Creating a directly-elected police commissioner could mean a return to the problems which once sparked riots in the West Midlands, Liberal Democrats have predicted.
Chris Huhne, the party’s home affairs spokesman, condemned plans to make forces accountable to the people they serve through democratic elections.
He told the House of Commons that “white, middle-class, middle-aged men in suits” would be elected – even though police in the West Midlands served ethnically diverse communities.
The result could see the problems which led to 1980s riots, he said.
Mr Huhne issued the warning as he condemned proposals from both the Government and the Conservatives to reform the police.
Tories want to introduce a directly-elected police commissioner in each force, who would work alongside the chief constable and hold them accountable on behalf of residents.
Labour is instead planning to hold elections for seats on police authorities, which play a similar role.
But Mr Huhne insisted any sort of elections to control police forces.
He told MPs: “In complex urban areas, with substantial ethnic minorities, such as Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the West Midlands, the Conservatives’ proposal – and to a lesser but almost equal extent, the Government’s proposal – would ensure that the people elected as commissioners and members of the police authorities would be white, middle-class, middle-aged men in suits.
“They would not represent the genuine differences, especially ethnic ones, in police force areas.
“That worries me, because it would set up exactly the sort of problems that led to the riots in Brixton and cities such as Bristol in the early 1980s.”
Riots in Brixton in 1981 and 1985 were prompted partly by claims of police racism against ethnic minorities, particularly the black community. Complaints against the police also played a part in riots in Handsworth, Birmingham, in the same years.
Mr Huhne went on to tell MPs: “If a potentially confrontational system led to the populist election of a single commissioner or a single person in each crime and disorder reduction partnership, it is likely that the police authority would be insensitive to the rights and freedoms of minorities in that area.
“If that happened, policing by consent would be substantially undermined, and that is a serious danger.
“When I have talked to senior police officers about this matter, they have been very concerned by the potential introduction of populist and confrontational politics into the system – as proposed by both the Government and the official opposition.”
Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, condemned the comments as “complete tosh”. He said there had been no suggestion that “populist policies” were to blame for riots in the 1980s.
Conservative Shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve said the elected commissioners proposed by the Conservatives would not replace chief constables, Mr Grieve said: “He would be able to produce accountability through his contact with the chief constable.”