The race to become Devon and Cornwall's first elected police commissioner took a major step forward last night as three potential candidates shared a public stage to outline their vision for the crucial job.
Torbay Council's Alison Hernandez, former soldier Paul Biddle, and former RNAS Culdrose boss Tony Hogg went head-to-head in a debate at the Conservative Party's first open "primary".
About 200 people were at the Westpoint Arena, near Exeter, to quiz the trio over how they would lead the force, which has seen a rise in crime while having to axe hundreds of officers to meet cuts of £51 million by 2015.
One of the key questions posed last night was the action each would take, given this week's report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary that Devon and Cornwall Police was at risk of not providing a "sufficiently efficient or effective service".
Mr Hogg, who said he was exploring whether he could serve as a special constable as well as a commissioner, said: "The first action is to try to reassure people that I am a safe pair of hands in this job.
"We must reassure the population of Devon and Cornwall that we can, with the number of police officers we have out there, deliver visible policing, that we can strengthen neighbourhood policing, and there are many ways I think we can go about that."
He described Chief Constable Shaun Sawyer's response to the HMIC report as "negative", adding: "I am sure we can do more with the numbers than the current chief constable thinks we can."
Candidate Mr Biddle said there needed to be reform, not just of policing but the wider criminal justice system, to enable officers to spend more time in communities rather than in stations or court.
He said: "I think we have a problem, an issue that criminals do not fear the justice system, they do not fear the police and that needs to change."
He said he wanted to see the Special Constabulary increased to 2,000 across the force, and a chief constable from the area rather than being "brought down from the Met all the time".
Asked about preventing crime, Mr Biddle said it was something the force "did less". He added: "We have a very reactive police force. Very often, the only time you will see them is when you dial 999. As far as budgets are concerned, this is a tough time, there are going to be tough challenges and very quickly I would need to assess with the chief constable where those cuts can be made."
Councillor Hernandez said it was "a concern" that Devon and Cornwall Police had been named by HMIC as one of three nationally that was at risk of failing the public.
"It is at risk at the moment because there is no strategy to deliver for 2015," she said.
"It is giving some direction to the police about how we are going to deliver policing in a different way to meet the resources we have."
Councillor Hernandez said stronger partnerships needed to be forged within the criminal justice system to prevent the scale of re-offending, as well as with communities.
She said there had been "instability at senior management level" which had impacted on the force's ability to deliver.
Police commissioners have been introduced by the Government in a bid to improve local accountability in policing. They will replace the current police authority following the election in November.
The post carries a salary of £85,000, although it can be a part-time po sition. Commissioners will be in charge of the police budget and will also have the power to hire and fire the chief constable, who will continue to run operational policing. However, the policy has not been without its critics, with many concerned that it will lead to the politicisation of the police service.
Last night, each candidate was interviewed individually before questions from the floor were posed. A ballot, which is open to everyone, regardless of party membership, was then taken with voters being asked to rank the candidates.
It was the first open primary election of three being staged by the Tories. Tonight the debate moves to Fraddon, in Mid Cornwall, before heading to Plymouth tomorrow, when the result will be declared.
Plymouth councillor Nicky Williams had been selected by Labour to contest the election. The Liberal Democrats have indicated they will stand a candidate in Devon and Cornwall, although they have not named anyone in the frame.