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What do the police think about Community Support Officers?

2010-05-17

Police Community Support Officers were one of the former Labour government’s love-it-or-hate-it policy innovations in the area of policing. The basic idea is simple: training a police officer is time-consuming and expensive, and then you have to pay them a considerable sum of money to do the often difficult job they have to do. Police Community Support Officers are there to do the door-to-door policing in the community, and they then allow the warranted officers time to investigate more serious crime. A PCSO gets three weeks of training compared to six months of training for a constable, and are paid substantially less than a constable is. They do not have the full set of powers that warranted police officers do.

Opponents of PCSOs have frequently called them “plastic bobbies”, and described how they are a way for the government to provide “policing on the cheap”. The former government strongly deny this and point to the increases in police funding, and the increase in warranted offices with PCSOs being complementary to a strong police service rather than a replacement for it. Critics have also pointed to situations where PCSOs have not been able to intervene in ongoing crimes or help people in the same way that warranted police officers would – instead, they have to stand-by and wait for the ‘real cops’ to turn up, sometimes with tragic consequences. Again, these are individual anecdotes – if PCSOs were to go beyond the remit given by their limited powers, there would undoubtedly be similar stories about how some individuals have cocked things up.

What do our Parliamentarians have to say about PCSOs? Lots, obviously. Is what they say any good? Debatable.

Consider this question by Bill Cash in a Westminster Hall debate about PCSOs earlier this year:

Can the Minister give us, drawing from general surveys, a sense of what the Police Federation and other police officers feel about the fact that PCSOs have now become an integrated part of community policing arrangements?

Now, that is a good question. If one is to evaluate the effectiveness of PCSOs, hearing what police officers and the Police Federation think – in aggregate, rather than based on widely varying anecdotal testimony – is a useful thing to know. Even if one accepts that PCSOs have a useful role to play in policing or are a necessary measure for cost reasons, if the PCSOs are not fully integrated into the police service and have the support of existing warranted police officers, their effectiveness is hampered. Note the key part of this question though: “drawing from general surveys”.

The Minister (David Hanson) responded by giving a torrent of personal anecdotes:

Certainly, when I talk to officers on the ground – officers at senior level and sergeants and constables – there is recognition that PCSOs are part of the integrated policing family and perform a valuable function.

Taking up the hon. Gentleman’s point, when I make visits throughout the country, I get a sense of real engagement with PCSOs and the police. On Monday morning, I was in Stockport with my hon. Friend Ann Coffey, paying a visit to the policing family there. I met PCSOs and residents, who really appreciated the PCSOs. They knew their PCSO by name and knew their phone number and e-mail address; they called them by a friendly moniker and talked to them as though they were part of their local community.

Recently, I was in Carlisle with my hon. Friend Mr. Martlew. There, too, PCSOs are in the lead on neighbourhood policing engagement. They organise the policing meetings and are the first port of call for local people.

Last Thursday, I was with PCSOs on the beat on the south bank, in the constituency of my hon. Friend Kate Hoey, seeing some of the general neighbourhood work that they undertake in reassuring the public, particularly businesses and shopkeepers in the area.

Note how none of these personal anecdotes (which I wrote about in Come and visit Coalville!) actually answer Cash’s question. They do show that in Stockport, Carlisle and the South Bank in London, PCSOs are doing what they ought to be doing: community policing. But to answer Cash’s question, one needs to provide a “sense of what the Police Federation and other police officers” think about the role of PCSOs, preferably “drawing from general surveys” – that is, statistical information about what police officers think, not anecdotal data about what a government minister thinks. Lest anyone think that Hanson is alone in attempting to justify PCSOs on the basis of single anecdotes, consider this statement in the Commons by Linda Gilroy.

The Minister did make one reference to a review – the Casey Review:

The service that PCSOs provide is valued by the public. The recent Casey review found that six times as many people said that PCSOs were doing a good or excellent job than said that they were doing a poor or very poor job. The review also found that people wanted PCSOs to have the strong backing of Government.

The Casey Review – aka. Engaging Communities in Fighting Crime – does contain survey findings about PCSOs, but the survey was one of the general public, not the police. Should Bill Cash presume the answer to his question is either “no, there aren’t any” or “I haven’t got any to hand”? It certainly would have answered the question, but it wouldn’t have provided an opportunity to sing the praises of government policy.

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