A few years ago, I worked for an engineering company that sold machines to customers all around the world. These were large, complex machines worth hundreds of thousands of pounds each. Getting one up and running on a customer’s site, known as ‘commissioning’, was often a difficult job in the best of circumstances. 
It was not uncommon, when a customer was making a nuisance of themselves, to send an engineer to site to placate the customer even if it was known that the engineer would be unable to fix the problem. Sometimes this was about buying time until a solution could be found, sometimes it was to hold the customers’ hand until they became more familiar with the machine. Often though, it was done to “fly the flag” when no solution was forthcoming. Customers often got less vociferous as soon as they knew an engineer was on their way.
This process became known in the ranks as “the warm body” routine. In nearly all instances, we could have sent someone with no engineering skills whatsoever (hence the “warm body”), stuck a company shirt on them, and the customer would have been happy. For a while at least. As George W. Bush once said, “You can fool some of the people some of the time”.
Well, it seems that the police system in the UK is developing its own version of The Warm Body routine. Experienced, paid officers are being compulsorily retired in accordance with police regulations. PCSOs were introduced by Labour to fool the public that there are more police on the streets than there actually are, at a reduced cost. Volunteer (i.e. “free”) Special Constables are being used increasingly despite their comparative lack of training. Now Avon & Somerset (surprise, surprise) are talking about having volunteer PCSOs, thus taking the worst aspects of the PCSO and the Special Constable and ramming them together in a match made in hell.
Only someone totally out of touch with the requirements of policing in the UK today would conceive of such an idea. The only motivation for doing this, if we leave aside personal career advancement, is to put more uniforms on the streets for almost no cost regardless of the skills within the uniform.
Think of it this way. If Manchester United put red shirts on two of their accountants, they’d have 13 players on the pitch. It might look great, but do the extra two player actually add any value? Or are they just a warm body in the right outfit?
It might seem harsh to describe Specials as a “Warm body”, but in my opinion the Special Constabulary has reached the end of its working life. I will give reasons why I believe this. Some are to do with practicality, and some are – admittedly – political.
The concept of a Special Constabulary goes back hundreds of years, to the reign of Charles II. The initial model was a temporary swelling of police numbers during times of public unrest. It was not until 1835 that Specials were sworn in outside times of disturbance, and they were a crucial role in dealing with public order during the police strikes of 1918 and 1919.
Today, there are approximately 15000 Special Constables in England and Wales and around 1600 in Scotland. The amount of time given up by these volunteer officers varies considerably. In my own experience as a Special with Bedfordshire Police for eight years, I knew of officers who worked in excess of 100 hours a month, and some who were seldom seen, if at all.
On the face of it, the Special Constabulary is a noble thing. You could perhaps compare it to St. John’s Ambulance, a band of trained volunteers who wish to serve their local community in their spare time. This is certainly how I viewed it when I joined, and I also wanted to fulfil a lifetime ambition of being a police officer. There are other motivations, for sure, including those who want to take the role for a test run before applying to be a full-time, paid officer. It can be good preparation for that.
The first reason is that I no longer believe that it is possible to uphold the law, and to do so well, based on an average service of 16 hours per month. At the time Specials were first conceived, most engagement with the public would have been on the grounds of Common Law, a well-known and uncomplicated platform. Compared to even 40 years ago, the law is so complicated, compartmentalised, and specialised that a part-timer simply cannot expect to grasp it. This is not so much of a problem if a Special is crewed with a “regular” officer, but in many areas now Specials are the routine patrol face of the local force. The law changes in many subtle ways, and new ones are frequently added. It is less than 10 years since I left the Special Constabulary, and yet many fundamental laws, including the power of arrest, have changed significantly. Something as important as the law requires, in my opinion, full time immersion. A Special with 20 years service, having worked an average 16 hours a month, will have less time worked, or “experience”, than a PC who has just completed their probationary period.
