I stood in a large meeting room with a whole bunch of people I didn’t know. It was packed. Invited guests were directed to seats at the back of the hall and I was ushered toward the front. “Your name will be on your seat”. I looked for a letter M on the floor by the rows of seats and then made my way along the row, passing a number of people who would become great friends and finally found my seat. I picked up all the paperwork on the seat and sat down. There was a nervous tension across the room for all of us sat toward the front. The uniform we were wearing was the only thing we had in common. This was my attestation ceremony to be sworn in as a special constable.
The year was 1988. Margaret Thatcher was in power and jobs were scarce. I had one with the Post Office but was not happy. I wanted something to challenge me more. The police seemed like the way to go but what if I joined full time and didn’t like it? Would I be able to find another job? I concluded that if I didn’t like the specials I certainly wouldn’t like it full time so I signed up with the security of keeping my job.
I was posted to a town about 5 miles away from where I lived. I knew this area reasonably well but it was far enough from home for me to feel comfortable. My first tour of duty was with my section officer, Ray. Some forces still hold this title but others now call this position Special Sergeant. I don’t agree with this but that’s a post for another time perhaps.
We walked around the town. I had my tunic on, cap and my boots were bulled to a high shine. I also carried my truncheon and cuffs neither of which I had been given any instruction on how to use. The radio was a slim blue Burndept strung across the front of my chest in a webbing harness. Talk through was always off unless requested so I could only hear the radio operator. It was evening and we walked along the pedestrianised shopping street checking the shops. Suddenly there was a loud smash and for an older guy Ray was off in a flash shouting into his radio as he went. I legged it after him. We rounded the corner to find a huge shop window smashed and nobody in sight. I learnt how to take a crime report sat in this shop with a bewildered looking manager as Ray stood over me telling me what to fill in.
I spent my full 3 years working this town. The reception of specials turning up for duty was a bit of a mixed bag. Specials were not a new phenomenon but we were cast with titles such as “Part time Cops” and “Hobby Bobbies.” Many regulars looked at us as if we were stark raving mad to give up our own time to police the town. We clearly had issues and wanted the uniforms and to play at being the Police. “Walts.” Fortunately there were a few who had no issues with working with us and as my face became known at the station and the realisation that whilst giving up my own time I wasn’t a complete idiot I found there were many officers who were happy for me to work alongside them. This was the biggest learning curve ever but I flew by the seat of my pants and although never as qualified as the regulars I was eventually able to cover some tasks that would free up the officers on the panda’s.
Though it has to be said that some of the hierarchy in that day did us no favours. Every year we had an annual review where we would march and be inspected by the Chief Constable. One year I overheard some Divisional Commandants grumbling to each other about how they were being treated like second class citizens as they had to march with their divisional staff. I’d like to think this attitude has long since died. These folk only had limited understanding and involvement in police work yet swanned into police stations full of a sense of the grandiose. No wonder some of the regular police officers were alienated by such attitudes.
Irrespective of these issues I carved my own path. Friday or Saturday nights were never the same again and I enjoyed an opportunity to see the police for what it was. I was hooked and when old enough (I could be a special at 18 but couldn’t be a full time officer until I was 21) I applied to the regular force and was appointed. Standing in the same room some 3yrs later for a second attestation ceremony was a bit odd but a very proud moment for me.
Over the years of my service I have worked with, coached, demonstrated to and guided many specials along their journey. These days specials undergo much more training than I ever did and they do a fabulous job. I know how it feels to be uncertain about powers and questioning whether you have done the right thing. I know only too well how I was shaking in my boots outlining the circumstances of my first arrest to the custody sgt. Even today Specials will make an arrest and stand in front of me looking ghostly pale and uncertain of what to do and say. They get through and I have never had occasion to not authorise detention for an arrest made by a special. If you know that feeling and you are concerned… don’t be… I can make officers with 20yrs service look pale at the desk sometimes too!!
So who is a special? Well like I was they are someone who wants to “try” out the police and see if it is for them before committing to a full time position. Some forces are almost (but not openly) advocating that the special constabulary is now almost the route into the full time regular positions. A special is also someone who wants to do some good in their local area. They want to experience what policing is all about but not sacrifice their own career. They may be a housewife and no need or time for a full time job but can give something on weekends and evenings to the benefit of their community. It’s different, it’s dangerous, it’s challenging but most of all, in the long run, it’s great fun. Specials work for nothing. They give their time voluntarily and as the definition of a constable states… they are a “citizen, locally appointed…”
Even now there is a misconception in the minds of many of what function a special constable performs within the modern police force. Officers used to look on and see that specials were covering events they would otherwise have been paid overtime for. This was a nonsense then and still is now. The police have a duty to cover the policing needs of the communities they serve. We are supplemented by those who wish to volunteer but if every single special in the country decided to down tools the policing of the country should continue without a hiccup. Gradually over the years there has been an increase in the use of specials in a variety of situations and they are being called upon more and more often. However, it is the very nature of a volunteer to turn out and assist when there is a large event or in times of crisis. The recent riots in London and around the country are a fine example of how specials turned out in droves to assist in providing a service to the general public whilst fully trained public order officers dealt with the hoodlums. On the flip side specials get the opportunity to get involved with and police fantastic events such as football matches, Commonwealth games and next year the Olympics.
Police officers are members of your community just as you are. We don’t want to see crime any more than you do. It could just as easily be a police officers home that is burgled whilst out at work. We give to our communities and are “retained” by the crown with pay and conditions. Specials do all of this for nothing simply to see an improvement in their community. How fantastic to have the Olympics (even if they are in London), a huge international event and for us regular staff to know that there are 100’s of extra pairs of eyes and ears out every day of the event, preventing crime and promoting the world renowned image of the British Bobby.
As I type today there are cuts of 20% being applied to UK policing. Officer numbers are reducing and police staff are being laid off. Those in power believe that such cuts will have little to no effect on front line policing. They are wrong. I have no doubt that as officer numbers reduce, forces around the country will start to call on their “reserve” force more and more. If we are to have more police staff strikes such as in Nottingham last week then regular officers will be under pressure to cover all their roles. Overtime will flood in and the government are trying to save money? We will no doubt call on the good will of our specials and here the line starts to become blurred. There is duty out of a desire to help your community and there is duty because you are essential in order to help keep the wheel on.
Whilst we are grateful for the support, the policing of the UK cannot fall into a state where we ordinarily rely on specials to cover day to day policing. In another blog post Striking I discussed how we have brought police staff into the policing equation but have allowed them the right to strike. An all out strike will cripple the police service because we rely on our police staff. In the same way we cannot have a service that considers the Special Constabulary essential as opposed to supplementary.
Whilst this situation continues to develop the specials we have now and in the future will continue to do their bit and their bit is something every community should be grateful for.