Ben Twomey, a postgraduate Warwick student, is running to be Warwickshire Police & Crime Commissioner in the May 5 elections. With the endorsement of two former chief constables, his candidacy stands out nationally for his willingness to say things often considered beyond the pale of political discourse. Just before the release of our third issue of the year, ‘Drugs: Drawing the Line’, I caught up with Ben to talk protest, prevent and drug policy.
Connor Woodman: What initially made you want to run to be the Police & Crime Commissioner [PCC]?
Ben Twomey: Policy reasons. We get the focus entirely wrong in this country in the way that we treat policing and criminal justice. We’re always reactive to it, and the solution is always said to be: more police officers. Twenty years ago, people said we need more police officers, today they’re saying it, in twenty years’ time they’ll be saying exactly the same thing. When I hear this is in the office I think “we need to turn the focus to crime prevention, because that’s the only way you have fewer criminals, the only way you get fewer victims, in the long run, and then you make savings for society that way”. If we operate on the assumption that no child is born a criminal, then you start to see that there are various points of intervention available. You can keep young people on the path with practical policies, and when offenders are coming back out of prison they need to rehabilitated properly and taken back into the community that way.
Connor: What particular responsibilities and powers does the PCC have?
Ben: The PCC – this is something other candidates miss quite often – is to do with police and the whole criminal justice system. The powers that you have are two-fold. One is to do with strategy, setting the priorities for the police to follow. This is where I differ because I have a real outcome-focus on fewer criminals, that’s my main target. It’s not about more arrests or more police officers, it’s about having fewer criminals in the country; fewer crimes in the long run.
The other side of the role is accountability. You can hire and fire the chief constable, which is obviously a strong way of keeping control and making sure the public is happy with the service. You also commission victim services, victim support, and the local probation service, so if you’re giving the money out then you have that direct accountability. Other than that, you’re supposed to hold other areas to account, so you need to look out to see if the prison system is failing, or if education is failing to keep young people out of the criminal justice system. One of the big things is providing the budget for the police: you set the budget and can raise council tax up to 1.99% each year.
Connor: Do you have any powers around the budgetary powers?
Ben: I believe I’m the only candidate – and there are 6 of us, so when I say I’m the only candidate, I’m surprised there’s so little overlap with other candidates – I’m the only one that has prevention as the key focus and that’s where the budget is going to make the difference I think. Every pound spent on drug treatment, for example, saves at least £2.50 down the line.
One of the things I want to do as well, and it’s a tiny, tiny amount, but the PCC is paid £65,000 a year in Warwickshire. I think is too much, especially considering the means that I’m used to living on – I’m currently unemployed actually, I’ve had to resign to run in this election –so I would look to set aside part of that salary to go towards those children and young people that are most at risk of going down criminal routes, as they’re the ones that need that prioritisation and to have a champion of them in the community, which I’d hope to be.
Connor: What would be the main things you’d like to see changed with respect to Warwickshire Police?
Ben: You’re going to get sick of me saying prevention, but that’s the key thing. Beyond that, specific policy areas need to change, and I think drug policy is one of them. Our drug policy has without a doubt failed entirely: it criminalises school children, it makes millionaires of criminals and it puts over a billion pounds into a shredder every year with no meaningful outcomes. So what I’m looking to do is to refocus entirely towards getting those in addiction into recovery, removing the stigma around addiction, and then tackling the organised criminals that are profiting from that. When it comes to low-level possession of drugs, things like that, they need to be supported if they’re in addiction, but if they’re non-problematic then I think we need to stop persecuting them just for their drug use. It’s just a needless cost to society and it criminalises people who otherwise wouldn’t need to be: people like David Cameron and Boris Johnson would’ve been criminalised if they really had a zero tolerance policy on cannabis use.
I’m also the only candidate that in their prioritisation mentions the word ‘drugs’. It’s worth considering just how strange that is because at least 50% of prisoners are in prison for drug-related offenses. So to want to be PCC and not mention the word ‘drugs’ is I think completely shocking, and that’s what’s happened with this toxic drugs debate. Basically, you can’t have an open conversation about it.
I’m also the only candidate who’s prioritised domestic abuse and child abuse. I find that shocking again, because one-in-four women will experience abuse in their lifetime, unless we do something about it – and ignoring it isn’t the way to do something about it. 18-24 year olds commit the most crime, and they’re the most common victims of crime, so it’s not just that I’m within that age group and can maybe relate a bit more, but I’m the only one recognising them as a priority group. You don’t need to be in the age bracket to recognise that they make up 10% of the population, but one-third of those arrested, charged and imprisoned. For some reason, no other candidate is recognising that.
