. ‘If it works as it’s supposed to do it will be great, but there are tensions there and someone needs to take an overview. Tension is good in some respects, because if you don’t challenge each other it gets too comfortable. The problem is that chief constables are the best people to do operational policing, but the PCCs will want to impose more of their will.’
Visible evidence of change will be limited in the short term, he says, with the PCCs likely to go with what’s worked previously. ‘But I think in two years’ time you’ll see the impact – the PCC might say, “What we’re doing now is this” and no one can do anything about it. You can’t get rid of them until election time. The Independent Police Complaints Commission, the police and crime panels – none of them have the power to get rid of them. They’ll become quite powerful locally.’
The Home Office is adamant, though, that the PCCs will have more of a democratic mandate and be more accountable locally. ‘But will they?’ he says. ‘Police authorities were made up of local councillors, across political parties, and magistrates, so there was a level of independence because they all countered each other’s arguments. But if one person decides, one person decides. The question locally is what they’ll direct us to do. The chief officers will have to take account of national matters – major public disorder and major events like the Olympics and so on – but after that it’s what the PCC wants to the chief to do.’
Even the best practice worldwide remains dependent on the whims of elected officials, he states. ‘You see good stuff internationally, like safe injection rooms, but all it takes is for someone to come along and say, “I don’t fancy that.” You need that buy in.’ One example here is custody suite-based drug workers, something that took a long time to embed in the police culture – could they be at risk? ‘Absolutely,’ he says. ‘I don’t think anyone’s safe, and if you work in the margins where you don’t see immediate stuff like the crime figures coming down, then you’re in danger of them funding something that gives them that instead.’
The combination of the advent of PCCs and move to Public Health England means the risk of fragmentation is real, he warns, with the new landscape representing the ‘biggest change since the Police Federation began’ in 1919. ‘We’ve always kept up with change – if you ask us to do things differently we will, and we’d really like the PCCs to be a success, but we have concerns that some things might get lost. The public needs to keep on the case of their elected PCC.’
Following a brief spell as a civil servant, he’s been a police officer since 1979 – ‘I found a job I liked,’ he says – and one of the major changes in that time has been the growing call for decriminalisation. ‘Not that I concur fully with Peter Hitchens, but I flicked through his latest book and he’s right, there is no drugs war – all we do is skirmish around the edges. But on a personal basis, I think we’re missing a trick. I’m in broad support of looking at anything that reduces the crime aspect and the damage to society. If you could do it properly, why not? The world lives on drugs – legitimate drugs – so the issue is criminality. Most of the criminals involved in it don’t take drugs, they make money.’
In the old days his officers would ‘put away two street dealers every week’, he says. ‘They went to jail in the morning and someone else had taken over their patch by the afternoon. I think we’ve moved away from criminalising users. I wouldn’t punish users – I’ve never been into that – it’s the people who make money from it and cause suffering to other people that we should be looking at.
‘I’m a family man who lives in society – I’m no different, I just have the power of force on behalf of the state. I’m just someone who lives in this society and enjoys trying to keep it on a straight line.’ DDN