That's the police sorted: next up, all 999 services

Residents of Findon in West Sussex watched with dismay this summer as a large convoy of travellers broke down fences and drove onto their picturesque village green. The invasion was bad enough but the villagers were doubly infuriated by the sight of police officers, apparently more concerned about a traffic jam, directing vehicles onto the field.

Since calling the police would clearly be useless, to whom could the community turn? At last someone was on hand. Katy Bourne, the newly elected Sussex police and crime commissioner, met villagers and then demanded to know from her force why tougher action had not been taken.

A year ago this simply wouldn't have happened. Nobody would have thought to get in touch with anonymous and toothless members of the police authority, who in any case wouldn't have considered it their job to intervene. But the commissioners who have replaced the authorities are directly elected by the public and they have different masters.

Last week marked the first anniversary of the election of police and crime commissioners, civilians whose remit is to hold the police to account. Nobody disputes that they had a difficult birth with a low voter turnout. Few ministers bothered to make the case for change. Everyone else sat on their hands - or worse.

Nor did some of the newly elected commissioners help themselves. A few found themselves in trouble with appointments or expenses, failing to understand that they would be operating under the most unforgiving of spotlights.

Paradoxically, however, these failures make the point: for the first time the public is able to hold the police to account. Commissioners found wanting are taken to task and can be chucked out at the next elections. And the teething troubles of a radically new system of governance shouldn't obscure the encouraging signs that commissioners are beginning to make a difference.

North Yorkshire's Julia Mulligan demands daily crime reports to be on her desk by 6.30am. In Greater Manchester, Tony Lloyd has focused on the drivers of crime such as mental health problems. In Northamptonshire, Adam Simmonds is proposing radical new ways to integrate the local emergency services.

Many of the commissioners are developing services for crime victims who have never had an official voice. In Northumbria, Vera Baird has focused on tackling violence against women and girls. A former Labour solicitor-general, Baird points out that she doesn't have to take a bill through parliament to deliver change - her new role empowers her to call together local agencies that can get something done.

Perhaps it's because Labour commissioners are making their mark that the party has - tellingly - not committed to abolish the office. But Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, has said she wants to clip commissioners' wings. That is precisely the wrong response. In fact, the job should be made bigger. The remit should be broadened to include responsibility for all local emergency services, including fire and ambulance, and local justice.

Nobody is responsible for ensuring that the justice system is joined up. The dislocation between police, prisons and probation makes it hard to focus on effective crime prevention and the reoffending rates are stubbornly high. Instead of creating larger probation areas and moving to national contracts for justice services such as electronic tagging, we should re-localise these services and put an elected official in charge, who would have a powerful incentive to break the cycle of local crime.

Whether or not these reforms occur, the future for commissioners lies in their own hands. They have had a year to get the measure of the job. Now they must demonstrate the value they can add. They should be the drivers of change constantly in the public eye - and for the right reasons.

When he became commissioner of the New York police in 1895, the future president Theodore Roosevelt shook up the force and won public attention by going out at night and personally challenging officers who were not on patrol. Long before the days of radio or television, let alone social media, he knew the power of symbolic action and the importance of the civilian oversight of policing.

Roosevelt was determined to cut out what he called the "gangrene" of corruption in his force. Today we face a similar challenge. Public confidence in the police has been shaken by a series of scandals, most recently "Plebgate". The commissioners in that affair failed to understand that their job is to hold the police to account, not to defend their forces in the face of scathing criticism . Fortunately, they have been shamed by others who have taken a different view. Kent's commissioner, confronted with concerns that crimes in her area were not being recorded properly - to massage the figures - immediately initiated an independent investigation.

At the time of the first elections few people had heard of the police and crime commissioners. Now more people have but they still don't know enough. Commissioners have the power to improve policing, make communities safer and give the public a voice - as the best are beginning to demonstrate. In less than three years' time, facing re-election in 2016, they will all have to convince us.

Christopher N Howarth