Connor: How much lee-way is there for Warwickshire to break away from national policy on drugs? Can Warwickshire chart an independent path on this?
Ben: Absolutely. There’s scope that you have as the PCC to do these kind of things. I think if I’m elected I’ll be the first PCC to be elected explicitly stating that the war on drugs has failed, explicitly saying that I want to refocus drug policy.
While the PCC can’t change the law – we’ll have to rely on MPs to suddenly have a bit of courage – what we can do is set the strategy for the police. So in County Durham, where I was head of drug and alcohol policy, they de-prioritise those who are possessing cannabis and those who are growing cannabis – if you’re growing, I think up to ten plants, you’re allowed. The police just focus on those who are selling. That way you build more of a relationship with the community, you stop needlessly and disproportionately criminalising young people and ethnic minorities in particular, especially black people. Those stop and search statistics just melt away because the most common thing to stop and search someone for is possession of drugs, but it’s just a needless breakdown in public confidence when you do that.
Connor: Tell me about your “citizens’ panel” policy for democratising the police and making them more accountable.
Ben: Two consideration motivate it: one is that there’s so little diversity in who is running for PCC. I stick out because I’m a young man, but other than that I’m white, I’m heterosexual, I’m male. The lack of diversity is really troubling because the police are supposed to police by consent, so it’s really important for them to reflect the community. Part of that is within police recruitment, but I think it’s even better if you can improve diversity in accountability and policy-making structures. Democracy, not as a one-off occurrence every four years, but as an on-going process. The citizen’s panel idea is to get a real diverse group of people, different backgrounds, different perspectives, different experiences, to come together and not just hold the police to account, but positively and productively create policy with me. Because that will create the best policy I think – we should come up with some really innovative stuff and that will really help to make Warwickshire a leader in terms of creating a safer society.
Ben: – yep –
Connor: What do you think should happen in terms of accountability with respect to that event?
Ben: As far as I can tell, there wasn’t a great deal of accountability after that. I was working for the Warwickshire PCC at the time, and I raised it within my office. I said, “look, I’ve seen the footage, it looks disproportionate, what’re we going to do about this?” With cameras it’s difficult to tell the exact situation but either way, the use of CS spray in a student sit-in certainly seems on the surface totally disproportionate.
This is where I encountered the problem that the campus is split between Warwickshire and West Midlands Police. Wouldn’t it be good to have the University under just one police force area to start with, so that all students who are on the campus know where to go to get their accountability or to get their public representatives? Senate House is in the West Midlands area so Warwickshire unfortunately washed their hands of it, which again is something I wouldn’t do because there are lots of students who live or commute in Warwickshire.
I don’t think PCCs come onto the campus enough. I don’t believe the Warwickshire one ever has. I’d want more of a dialogue between the PCC and the students, especially because there are elements of student society where there’s huge underreporting of crimes, whether that be about rape or sexual assault on campus, or racist hate crimes.
Connor: What do you think should be the police policy for campus protests?
Ben: Difficult to say. Sometimes peaceful protest is facilitated by the police, sometimes it’s abused by the police. It varies. If it can be facilitated properly, then sometimes it is appropriate to have the police. You might want them watching the actions of private security, for example. Really you ought to have the police there to make sure the protest is still peaceful, to deal with any threats to life or property as they arise – which is what the police are there for. But often you’ll find in protest situations – the student protests in 2010/11, G20 protests etc. – the police clearly have a kind of us-and-them mentality with regards to protest, rather than just being there to do the job of facilitating peaceful protest. Of course, it would make for a better democracy if we could do that every time.
Connor: Lastly, there’s been a lot of agitation on campus around the Government’s ‘counter-terrorism’ policy, Prevent. What do you see as the problems with Prevent and what would you do in your role as PCC with respect to the policy, particularly on campus?
Ben: I find the ‘Prevent’ label is perceived as something aggressive, or isolating, rather than supportive. The definition of extremist needs to be directly linked with violence or advocating violence. Everything else (except hate speech, which ties in with notions of violence) is free speech that is a basic human right. One of the key problems with Prevent is that it is alienating Muslim people who feel subject to undue suspicion for their faith. Isolating sections of society is exactly what a counter-terrorism strategy is meant to avoid, but the ‘toxic’ brand of Prevent appears to be achieving just that. If there was a peaceful protest on campus regarding Prevent then I would support it. While the PCC can’t make legislation change, we all have the right to resist.
The Warwick Globalist is launching its final issue of the year, ‘Drugs: Drawing the Line’, on Tuesday May 3. Our speaker panel is at 6pm in MS.04.