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Police Community Support Officer

Author: Cate Newnessmith
Published Date: 12 March 2007

Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs or Community Support Officers CSOs) were introduced by the Police Reform Act 2002 to provide an increased presence on the street, to tackle low level crime and anti-social behaviour, and to enable highly trained resources to be focused on major crime.

A pilot scheme across six forces started in September 2002 and was extended to England, Wales and the British Transport Police. PCSOs are distinct from Special Constables who have full police powers. Like Neighbourhood and Street Wardens, PCSOs are civilians, but hold a range of powers e.g. the power to detain a person forthirty minutes until an officer arrives, and the power to issue Fixed Penalty Notices There are around 8,000 PCSOs and they now form an integral part of Safer Neighbourhood Teams. It is a good example of a social innovation that stemmed from national and international community initiatives and had an influence on policy behaviour.

Chronology from conception to widespread acceptance

•The Audit Commission report, Streetwise: effective police patrol, outlines public demand for greater visible presence by the police and foot patrols


•HMIC report on visibility and accessibility of police service: little public confidence in police maintaining order and perception that they are withdrawing from communities

•PA Consulting Group report Diary of a Police Officer states police officers spend an average offorty three per centof their time in police stations

•Home Office White Paper: Policing a New Century:A blueprint for reform argues for modernisation of police. PCSOs to be introduced with a ‘vital role to play in support of the police in increasing public safety and contributing to the regeneration of an area’

January – July 2002

•Pilot Policing Priority Areas set up in London, Bristol, Bradford, Stoke and North Wales

•Police Reform Bill introduced in the Lords – legislates for the introduction of PCSOs

•Police forces are invited to bid for funds for PCSOs

September - December 2002

•PCSOs operational in London. Provisions granting PCSOs power come into force


•£19m made available for the introduction of PCSOs

January 2003

•Detention powers for PCSOs piloted in London, Lancashire, West Yorkshire Northamptonshire, Devon and Cornwall and Gwent. Evaluated between 2003-2004

July 2004

•Home Office Strategic Plan 2004-2008 – creation of Neighbourhood Policing Fund (includes the target of 24,000 PCSOs by 2008)

September – November 2004

•Results of the detention power evaluation indicate high support for its continuation

•Home Office White Paper Building Communities, Beating Crime: A better police service for the 21st Century - development of minimum set of powers for PCSOs for all forces.

March – August 2005

•Home Office Neighbourhood Policing: your police, your community, our commitment. One hundred per cent of cost of PCSOs for first year of recruitment from government andseventy five per centthereafter. Other funding sources encouraged – local businesses, communities and local authorities

•Consultation by the Home Office on standard powers for PCSOs and a framework for the future development of powers

January – March 2006

•First national evaluation of PCSOs published by the Home Office (although local evaluations had already been carried out by specific forces, for example, North Yorkshire; Avon and Somerset)

•Additional funding announced in Budget to accelerate recruitment and to enable introduction of 16,000 PCSOs by April 2007

November 2006

•Police and Justice Act 2006 provides standard set of powers for all PCSOs

•The Home Office Minister, Tony McNulty MP announces that forces not expected to increase numbers of PCSOs beyond 16,000 target by end of April 2007, withdrawing the previous 24,000 target from 2004

The problem
In the late 1990s policing in the UK was coming under close scrutiny and various models were considered to address crime and disorder and related social ills.At that time, there was more of a policing focus on ‘volume-crimes’ such as domestic burglary and street crimes which were measured by Best Value Performance Indicators (BVPI).This meant that there was less of a focus on priorities for the local area, for example, community-oriented policing and attention to lower level disorder/anti-social behaviour.It has been recognised that this ‘modernization’ process may have done more harm than good to community relations and public confidence in policingand that the balance between a performance culture and community policing needed to be redressed.

From the late 1970s onwards, there had been a gradual withdrawal of locally-based staff from neighbourhoods. For example, housing caretakers, park keepers and patch-based social workers and youth and community workers, used to play a role in informal surveillance.A full-time, recognisable official presence was therefore required to act as ‘eyes and ears’, take early preventative action and be someone whom residents could turn to for assistance.

The introduction of community support officers was influenced by these two issues.The development of the idea, however, is also linked to a specific problem in London. There was an increased demand for police patrols for reassurance, at a time when police resources were being diverted into anti terrorism activities.The public expressed a need to feel reassured by a uniformed police presence.Prior to the Police Reform Act 2002, there were only officers, special constables and traffic wardens on the streets. There were fears that privately funded community patrols or local authorities setting up their own police forces would lead to a mixed economy in community policing or ‘balkanisation’. Ian Blair, then Deputy Commissioner, proposed the recruitment of uniformed auxiliaries as part of a ‘police extended family’.

'By giving such staff the Met badge of excellence, by ensuring that they work under the direction and control of constables, by offering an auxiliary service with powers, we will be able to persuade local authorities and others to spend their money on this kind of service, rather than on schemes without Met backing, without Met intelligence, without Met standards and without Met-based powers.' (Blair, 2002, p. 31)

In this context, the introduction of PCSOs was, in part, a defensive move by Police to close off competition, demonstrating that contestability can be a good driver for innovation.

