Thursday, November 8, 2012

Special Constables and PCCs

There seems to be much debate in the media at the moment about the role of Special Constables in the post-Winsor austerity era, particularly as they seem to be being used as a football by candidates for Police & Crime Commissioners.

Some candidates have stated that they will allocate Special Constables to operate in particular areas, an intention which has been criticised as impinging on the operational independence of the Chief Constable.

Other sections of the political spectrum as suggesting using Specials as, effectively, a replacement for the "regular" police officers that are being lost around the country as part of the Government cuts to policing.

As you may know, if you've read some of my earlier blogs or follow me on Twitter, I was a Special Constable for about eight years, from 1998 to 2006. I have never applied to be a full-time officer, and have no axe to grind against regular officers who do a great job in difficult circumstances. I was proud of my time serving in the Special Constabulary and it's something that I will always be glad I did.

Now to deal with the two points raised earlier.

Firstly, it seems blatantly obvious that allocating Special Constables to a particular problem or area is an operational decision, depending on several factors including frequency, hours, skills required and risk assessment. It is not a decision for a PCC. (Similarly, it is equally ridiculous for a PCC to say that that won't let "their police" get involved with a potential public order event like a badger cull, but that's another story)

The second point is that the people proposing to use Specials in lieu of paid police officers appear to be assuming that the skill levels are equivalent, or that the skill level of your average Special is sufficient (which is the same as saying that regular officers are overskilled or surplus to requirements). A full time Constable has a two year probationary period. Assuming approximately 2050 hours a year, that's a total of 4100 working hours, during which their paperwork is monitored closely and their skills assessed by a Tutor Constable for a lot of that time. Specials are "targeted" to do about 16 hours per month (many don't do this much), making approximately 200 hours per year. So after 20 years service, a Special will have put in as many hours as a Constable just out of probation. The elephant in the room is that, in my experience, not many Specials last more than about 5 years before leaving. They leave for a number of reasons; some leave because they become "regular" officers. Some leave because they feel that they can't offer sufficient time in between family and work commitments. A lot leave because they feel under valued and exploited, and with good reason. Members of the TA and Retained Firefighters are paid for their service and are well trained to do their jobs. Special Constables earn only travelling expenses and limited subsistence. Training leaves a lot to be desired. When I joined, if I recall correctly, initial training was 14 weeks of one evening a week. By the time I left, that was down to 8 weeks.

Special Constables are of course a much cheaper way to provide a uniformed presence on the streets, in the same way as a Kia is a cheaper mode of transport than a BMW. From the outside they might even look identical, but underneath the structure and quality will be worlds apart.

In summary, the vast majority of Special Constables are simply not capable, however well intentioned, of filling the role of a full time patrol officer. In my station we had one person, who was in a position financially to be able to work as a Special nearly every day, and so she was in practice a fully fledged copper. She could build a file and handle tasks that most (95% +) wouldn't have had a clue how to start.

The other problem is resourcing. With Specials being volunteers, it's extremely difficult to organise (and rely on) numbers for any given operation. With something as simple as traffic management for Remembrance Sunday, operational plans could be completely scuppered if one or two Specials did not turn up as planned. The reverse problem also exists. I had many a night where I arrived at the station and waited 2 hours to be crewed up with someone. This happened regardless of whether I gave notice that I would be in, or not. Some Specials even get fed up with being left waiting around and leave the service.

I would advise any PCC or Chief Constable that basing any sort of plans on Special Constables is indeed a soft foundation. It would be impossible to know with any certainty how many Specials you can rely on having on a given date, or what skill sets those Specials will have. I would strongly advise SMTs to plan as though you have NO Special Constables at all, then use what ever additional resources you have to bolster the full time force, to treat them as a bonus, if you will.

Finally, there is a question of exposure. If you do any sort of risk assessment, one of the things you have to consider is how often the people/person is exposed to the hazard(s). Policing is a dangerous job, of that there can be no doubt. There aren't going to be many people willing to exponentially increase their exposure to hazard whilst remaining an unpaid, undervalued and dispensible resource. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool or a member of this Government.

The creation of PCSOs was the policing equivalent of booting an open goal ten feet over the crossbar. What should have happened was the creation of some sort of more solid platform for the Special Constabulary, perhaps moving them towards a paid retainer or contract which would have made resourcing much easier.

The whole concept of Special Constables needs to be revised to match the expectations and requirements of the 21st Century.


  1. Good points, well made Martin. Without naming names (you know who I mean) one person was suggesting all kinds of ridiculous roles for Specials. I am NOT anti Special, they clearly have their place. I think you have made your case very well and a few PCC Candidates could do well to take a reality tablet. Well done

  2. Very good post Martin and I support what you say. There is a huge problem with planning service delivery on people who are by definition volunteers. Many PCC candidates, especially those on the right, seem to want to sprinkle specials as if they were fairy dust on a whole heap of pressing police problems.

    I maintain, there is a role for Specials: for a whole heap of reasons many people do wish to volunteer. Just like St John's Ambulance, volunteers at youth clubs, custody visitors or people who help in hospitals, they are part of the fabric of British life. And long may it continue. And we all benefit from this volunteering.

    I am aware that many specials are looked down upon as "hobby bobbies" by trained, paid and experienced police officers and staff. And I think it is interesting that specials have all the powers of arrest that paid officers have whilst experienced and far more trained PCSOs do not. When I did some work for the Home Office a few years back on the public's views on PCSO powers many people were surprised to learn that fact.

    Alan - I am not sure who you are referring to when you say "Without naming names (you know who I mean) one person was suggesting all kinds of ridiculous roles for Specials" whether you meant me or not. I happen to think it is worth exploring the viability of whether the special role could be adapted to import specialist skills when these are sometimes required. Now I know there will be problems of vetting perhaps but I imagine there may be times when a piece of particular knowlege or rare skill is required to tackle a knotty and maybe urgent problem. If there was a 'bank' of people who could be called on in such instances, that could be helpful.

    I do not know this - but I do think it is worth exploring. I do know that the Met have a database of skills held by existing officers and staff that they sometimes call on. I am merely suggetsing to extend this to volunteers as well. Possibly.

    So to round off, specials very much have their place. The art is in knowing how to make the most of their time, talents and commitment.

  3. Very succinctly put Martin. Giving value to a person doing a job which is particularly dangerous requires some sort of valid wage. Until that happens Specials and full time officers will always have very varying roles.

  4. I was a special back in the 90's and served for 13 years (leaving in 2005 due to a conflict of interest in my employment at the time) the training i received was virtually non existant, we had training nights once a week but half the time the officers giving the training couldnt be bothered to turn up, so a lot of the training i had was on the job i worked with 1 shift & picked things up, was shown things as i went along. I am currently going through the process to rejion the specials with another force at the moment & from what ive heard/learnt/seen so far the training has come a long long way since i was last in.
    There was talk then of specials being paid a bounty (retainer) similar to what the ta get, some wanted it others didnt saying it will leave us at the force's beck and call as to when we would/could be on duty.
    Giving specails training in certain areas ie public order etc is an excellent idea, but i can see it going back to the times when specials were disliked by many/certain regulars as we were seen as taking their overtime, because we do it for free instead of having a regular officer who would be earning time and a half for it, and in the current climate with job cuts etc, this is somthing that will only increase and alienate specials from their regular colleauges.