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Kent police and crime commissioner Ann Barnes marks tumultuous first year

As the former chairman of the Kent Police Authority, Ann Barnes was a vocal critic of the government’s plans for directly-elected crime commissioners.

But having described them as a wilful waste of taxpayers’ money, naive and disastrous, she surprised many by entering the race for the £85,000 a year role, funding a campaign with money left to her by her parents.

Her manifesto of keeping politics out of policing was a message that seemed to resonate with the public.

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Ann Barnes
Ann Barnes

After a shockingly low turnout of 16%, she was elected Kent’s first crime commissioner last November.

It has been an eventful year for the former teacher, now one of the highest profile elected figures in Kent.

So, has she changed her mind about the concept of commissioners? She is prepared to concede there are advantages, not least in raising the public profile of the force.

“The old system [of police authorities] wasn’t the best but it was not broken,” she says.

“People now know there is one person they can go to. When I was chair of the police authority, if I got a handful of correspondence in a week, I would be lucky.

Kent police commissioner Ann Barnes
Kent police commissioner Ann Barnes

"I have had 9,000 letters as commissioner, so people do know they have somewhere to go. There is a focal point for their concerns and priorities, which is a good thing.”

The downside is many see commissioners as the equivalent of sheriffs, mistakenly believing they have powers to tackle crime directly.

She acknowledges the public remain confused about how commissioners have strategic, rather than operational, powers.

“They seem to think I can solve everyone’s problems and I can’t.

"All I can do is put the people’s point of view to the police and the police’s point of view to the public, so I am that bridge. It is tricky but I hope I am doing that successfully. I think I am.”

She has been assiduous about meeting the public, travelling around the county in her battle bus – dubbed Ann Force 1 – and holding regular “meet the commissioner” meetings.

But her honeymoon period came to an abrupt halt in April with a spectacular public relations disaster over the appointment of a youth crime commissioner, a key manifesto pledge.

The announcement that Sheerness teenager Paris Brown had landed the job appeared initially to have enhanced her profile and reputation.

Paris Brown, with Ann Barnes, was forced to quit as youth crime commissioner
Paris Brown, with Ann Barnes, was forced to quit as youth crime commissioner

But what had been a PR coup unravelled just days later when details of historic abusive tweets posted by Paris were splashed over the front page of a national newspaper.

It prompted questions about the commissioner’s judgement and for some illustrated one of the faultlines of the model.

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She took the criticism head on, admitting mistakes had been made.

It was a low point of her year but she is characteristically bullish about pressing ahead with the idea, brushing off the suggestion that she is putting pride before a fall.

“I have no pride. Whether we like it or not, there is a disconnect between young people and the establishment. I need one person, one face, that young people can relate to. I am absolutely determined to do this.”

Two men arrested. Stock photo
Two men arrested. Stock photo

Those who doubted the merits of the idea would “eat their hats” in a year’s time.

Nevertheless, the episode was one that damaged her normally sure-footed reputation.

It was followed by a critical inspectors’ report upholding concerns that Kent Police had a target-chasing culture – a report she commissioned and one she says was tough but necessary.

“They (the public) seem to think I can solve everyone’s problems and I can’t" - Ann Barnes

“It was a hard lesson and I was disappointed and chief officers were disappointed. I have the inspectors in again. This next [report] I am convinced will be different.”

Both events have conspired to cast a shadow over a year which has ended with the departure of chief constable Ian Learmonth, retiring after 40 years.

And with further budget cuts in the pipeline, her pledge for more visible community policing has created a level of public expectation which will be challenging.

Video: Ann Barnes in her own words... on her first year

“The force has lost a fifth of its workforce. Five hundred officers have gone through the door and haven’t been replaced yet people want exactly the same thing – they want visible community policing.”

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