The-Latest - EXCLUSIVE
Police Community Support Officers, hailed as the answer to more 'bobbies on the beat', are at the centre of a row about their role. The Government is facing a backlash from police chiefs over the increasing number of civilian recruits, writes Phil Simms.
More than a third of all new police recruits in the last five years are Police Community Support Officers — with no real police powers — an investigation has revealed.
Of the 13,727 officer's recruited to the Metropolitan Police Service since 2002, 3,718 or 37 per cent are actually Police Community Support Officers according to Home Office statistics.
Under pressure to increase numbers to combat the rising crime rate, the scourge of anti-social behaviour and the threat of terrorism to Britain's local communities, Prime Minister Tony Blair has been forced to recruit a high proportion of poorly trained, lesser paid Police Community Support Officer's (PCSOs) - dubbed 'plastic police' they have:
- No powers of arrest
- No authority to investigate or report crime
- Limited detention powers
- Only 4 weeks training
At a time when there is a four-year waiting list for people to join the police service PCSO applications are being fast tracked. Clarke Bannister, 28, a Pharmacy technician in Surrey, wanted to join the police service but was put off by the complex and cumbersome nature of the application process but was offered the lesser paid lesser qualified job of a PCSO. He refused because he believes a PCSO is no different from being an ordinary member of the public as they have no real police powers. He has therefore decided to enlist as a police Special Constable. This is an unpaid, voluntary position, working with his local police station — but with full police powers.
"PCSOs are all about saving money in wages and in training," Bannister claims. "Sure it's the government's way of getting uniformed presence onto the street but it is useless if the officers have no powers. How can you do the kind of community work that is so sorely needed if you know that there is nothing you can really do?
"As a Special Constable I have the same powers as any other police officer and I can keep my current job. What I don't understand is that PCSOs are a paid service — by the public — and they have no powers. Whereas Specials are given full powers, this is a crazy situation.
"There is absolutely no advantage to having PCSOs because they have no powers. But the crucial point here is that anti-social kids and adults alike know this and as a result they lose their deterrent effect. If you come up against a group of rowdy youths and explain that you have to detain them, without force, until a police constable comes so an arrest can take place, they would just take the piss," he added.
Introduced in 2002, by the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, PCSOs are meant to provide London with a highly visible deterrent on the streets and in the neighborhoods thus enabling police officers to be used more effectively in tackling crime and making communities safer.
However, PCSOs are not given the same powers of actual police officers. They have no powers to make an arrest or indeed, stop and search anyone suspected of carrying drugs, or illicit weapons. PCSOs cannot even investigate or report crime. In fact, their main duties, according to the Home Office, are to liaise with the victims of crime, control crowds, whilst keeping an eye out for truants, graffiti and reporting abandoned cars. Community officers thus have a limited effect in the fight against crime — it seems they are just for show.
PCSOs do have some police powers but these too are severely limited in their application. They have the power to detain someone, only until a constable arrives, for a maximum of 30 minutes, without force. This means that if the local police station is inundated with call-outs PCSOs must let their detainees go. Their only other police powers include directing traffic, removing abandoned vehicles and issuing fixed penalty notices for anti-social behaviour.
It is because PCSOs look similar to real police officers, they can be allowed to carry out basic day-to-day duties. Indeed, the majority of the law-abiding public does not recognise the difference between the two types of police officer and is apparently one of their virtues. However, if the current trend of employing civilian officers continues, the police service is in danger of falling into a situation whereby there are no 'real' police officers on the street.
Outraged police chiefs have slammed the government for 'lying' to the public over claims that they have recruited more officers than at any time in history, whilst neglecting to mention that such a large proportion are PCSOs.
In an interview with BBC Breakfast with Frost on Sunday, 13 March, 2005, Mayor of London and Labour Party member Ken Livingstone when asked about what Labour has done to combat crime he stated: "We have got about another 5000 police," to combat crime in the Capital.
Surrey police Superintendent Bob Crampton insists that "5,000 more Police than at any time in the past is a blatant lie by the government. It is an illusion which dates back to a promise made by Jack Straw several times during his tenure as Home Secretary. What the government actually means is there has been more people recruited into the 'wider police family,' which includes administrative staff and PCSOs.
