Plugging gaps left by regular officers with volunteers is policing on the cheap – however you dress it up, says Royston Martis.
The Big Society.
It was one of the new Coalition Government’s big ideas after coming into power following the General Election in 2010.
In government and civil servant speak they wanted to “encourage people to take an active role in their communities.” In normal speak, they were going to be slashing and cutting from public services – and wanted people to help paper over the cracks by doing things for free.
That of course included policing.
And there followed a big drive – as police officer numbers rapidly declined with force budgets being hacked – to boost the number of special constables.
Specials are generally held in high regard by the “regular” police officer colleagues.
They stand side-by-side with them on Friday and Saturday nights when things get a bit hairy in town centres and attending other public order incidents.
The Police Federation of England and Wales recognises their worth and is looking at taking them under their wing.
And many specials want to become regular officers. They see – and are advised by forces – that being a special is a good way of eventually bagging a full time job.
But let’s not forget they are volunteers. They cannot be called on to work all hours, like a regular omni-competent cop.
And special constables appear to be voting with their feet.
PoliceOracle.com revealed this week that around 20 per cent of specials leave every year. That’s an awful lot of training and supervision hours that are essentially wasted.
And government Police Service strength figures published on January 29showed that in September 2012 there were 19,154 special constables. In September 2013 there were 18,068, so a fall of 1,086.
Couple this with the continuing drop in regular police officer numbers – 3,488 less cops year-on-year – and we can see how the thin blue line is getting ever thinner.
The plan was to increase specials while regulars fell. This is not happening.
So what next for specials?
Well, some forces are still looking to recruit. West Yorkshire Police say they are looking to boost their number of special constables by more than 1,000 over the coming 12 months. They currently have 443.
While praising specials, West Yorkshire Fed Chairman Nick Smart said the force’s recruitment proposals were a “massive ask” and said the staff association “remain to be convinced that it is feasible”.
Durham Constabulary Deputy Chief Constable Michael Banks, national strategy lead for the Special Constabulary, has launched research to try and improve the retention rate and halve the annual turnover of specials.
It looks like that is needed.
Back in 2010 Sara Thornton, Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police and ACPO vice president, raised the prospect that the Big Society may help “develop a new and cheaper approach to keeping people safe” and “to make our forces less reliant on professionals”.
The Home Office and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary have both previously predicted that the number of specials in England and Wales could rise to 24,800 by March 2015, a 40-year high.
With just over a year to go to that landmark, this would appear a big mountain to climb for this Big Society idea.
Since 2010, the number of specials in forces has risen by around 4,000 while regular officers have fallen by around 13,000.
However many specials we end up with, it must be remembered that increasing the volunteers while decreasing the number of regular police officers is policing on the cheap, however you dress it up.
A cautionary note on specials