The Special Constabulary is a part-time volunteer section made up of British citizens who do just that. In 1673 Charles II decreed that members of the public might be sworn in and attested as temporary constables to combat outbreaks of public disorder. But it wasn’t until the early 19th century that Specials became more official and commonplace (thank you Wikipedia).
Special constables aim to work a minimum of 16 hours a month and usually fit these hours around ‘proper’ jobs that pay their bills and mortgages. They receive no salary for their time serving the crown but are reimbursed expenses. They are all sworn officers and hold the office of constable; meaning they hold the same unique police powers of any ‘regular’ paid officer and can arrest without warrant. Some members of the public confuse them with PSCO’s who are by contrast civilians paid to provide a high visibility presence on the streets and deal with community issues and nothing to do with the Specials. All the UK Forces have them and in March 2010 there were 15,000 in England and Wales and 1,600 in Scotland – however this number is greatly on the rise and the reasons why form the purpose of this blog.
Firstly, I have the utmost respect for those madmen/women who give up their time for free to do a job that so many paid regular officers feel by contrast does not receive sufficient recompense or recognition as it is. Specials are of great support to the paid ranks and benefit the country as a whole. In fact, without the Special Constabulary, I am of the opinion that the UK police service would now struggle to cope; but this is part of the problem.
Traditionally sufficient regular officers starting a shift would be deployed to their patrol areas and tasked with their duties. A Special Constable (SC) might wander into the station and be crewed alongside a regular and conduct normal patrol. Or a small group of Specials might book on and help out with simple jobs. The more the merrier. Someone to talk and moan to about the latest injustice bestowed down by those up on high at HQ perhaps. SC’s abilities tend to vary greatly from those that say very little and are capable of even less when dealing with members of the public, to experienced Specials who are more than capable of appeasing disgruntled domestic partners, finding lost children and handling road traffic collisions. Irrespective of their skills, regular officers were usually grateful for the help, even if their new crewmate offered nothing more than a viable target for a drunkard’s flailing fists! SC’s are often individuals who are interested in a full-time police career and there is no doubt a stint in the Specials is the best way to derive an understanding of police life. Sometimes SC’s are used independently of the regulars to police local events and functions, thereby removing the burden on the regulars, as well as placing uniformed members of the community within their own community, showing the police service is approachable and made up of those they serve – many would have been on duty up and down the country at Remembrance Services on this week. When called upon for more taxing jobs in partnership with regulars, Specials always rise to the task at hand. For the most part Special constables were a luxury but a very welcome extra addition to supplement the regular officers.
However, this is now changing. Many Forces have been actively and persistently swelling their Special ranks. Indeed some Forces have or intend to double their contingent. You might ask how this can only be a good thing – these people are happy to do the job and more sworn officers can only be a good thing, right? This is in part true – on the surface more Specials on the streets is a good thing and should be warmly embraced by the policing family. It also makes good business sense to tap into a free and enthusiastic workforce – but the police service is not a business. It must be considered that this surge in their recruitment by no coincidence coincides with a vast decline in the number of paid regulars as a result of well publicized austerity cuts. Do not be fooled when the government tells you front line numbers will not be compromised. This is complete tosh! Ask any serving police officer in any Force and they will tell you there are far more empty seats in the briefing room than ever before. Three years ago at my nick we had a shortage of police panda cars. The number of vehicles in the station yard has not changed, yet now many lay dormant most days now.
The Forces are being compelled to recruit Specials to do the roles left void by a declining number of regulars. This is not what the Special Constabulary is intended for. Most SC’s do not have the experience, training or skills to do what regular officers do. This is ‘policing on the cheap’. I must stress this is not the fault of the Special Constabulary - they work hard and endeavour to do all that is asked of them – but it is unfair and irresponsible of the Forces to place them in the situations they increasingly find themselves in. If deployed correctly SC’s are a fantastic resource capable of marvellous things, but in the last few years policing has been all about cost cutting and public perception, with keeping crime down a desperate second. Forces are using Specials as cardboard cut-outs to plug holes in a vanishing front line.
A regular police officer spends at least six months training and is only confirmed in post after at least two years full service. They then spend forty hours a week honing and perfecting their skills, whilst undertaking constant and on-going refresher training. They are then (sometimes) given ample recovery time between shifts and do not have the added pressure of another vocation like Specials do. It is of course true Specials are given the same equipment as their regular counterparts and relevant training, but usually the training is diluted and certainly not reinforced by regular undertakings in real life situations.
Forces are abusing the privilege of the Special Constabulary. Thrusting them into situations not suitable for them as a consequence of budgetary constraints bestowed on them by the government. Members of the public place huge demands and expect high standards of service from their police officers. They do not care if the officer in front of them has an ‘SC’ on their epaulettes (signifying a Special Constable). They expect the same level of service from the uniform. Public and media scrutiny of the police service as a whole has never been greater – not one day passes without a tabloid bringing police ethics into question – and I worry it is only a matter of time before a well-meaning but ill-equipped Special Constable falls foul of the frequent pitfalls placed in their way and becomes the subject of a mass media inquisition and persecution.
Once again I would stress this blog is not intended to belittle the Special Constabulary who are indeed a national institution to be cherished; it is instead to share the concerns I have about the usage of Specials in modern policing. I want to see some of my Force’s Special Constables shoulder to shoulder with me in the fight against crime and disorder. But I want them to be earning a police salary along with all the training and experience that comes with it – not being used and abused by cash-strapped Forces. The majority of regulars are grateful for the assistance of their Special colleagues, and only a misinformed minority feel they are taking regular’s jobs. The Specials do sterling work and are true local heroes deserving of admiration. The Special Constabulary have a very important and valid role to play in the modern police service. But I fear they are no longer being fairly utilized in it.