"This is an illusion that is maintained by the presence of PCSOs on patrol. Because they look the same, the public see them as a police presence and have unreasonable expectations about their effectiveness, which the public pays for and has a right to expect," he added.
Some police officers are alarmed at the increasing number of civilian recruits and what they claim is the Labour government's incessant ploy of passing them off as 'real' officers to the public.
PCSOs are taking up more and more hours from the overall police budget — taking away hours that could have been better used by a new police recruit in addition to limiting overtime opportunities for current officers. Moreover, police officers have to direct PCSOs in their daily duties, taking up valuable time that could be better spent serving the public regular police officers claim.
Glyn Smith, Chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation says "We maintain that PCSOs are a political concept, not a policing one. They allow politicians to talk confidently about policing quantity while skating lightly over policing quality. This has short-changed everyone except the politicians.
"It has short-changed the public because they are paying for a PCSO who has only 10 per cent of a Constable's powers. It has short-changed police officers, whose new PCSO colleagues can, with the best will in the world, only assist them in a limited way.
"And it has short-changed the many PCSOs, who want to be police officers — and would be good ones — but who have had their aspirations sacrificed at the altar of political expediency," he added.
The training of brand new police officers is a lengthy and expensive process, lasting for 31 weeks, which includes 18 weeks classroom training, in which they are equipped with the legal knowledge and 13 weeks of vital vocational on-the-job training needed to perform their job at an optimum standard. PCSOs, however, are provided with a limited training schedule, with the length of course ranging from four to six weeks, only three of which is spent in a classroom, and are provided with no legal knowledge.
The cost-cutting goes further. The salary of a new police recruit is ‚¤25,000, after allowances, with a clear pay structure that increases depending on the department in which they work, the length of service and level of performance; whereas PCSOs are paid a fixed ‚¤15,000 a year salary. This, in addition to the money saved on training, means the public are essentially getting two PCSO officers for the price of one actual police officer.
This drive to replace fully trained police officers with PCSOs comes straight from the Home Office. A combination of budget squeezing, which prevents any genuine increase in police officer establishments, and incentivisation to increase the numbers of PCSOs by providing funding for them for a short period of time. Chief Constables are faced with a problem they either put PCSOs on the streets or no-one.
Crampton continues: "This does create short-term expenditure benefits but this means that the police service will be sleepwalking into an experience deficit for the future. If this current trend of recruiting high levels of civilian officers continue there will be an absolute shortage of police officers with general or specialist skills, limited in their experience and a smaller proportion of the workforce will be available for frontline duties. This process has nothing to do with improving effectiveness or customer service any more than closing hospitals improves patient care."
A senior Met Police trainer, who wishes to remain anonymous, condemns this move by the government. "The government is limiting the number of people joining the police force proper because of financial reasons. People are waiting up to a year before applications even start to be processed — but you can be fast-tracked as a Community support officer. In addition to the public, the government are also failing the thousands of officers already within the service by recruiting large numbers of civilians and pouring so many of them into the PCSO scheme. I stress I am not alone in my observations.
"It should be stated that in attempt to stave off any predictable government response PCSOs do have the power to detain, in certain circumstances, but only for 30 minutes, no more. Moreover, their knowledge of legislation is so limited that in my own personal knowledge I have never known a PCSO to exercise this. It is what I would call policing on the cheap. It is wrong to use lesser paid and lesser qualified people, especially in the climate in which we now live. The British people not only need but deserve better," he added.
Community Support Officer
No powers of arrest
Full police powers
Cannot investigate or report crime
Initial crime reports and crime investigation
Power to detain for maximum of 30 minutes
Full detention powers
Power to search bags and vehicles — not the person
Powers of stop and search of persons and vehicles
3 weeks classroom training followed by local borough training
18 weeks classroom training in addition to 13 weeks vocational on-the-job training
No 'duty' to intervene — is allowed to withdraw from high-risk situations
Has positive duty to act
Foot or vehicle patrols
Carries protective vest
Carries protective vest, handcuffs, baton and CS spray
£15,000 fixed yearly salary
£25,000 starting salary
24-month probationary period
Police Officer/PCSO ratio in the past five years