About 20 years ago, you could perhaps have argued that Pareto applied – namely that 80% of a police officer’s time was in dealing with 20% of legislation. That is perhaps true to some extent today; the “bread & butter” work of a Special might well be with common offences such as theft, public order and assault. However, the police are now being called to a much wider variety of incidents now, in their assumed role of “last line of defence” and are dealing with things that they shouldn’t have to.
My second point is related to the first. Even since I left the Special Constabulary, the complaints culture seems to have changed, and much for the worse. Many officers, even without breaking any laws or codes of conduct, will find themselves facing complaints or allegations of misconduct. A proportion of these will be malicious or without foundation. An incomplete or out of date understanding of the law will leave Specials more at risk of complaints or misconduct allegations. Specials are – rightly – just as likely to be examined by Professional Standards Departments as their full-time colleagues. The distinction is that regular officers can rely on the support of their Police Federation representatives in these cases. However the Federation does not currently support Specials although I understand that this may change in future. Even this is a contentious issue. It seems no more fair to ask volunteers to pay subscriptions to the Federation for work provided to the State gratis, than it does to provide such cover to Specials free of charge, as this must by definition dilute the cover available for fee-paying members. Members should not be asked to subsidise the cover of their unpaid colleages. Maybe police forces should pay membership fees on behalf of Special Constables.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Special Constables were not popular with their regular colleagues as it was perceived that Specials were an untrained liability, and prevented full-time officers from earning overtime. It is true that historically, Specials were practically thrown a second-hand uniform and put into a police car. Training has improved greatly since then, although by necessity it is still far less than even a probationary PC. In my time as a Special, I was only ever met with enthusiasm for my attendance; never frowned upon for costing overtime.
Since the Coalition came to power though, things have changed. Police numbers have dropped, and whatever the Government says, the number of officers in response roles has dropped dramatically. Some areas, are able to put a mask over this problem by deploying Specials in frontline roles. This is a pragmatic step, as it increases “strength” with almost no budgetary impact. It might even allow the sacred response targets to be met. In my opinion, though, this is not the right thing to do. The most obvious reason for this is that, from a supervisory viewpoint, you can’t plan this. Specials, by their nature as volunteers, cannot be compelled to turn out for duty and may well – for valid reasons as well as otherwise – cancel at the last minute or simply not turn up at all. In my own personal experience, this has left operational plans in disarray for something as “simple” as road closures on Remembrance Sunday.
From a political point of view, not only to all of us pay our taxes partly so that the Government can supply an adequate number of police officers, but why should any of us do – for free – what this Government refuses to pay properly for, or even value the role of Constable? It’d be like hiring a builder and carrying all their bricks for them whilst being charged the same amount. The esteemed Inspector Gadget remarked on Twitter “No worker, no matter what sector, should be happy when people arrive on the scene who will do their job for free.” Wise words.
The St. John’s Ambulance organisation does a wonderful and useful job. It is mostly staffed by volunteers with reasonably basic medical training. How would you feel if your local Health Authority started making Paramedics redundant and using St John’s Ambulance for A&E duties?
This is not solely a dig at the Conservatives. I believe Labour started the decline of the Special Constabulary by creating the Police Community Support Officer. This was a golden opportunity to put the Specials on a similar footing to retained firefighters and the Territorial Army. Like so many things though, Labour blew it, and went for a dishonest policy of creating more people in police uniforms – thus reassuring the public – but without any police powers.
Lastly – the physical risk of being a police officer has, in my view, never been higher. The penalties for assaulting an officer – or even killing one – are no deterrent.
So – as a volunteer police officer – you are effectively risking your life and future earning capacity, investigation by DPS or maybe even prosecution, whilst covering up (by masking resource issues) the damage being done to policing by an ideological Government. It is an equation I can no longer justify, and with some regret, I say it is time that the Special Constabulary was wound down.
By Martin White @martinwwhite72