In the glorious year of 1831, some bright spark wondered if it wouldn't be possible to enlist some volunteers for the Metropolitan Police - much like the Territorial Army relates to the British Army.
Today, a good 175 years later, the same arrangement is still in place: Currently, around 3,000 people are giving up their spare time in order to help their local communities be safer, to provide more visible police on the streets, and to get some pretty unique experiences in the process.
Special constables are occasionally confused with Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs), but Specials are different: PCSOs are in a paid support role to the police, designed to help get more uniforms on (and intelligence from) the streets. Special constables are unpaid volunteers, but have full police powers, including the powers of arrest and use-of-force laws that apply to full-time, paid police officers (known as 'regulars' to the Special Constabulary).
The Met is recruiting actively for new special constables, ramping up in anticipation of the Olympic Games coming to London in 2012: It is expected that Specials will be extensively used during the olympics, both for the olympic games themselves, and to help the local boroughs whilst more experienced officers are deployed to the Olympic sites.
Special constables in the Metropolitan police are expected to volunteer 300 hours or more per year, which works out to around two 12-hour shifts per month. The type of work special constables do can be anything regular officers participate in, apart from specialist services that take a high amount of specialisation, like the CO19 firearms unit, Territorial Support Group, or in-depth detective work. Many specials tend to work with either the Safer Neighbourhood Teams (who do the in-depth, consistent local policing) or incident response teams (what most people think of when they hear 'police' - they are the people who run around with blues-and-twos responding to urgent calls).
Becoming a Metropolitan Police Special involves sitting through an interview, a couple of role-plays, a written test, a medical, and a physical test, all over the course of two days. If you are accepted (around 90% of applicants are rejected at this stage), you will attend 20-odd days of training, either on a series of week-ends or as an intensive course, including 3 written exams, and a series of practical exams.
The training comprises of four days of Officer Safety Training (OST) - basically, how to defend yourself, how to search people and vehicles for drugs and weapons, and how to safely use your handcuffs, baton, CS incapacitant spray, etc. In addition, there's a two-day Emergency Life Support (ELS) training. The rest of the time is spent on learning relevant laws plus the guidelines, and systems used by the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS).
After the initial training, you are assigned to a borough, where you attend further on-the-job training - learning by doing, in its true sense. Upon starting, you are issued with a checklist of things you need to learn - known as the Independent Patrol Status (IPS) checklist. Once you've ticked all the boxes (A process which normally takes between 18 and 24 months), you'd be signed off as IPS, which means your formal learning is complete, and that you'd be able to go out on single patrol - like regular police officers.
A recent development is that the Metropolitan Police is no longer recruiting regular police officers directly. Rumour has it that all regular officers from now on are expected to enter the MPS via the Special Constabulary - and that a large part of the training will be done on this voluntary basis.
Could you be a special constable? Find out more and sign up here: http://www.metpolicecareers.co.uk/specials/. Or ask me what it's like.