Britain's Police & Crime Commissioners are becoming more powerful. Nobody seems to care

Ello ello ello. Image: Getty.

“No thanks, buy some police officers,” wrote one Bedfordshire voter on their ballot paper in last month’s elections. Another elector tried to vote for “Humpty Dumpty”. A third wrote simply: “Spoilt Intentionally.”

This was typical of the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections. And the voters who scrawled these messages – tweeted from the count by a BBC reporter – were in the minority, as most people didn’t even make it as far as the polling station.

When PCC elections were first held, on a grey day in November 2012, the outcome was so farcical that it prompted an Electoral Commission review. Asked to respond to polling figures showing a turnout of only 15 per cent nationwide, David Cameron said that the public would become more interested when the PCCs began their work.

In the years since we have read reports of misuse of expenses, sackings of chief constables, questionable staff recruitment, resignations, and the occasional example of good practice – but it is still too early to say if the public are any more interested in what these people do.

Each of the 40 police force areas that held elections in early May saw an increased turnout compared to 2012. But warm, sunny weather surely helped – and most voters were also being asked to choose representatives for local councils or the Welsh Assembly.

This may also explain why candidates from established parties fared better. In 2012, 12 independent PCCs were elected; in 2016, only three were victorious.

Voter apathy was particularly noticeable in England, where only three police force areas – Merseyside, Northumbria and West Yorkshire – recorded turnout figures of 30 per cent or above. In the Durham, Cleveland and Leicestershire force areas, turnout was below 20 per cent. And we should not forget that many of the elected candidates had to rely on second-preference votes to get over the line, which is hardly a ringing endorsement.

Very little was spent on advertising the elections, and a survey published a week before polling day found that only one in 10 people could name their PCC.

All that could change, however, and these may yet prove to have been the most important elections that nobody cared about. Last week’s increased turnout probably makes it more likely that PCCs are here to stay, and it may even embolden ministers to grant them more powers in this parliament. This could be a mistake.

PCCs have already been given oversight of fire and rescue services. Extending their responsibilities into the areas of youth justice and court services, as has been mooted, is running before they can walk.

More concerning still are reports that Home Secretary Theresa May might wish to allow PCCs to set up free schools for “troubled children”, blurring the edges of police reform and education reform.

A more effective measure would be to ensure that PCCs continue to support the Howard League for Penal Reform’s campaign to reduce child arrests. The number of arrests has fallen by 54 per cent in the last four years, helping to keep as many children as possible out of the criminal justice system.

PCCs could also spend more time focusing more on the “and crime” part of their job title. The chaotic privatisation of the probation service has left some excellent specialist services without funding and unable to support the people they work with. PCCs should step in and save these organisations, which reduce crime and help people turn their lives around. Funding the high-performing women’s centres that are at risk of closing would be a good place to start. 

The PCC experiment has been in progress for less than four years, and it still needs time to bed in. Those citizens who turned out to vote list month did so to vote for someone to oversee policing and crime reduction in their local areas, not to set up schools or run the courts.

Tackling crime is an important task. Let us give PCCs the chance to learn their role and do it well before handing them extra responsibilities.

Rob Preece is campaigns and communications manager at the Howard League for Penal Reform.

This article was originally published on our sister site, the Staggers.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.