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