The 2001 Home Office White Paper on police reform included proposals for PCSOs, and this provides an insight into how the Government framed the problem being addressed. The White Paper stressed the need for:

•more effective, visible and modernised policing to create a sense of order and security in communities

•the performance of the policeto be improved

•the maintenance of public confidence – through better accessibility and good communication.

There was also a growing concern about anti social behaviour damaging communities and potentially leading to more serious crime. PCSOs would be able to carry out basic patrol functions and have sufficient powers to deal with anti social behaviour and minor disorders. Their introduction would ensure that there was a visible police presence in neighbourhoods – in line with strong public support for increased foot patrols.

Finding a solution
The precursors to PCSOs were civilian police officers and neighbourhood wardens, and both highlighted the benefits of having a local official presence in communities. The idea of PCSOs was also influenced by shifts towards community policing – an idea which became more popular under the Labour Government, despite previous failed attempts to focus policing at a neighbourhood level.

Civilian police officers
There have been examples of civilian police officers before in response to the need for more patrolling of streets and neighbourhoods. Perhaps the most controversial example is the Guardian Angels, who were founded in New York in 1979 to combat violence and crime on the subways. The Guardian Angels have had a chapter in London since 1989, but were generally regarded as right wing vigilantes, and parliament even went as far as discussing deporting American members of the Guardian Angels as they were not seen to be conducive to the public good.

An international example is the Civic Warden Scheme in Holland. This was first set up in 1989 and in 1992 a Dutch Civic Warden Foundation was created to oversee development. There was high unemployment in Holland when it started and although the scheme reflected growing concerns about safety, it also helped the long term unemployed to gain work experience. The civic wardens have no special powers, but have strong links with the police. Evaluations of the scheme revealed that these strong partnerships, along with high quality training were crucial in the overall success and acceptance of the wardens.

Prior to the introduction of PCSOs in Britain, evidence of municipal service provision can be seen in examples such as the Parks Constabulary in Brent (est. 1979) and the Sedgefield Community Force (est. 1994).

Neighbourhood wardens
Before PCSOs neighbourhood wardens played a part in fulfilling a role in communities and can be seen as their precursor. In 1998, the Social Exclusion Unit looked at neighbourhood warden schemes and found they were primarily focused on crime prevention, environmental improvements, community development and housing management. They were seen as successful, liked by residents and police and as improving the quality of residents’ lives, their feelings of security and relation to their environment.They could engage with community groups in ways that police officers could not, given high levels of distrust. The report recommended that warden schemes be encouraged, and in 2000 a warden's unit was set up and absorbed into the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit a year later.

Neighbourhood policing
The origination of PCSOs in the UK can also be understood in the context of an Anglo American consensus on policing systems – placing increasing weight on the effectiveness of community policing. In America, since community policing was enshrined in the Violent Crime Control and Law enforcement Act in 1994, there has been a major effort to put community police officers on the street.In the UK, community and neighbourhood policing fell within the Labour Government’s emphasis on civic and neighbourhood renewal – high on the policy agenda since 1997. A clampdown on disorder was crucial as part of this.Dealing with crime in high-risk areas required a new approach, and in 1998 the Crime and Disorder Act legislated for Community Safety Partnerships (CDRPs) giving local authorities statutory responsibility for crime prevention and community safety. It was felt that a local community safety strategy would work best to connect with the local population and develop cross agency solutions. The police would also foster social cohesion, not just focus on crime prevention and arrest.

Early Attempts at neighbourhood policing
Sector policing and geographic policing can be seen as early attempts to introduce neighbourhood policing. These examples are important for understanding the development of PCSOs, as they reflect the shift towards more locally based policing priorities - PCSOs now play an instrumental role in neighbourhood policing.

Sector policing in the UK started in London in the early 1990s and employed teams of officers with a responsibility for the same small community area or sector. It ceased to exist in London within a decade of its implementation. A case study conducted in Holloway from 1991-3 identified a number of issues:

•difficulties in establishing sectors, defining communities and ensuring community consultations were representative

•it was unpopular internally because it challenged the ‘occupational culture’ of operational police officials

•resources and communication from the top were inadequate

Another reason for the failure of sector policing was that target setting approaches (prior to 1997, and after) attempted to generate better arrest figures and rapid response data and so was focused on the traditional priorities of crime fighting and incident response rather than on the ‘soft’ and difficult to measure areas of community or sector policing.

Other initiatives such as geographic policing were also piloted in the UK from 1998 but again failed to take root. This was a style of policing championed by Steve Pilkington, Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset.Beat managers were used to build links with communities so officers could move towards ‘policing by consent’. All officers were also trained in problem solving to try and cut crime before it reached the criminal justice system through working with other agencies to unravel the problems that lay behind the offences.However, new national targets for police constabularies were more focused on national rather than local targets, and also failed to appreciate the impact that the improved relationships between community members and the police had on crime figures. For example, when women in Bristol came forward to report assaults in areas where geographic policing schemes were in place, HM inspectors complained that the numbers for crimes of sex and violence were increasing and stood well above the otherseventeen constabularies (or BCUs) in its family.

