Dr Megan O’Neill
These are dark days for PCSOs.
Well, actually, that assumes that PCSOs have ever had bright days. I am sure there must have been some along the way…perhaps for about a week…in 2009?
The Police Community Support Officer (PCSO) role has had a difficult run from the beginning. Brought into existence in England and Wales with the Police Reform Act (2002), PCSOs were thrust upon police forces without much warning or preparation. In some areas, there was not even the physical space to accommodate these new staff in police stations. Training for PCSOs in the early days was rather variable across the 42 forces with some only providing a few weeks of classroom instruction and a couple weeks of observation in the field before sending the new PCSOs out on their own into local communities. There was a great deal of confusion for those supervising PCSOs as to what these officers were meant to do and, just as importantly, what they were not meant to do.
I conducted six months of observational research on PCSOs in two police forces in 2012/13 and heard dramatic stories from the longer-serving staff about their work in the early days when some were responding to sudden deaths, suicide attempts and burglaries in progress. Especially before Neighbourhood Policing was rolled out across E&W (in 2008), there just was not a clear sense for supervisors or call room staff about what PCSOs could and could not do.
Thankfully, this picture has improved a great deal since then. My research revealed that although misconceptions do still remain with some police officers about the role and powers of PCSOs, these staff are now firmly embedded in community policing teams. PCs and supervisors who work with PCSOs regularly have a good understanding of what they can offer the team and value their contribution. Members of the public, also initially sceptical, now report an appreciation of the role, especially for the extent to which PCSOs can attend the ‘small stuff’ which, while it may have a large impact on the life of a community, is not serious enough to command the attention of a warranted police officer. This can be issues related to anti-social behaviour, nuisance neighbours, local school and community events or even just checking in on vulnerable people.
However, there has always been a complication in the PCSO formula which puts them at risk in the face of budget constraints: they can be made redundant. As members of staff, and not servants of the crown, PCSO jobs are vulnerable in a way that those of police officers are not. And, as we know, we are now many years into a period of fiscal restraint in the public sector. Most police forces have reduced their complement of PCSOs (and police officers) since 2010, and the total number of PCSOs across E&W has dropped 40% in that time. Those PCSOs that remain find themselves with less time to go out on foot patrol and be self-directing, instead having to attend to jobs and errands for which police officers do not have the time.
A significant turn of events has recently happened, however. Norfolk Police announced in October 2017 that they would be removing the PCSO role entirely. While the staff concerned will be allocated to other roles where possible, this is indeed a serious blow to PCSOs across the country. What makes the situation even worse for PCSOs is that legislation has now been passed which enables police forces to appoint police ‘Community Support Volunteers’ (CSVs) with PCSO powers. Lincolnshire Police have been trialling CSVs for a while now (although with no powers) and Kent Police and Durham Constabulary have expressed interest in the new CSV role.
This combination of volunteers (now with potentially wide-ranging and regionally variable powers due to the Policing and Crime Act 2017) and mass redundancy gives a signal that the PCSO is expendable and not doing work of serious value. This is far from the truth. PCSOs do a great deal of work in their local areas to not only build positive relationships between communities and the police but also to assist with crime prevention work (among other tasks). This crime prevention work is achieved in a variety of ways, from leaflet drops to building a network of key informants. The positive relationships they have built in local areas is evidenced by the outcry at the Norfolk decision, in sharp contrast to the negative publicity that they received at the start of the role in 2002.
During the course of my research I came across members of the public who were happy to share information they had about potential local crimes and offenders with PCSOs, but not with police officers. The PCSO was a known and trusted face. It takes time and dedication to build relationships like these which could provide the police with valuable information. In addition to which, PCSOs can resolve issues and disputes without the need to involve warranted officers (or worse, to leave a member of the community feeling ignored because the officer was too busy to get to him or her). By reducing the number of PCSOs, it is far more difficult for them to continue to develop and nurture these connections. They no longer have the time for this work, which was a key part of their remit, because they are being tasked with short-term jobs that no one else has the time to do. A recent survey conducted by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services found that 43% of their respondents had not seen an officer on patrol (PC or PCSO) in the last year.
Volunteer PCSOs, while they may sound logical, undermine the work of PCSOs even further, rather than assisting. The key selling point of the PCSO role is their ability to be a consistent and reliable presence in a local area and CSVs cannot do this. Volunteers are not required to commit the same number of hours as a full-time PCSO would do. As such, they cannot build long-term relationships in communities, they cannot commit to attend meetings or events and they cannot undertake local problem-solving work which usually involves a significant time investment. However, they may be an attractive option to police forces looking for budget savings, but if the PCSO role is relegated to an optional service provided by volunteers much, much more will be lost than just some salary expense.
Dr Megan O’Neill is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Dundee. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @drmeganoneill