The elections for Police and Crime Commissioners haven’t set the country alight with debate yet. A ComRes survey for Centreground Political Communications found that 80% didn’t know anything, or anything much, about them.
I suspect the figures would be reversed in a sample of police officers. For the police are facing changes to their pay and conditions if the Winsor recommendations are implemented, and the prospect of more public-private partnerships in law enforcement (controversial even before the G4S Olympic mess).
So it’s inevitable that many officers have strong views on candidates and policies, and that they’ve begun expressing them on social media and blogs. However, police officers are specifically barred from taking any ‘active part in politics’ by Schedule 1 of the Police Regulations 2003, even in their private lives. In this context, ‘politics’ doesn’t mean just party politics, but includes the broader range of debate around elections and candidates – and even party-associated policies.
The statutory Standards of Professional Behaviour also require officers to act ‘with self-control and tolerance, treating members of the public and colleagues with respect and courtesy’ and with ‘fairness and impartiality’. Anyone familiar with Twitter political debate will know these qualities aren’t its hallmarks.
In addition, under election law, officers can’t even encourage others to vote, let alone express a view on candidates, as it’s a criminal offence. This applies whether or not the officer lives in the police area they comment on. The restrictions are all drafted widely enough to apply to Twitter discussions and blogs.
There are of course sound reasons why these rules exist – police have powers over people that must be seen to be independent of those who govern or seek election in a democratic society.
However, the result is particularly harsh in relation to the PCC elections. Police officers have in-depth knowledge of many of the issues, and the results could have a direct effect on their futures, yet they can say nothing and the debate will be the poorer for it. The Police Federation is able to participate to some extent, but theirs can only ever be a collective voice that will never reflect the diversity of views.
A better balance than this could be achieved by adopting the US approach. States tend to have similar restrictions on officers when on duty or in uniform, but otherwise allow discreet political involvement subject to sensible conditions. This would at least enable discussion of the issues on websites and other forums.
In the meantime, though, officers would be well advised to re-read the rule book. As far as politics goes, there doesn’t seem to be such a thing as a private life.