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PCC Donna Jones: 'You can’t police properly if you’re down on one knee'

Donna Jones, police and crime commissioner for Hampshire, in 2021 (PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

8 min read

Who are police and crime commissioners, and what do they do? Sienna Rodgers talks to Conservative PCC and APCC chair Donna Jones to find out

The first police and crime commissioners (PCCs) in England and Wales were elected 11 years ago. Theresa May, then home secretary, promised they would “make the police more accountable, accessible and transparent to the public”. But when voters went to the polls for the new roles in 2012, turnout was dreadful at an average of 15 per cent. How could PCCs improve accountability and transparency when hardly anybody knew who they were or what they were doing?

Donna Jones is the Conservative PCC for Hampshire and the Isle of Wight; she is also chair of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC), which effectively makes her head of the PCCs – and one of her tasks is raising their profile.

When she introduces herself at a party and refers to her job title, do people know what she’s talking about? “Not many,” Jones admits to The House. “Everyone has heard of police and crime commissioners. Most people have voted for one at some point over the last three PCC elections. But a lot of people still ask: ‘What exactly is it that you do then?’”

What I think Suella Braverman was trying to get to her in her role as home secretary was that you can’t police properly if you’re down on one knee... And I would support that position

Voter turnout rose to an average of 26.6 per cent in 2016 and to 34 per cent in 2021 – a significant improvement. Holding the votes alongside other elections helped. Jones is confident that the switch from supplementary voting to first-past-the-post at the next PCC elections in 2024 will boost turnout further, as voters are presented with a ballot paper they recognise.

Awareness is no trivial matter once you learn the scale of the responsibilities and powers of PCCs. Jones compares the role to that of a junior minister, but even this seems an understatement. She is directly elected to represent two million people and controls a budget of just under half a billion pounds a year.

Some will know that PCCs hire and fire chief constables, set police and crime plans for their areas, and commission criminal justice services. Perhaps less known is that they hold surgery appointments and undertake casework; run all stop and search scrutiny panels and homicide review boards; chair drugs partnership boards and local criminal justice boards; and that any legal challenge to the force goes to the PCC.

“Every police car is owned by the police and crime commissioner, every police building, every taser, every stab vest,” Jones explains. “All the kit, everything is technically owned by the police and crime commissioner. The insurance of all the police cars, the public liability insurance – all in the name of the police and crime commissioner.” 

One might assume that a background in policing would be essential for the job. In fact, the opposite is true. “We are operating in a policing environment, but we are politicians,” says Jones. When PCCs were introduced, most were former police officers; now there is only one out of 41.

“Because you’ve now got, dare I say, proper politicians in politician jobs as police and crime commissioners, there’s less of a ‘you’re in my lane’, or ‘I’m in your lane, and I’m trying to park my tanks on your lawn’. My chief’s got his job to do, I’ve got my job to do. There isn’t really the rub and the tension that there was many years ago,” Jones says.

How, then, did Jones come to be a PCC? She worked in banking before taking a career break to have children, at which point the financial world “completely lost its va-va-voom” for her. “I don’t care about the profit of the company, I don’t care about the share price, I just don’t care,” she thought. In the meantime, Jones had become a magistrate – at 27, she was the youngest in the country when appointed – and felt drawn to public life.

“It’s not an untruth when people talk about people going to court with a rucksack because they say, ‘don’t give me a fine, I’m not going to pay it, just lock me up – I’d rather go to prison for a week for shoplifting than you fine me £600’,” she says. “That’s obviously a really sad indictment of our society.”

She took on new roles as a trustee to charities and as a Conservative councillor. From 2014 to 2018, she was leader of Portsmouth council, heading up a minority administration comprising Labour and Ukip representatives as well as Conservatives. “Those four years running a city unitary authority put me in such good stead for the job that I have.”

Jones is the public face of her police force but also provides oversight. Shortly before being sacked as home secretary last month, Suella Braverman boldly accused the police of “playing favourites” with protesters. What does Jones make of that criticism?

“I do think it is right and proper that there is a clear distinction around showing any kind of bias either way from the police. If you start empathising with one cause, it’s very difficult to not empathise with another. It is definitely right and proper for them to remain neutral on these things. I think the work she did in making that very clear across the sector, and it was supported by No 10 as well, was the right thing to do,” Jones says. (She speaks here in her capacity as a PCC rather than the APCC chair.)

During Black Lives Matter protests, some officers took the knee in solidarity. Jones understands the motivation – “what they were trying to do was say to people who feel that they are not supported or that they are targeted by the police, ‘I understand what you’re feeling’” – but shares Braverman’s view that it was wrong.

“What I think Suella Braverman was trying to get to in her role as home secretary was that you can’t police properly if you’re down on one knee. Actually, that has been supported by chief constables who agree with that. And I would support that position.”

Was Jones disappointed when Braverman was ousted? She will not answer directly but hints at her reaction. “She’s a Hampshire MP, I’m a Hampshire police and crime commissioner. I’ve known her for years. What she was trying to do was deliver improvements for the public. She was trying to be the voice of what she believes to be the majority of the public.”

I really think we need to draw a line now. It’s time to start talking up the good things in policing

Jones is most candid when expressing frustration over the expectations the public have of police. “Stray dog, phone the police – that’s not a policing issue. Fly tipping, phone the police – not a policing issue. ‘Someone’s parked on my drive, I don’t know whose car it is, you need to come and take it away’, phone the police – not a policing issue. Mental health crisis, ‘someone’s really unwell, they’re walking on the high street, they’re delirious’ – it’s actually the ambulance service that needs to be called.”

Alongside that frustration, Jones has concerns over parental responsibilities. “I’ve got to say to parents: you need to understand this,” she says. “The scourge of knife-carrying and drug-taking across this country, it’s not just the responsibility of the police. By the time the police are needed, it’s already going wrong.” Part of her role as APCC chair, as she sees it, is making parents aware of the realities for young people.

Looking ahead, Jones has a stark warning: drug-ravaged parts of the United States show what’s coming our way. “There are some very, very worrying trends,” she says. The Taliban have banned opium farming in Afghanistan, and “done a pretty good job” of it, but she foresees devastating side-effects.

“That will completely dry up the heroin supply down to Africa and up through Europe over the next 12 months, which means the Chinese synthetic opioid market is going to explode. It’s already happening in America, and heroin addicts in America are dying in their plentiful because synthetic opioids like fentanyl are literally 10 times stronger than street heroin. And it is so tragic.”

Jones believes PCCs are more relevant than ever as the police are criticised over “woke” bias from one side and misogyny and racism from the other. She says reforming the Met in particular – which dwarfs other police forces – is “like turning an oil tanker”. She also agrees with the Home Affairs Committee recommendation that every force should explicitly ban officers from paying for sex. But she insists that “the policing sector, as a whole, has come such a long way over the last couple of years”.

“I really think we need to draw a line now. It’s time to start talking up the good things in policing. It’s about starting to talk about all the safeguarding, the hundreds of people every day whose lives are saved. They’re not jumping off bridges, not jumping in front of trains. Why? Because police officers are there protecting them,” Jones says.

“I’m not saying that it’s always going to be perfect going forward, of course it won’t. But we do have to remember as well that there are some incredibly brave men and women who work in policing services across the country. We owe them a duty to start thanking them and acknowledging what they are doing.”

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