Police Community Support Officers - Pretend Police?
UK governments frequently face pressure to put "more bobbies on the beat". The public genuinely feel reassured at the sight of policemen on foot patrol- it is an inarguable sign that "something is being done" about crime. Seeing more officers on the street combats public perception of rising crime rates and provides a visual deterrent to would-be low-level criminals.
In 2002, the government introduced the Police Reform Act. It established new structures throughout the police services in the UK, including
- Establishing codes of practice for the police;
- Setting out mechanisms for handling complaints including the Independent Police Complaints Commission;
- Measures for suspension and disciplining of officers;
- Police powers, including powers of arrest and powers in connection with anti-social behaviour orders;
- The handling of sex offenders;
- Empowering the chief officer of any police force to employ Police Community Support Officers (CSOs); and
- Powers of "police civilians"; a group which includes CSOs.
CSOs have a subset of the powers of the regular police. They can issue fixed penalties. They can detain suspects- but only for 30 minutes, in order to wait for a regular officer to get there; they can use reasonable force to do this. They can confiscate and dispose of alcohol being consumed in a public place. They can confiscate and dispose of tobacco being smoked by a child. They can effect entry to a building to prevent damage to people and property. Under certain circumstances, they can seize vehicles, carry out road checks, or direct traffic. And they can enter areas that the regular police have cordoned-off.
Regular officers have many more powers, most notably the
power of arrest; but they can also interview suspects, process prisoners, and conduct investigations.
CSOs in Action
Whatever their actual legal powers, it's clear that the real purpose of the CSO is to provide that reassuring, visible presence on the streets so beloved by the general public. To that end, CSOs wear a uniform that is very similar to the regular police uniform. In most forces, this means a black tunic and peaked cap, both with prominent royal blue trim; regular officers lack this trim. Sadly (for them), this make CSOs look a bit- well- Mickey Mouse; like toytown zoo keepers. Their union (Unison) wants them to have a standardised uniform that looks more like a real police uniform; but police officer's representatives (the Police Federation) don't fancy that much.
They patrol busy areas, sometimes in pairs and sometimes with regular officers. This frees up regular officers to take part in intelligence lead policing and other more targeted activities. Their name implies that they will regularly serve in a particular area; becoming a familiar face, and eventually part of the community; many forces are deploying their CSOs in this way, but there's no particular requirement to do so.
CSOs are attractive to police forces because they cost so much less than regular officers. Their training programme is justifiably shorter, and their limited powers equate to a lower salary of about £15-20,000 per annum. They need have no particular academic qualifications beyond literacy and physical fitness. The Home Office has a specific budget earmarked to expand the numbers of CSOs.
Career agencies and police recruitment materials take a suspiciously similar view of job. They reveal something of their typical roles; attending incidents of disorder, dealing with littering, truancy, graffiti and abandoned vehicles; hassling antisocial youths, crowd control, traffic duties, and door-to-door enquiries.
The comparatively low entry requirements and lesser powers have led the press to dub the new officers as "Plastic Policemen".
Likely Future of CSOs
Several developments are likely in the next few years:
- More, More, More: Currently the police forces of England and Wales employ under 7,000 officers. However, Home Office budgets allow for an expansion in numbers to 24,000 by 2008. Whether they'll be able to attract this many officers will be another matter. The modern way of dealing with employment shortfalls (employing an immigrant from the new European Union countries) won't wash- CSOs must be British subjects or Commonwealth citizens.
- Wider still and wider: CSOs are only used currently in England and Wales. It seems probable that the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) will look to deploy them soon. As well as tackling low-level nuisances, CSOs could well become an entry route for Roman Catholics into the force. Catholics have traditionally been severely under-represented in policing there. The main republican political party frequently calls for more "community-based" policing, and this could be catered for at least in name. However the Police Federation is very cautious, as it is worried that newly-idle paramilitary groups could easily join the police service as CSOs. HM Inspectorate of Constabulary for Scotland is also investigating the introduction of CSOs.
- More Power!: Studies have been conducted on the effects of the 30 minute fudge in CSOs' detention powers. I would be surprised if we didn't see a move to increase their powers in this and other areas in time.
- Leandirect Recruitment information, http://www.learndirect-advice.co.uk/helpwithyourcareer/jobprofiles/profiles/profile1283/
- Home Office Recruitment, (conthttp://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/police/recruitment/community-support-officer/
- Police Reform Act 2002
- "The site for CSOs accross the UK", (offering a "plodcast"!) http://www.CSOs-national.co.uk/
- 'Free' NI policing from politics, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/4231364.stm