Who came up with the idea for PCSOs?
Sir Ian Blair, is often credited with the idea for PCSOs, as in the London context, as they could:

•provide a continuous visible uniformed presence without all the skills of police officers

•play a role in community confidence

Increased police presence alone was insufficient to achieve these aims, as the police also needed to be accessible and to communicate more effectively.However, there was also considerable support for PCSOs at 10 Downing Street, and the Prime Minister, along with his senior policy advisor on home affairs, Justin Russell, were instrumental in ensuring that the PCSOs were included in the 2001 White Paper.

Pilotingthe idea
The introduction of PCSOs was rapid, leading to later criticisms that the scheme had not been properly thought through.A study of the first operational PCSOs in London in 2002 found many organisational issues due to the speed at which the programme was implemented.There was systemic failure to collect and collate management information and supervising officers were often unaware that PCSOs were to be in their charge. The three week training was inadequate in ‘inculcating the values, attitudes and standards of a disciplined, uniformed organisation’.According to Superintendent Dal Babu, in Tower Hamlets (the first borough to successfully roll out Safer Neighbourhood Teams in July 2007) adequate training is at the heart of a successful PCSO scheme: 'What you’ve got to remember is that a PCSO will be driving a van on a Monday and on the beat on the Tuesday so training is hugely important to equip them with the right skills'.

PCSOs were initially seen as controversial. Following the announcement of PCSOs in the 2001 White Paper, the main concerns were that funding would be ring fenced so forces would be forced to accept PCSOs, that there would be confusion amongst the public between officers and PCSOs, and that the value of semi skilled support was questionable. Initial scepticism did subside although the Police Federation have remained vocal in their opposition to PCSOs.In the Home Affairs Select Committee report on Police Reform, for example, the Police Federation submission expressed their scepticism: 'basing the wholesale introduction of PCSOs solely on the public’s desire to see a return of a uniformed presence on the streets is disingenuous and spurious… statements of public affirmation in no way constitute a legitimate justification to introduce more PCSOs…'.

Rolling it out
The appointment of PCSOs is optional for each police force. There is evidence of significant take up:

•by the end of March 2006, 6,700 PCSOs were in operation

•34% of PCSOs were in the Metropolitan Police area alone (evidence of greater need for PCSOs in London than elsewhere

However, given that the target was set for 16,000 PCSOs by April 2007, these figures also suggest that as an innovation, PCSOs have not been widely replicated, despite strong Home Office support.

PCSOs numbers have increased steadily alongside the Government’s aims of recruiting record numbers of police officers.However, it has been stressed that PCSO expansion is not at the expense of frontline policing resources. As forces are now being encouraged to enter into new arrangements for funding PCSOs (for example, with local businesses) it could be argued that there is a reduced incentive to take them up. PCOSs are promoted by central government as part of Safer Neighbourhood Teams, but local decision making and local accountability is emphasised, allowing forces to decide if PCSOs are appropriate in their area.This shift in emphasis reflects feedback that PCSOs are regarded as being most effective when working with police officers and when local communities make decisions in light of local priorities.

Significant changes and adaptations have been made to PCSOs’ powers in response to public confusion over their purpose and remit.During 2003-04 the power for PCSOs to detain people for up tothirty minutes before an officer’s arrival was piloted and approved.The 2004 Home Office White Paper – Building Communities, Beating Crime identified that a standard set of minimum powers for PCSOs would prevent variation between forces. In some areas, PCSOs have been like wardens, whereas elsewhere, they have wider powers. The Home Office launched a consultation in August 2005 and there was wide support for a minimal standard, with powers that involve greater risk remaining at the discretion of Chief Constables.

The 2004 White paper also represented a shift in the role of PCSOs. It emphasised continued reform of the police service, but with a greater focus on neighbourhood policing to improve police responsiveness and customer service. Neighbourhoods would have dedicated teams – (later Safer Neighbourhood Teams) with one sergeant, two constables and three or four PCSOs and would aim to have a constructive and lasting engagement with the community and would not be diverted elsewhere. They would set local policing priorities in consultation with the local community.

Evaluation of success
There was no national evaluation of PCSOs until 2005/06, but local evaluations did take place. A 2004 Police Foundation report for Surrey Police dealt with issues of speedy implementation:

•PCSO powers had not been adequately explained

•sergeants had not had training in how to manage civilian staff

•no forum for PCSOs to assemble to represent their views

Positive aspects included their ability to deter young people from anti social behaviour and crime. A West Yorkshire study found that they were providing effective crime prevention and assisting with local problem solving. It also showed the value of PCSOs in engaging with community groups and facilitating dialogue with hard to reach groups.The national evaluation published in January 2006 confirmed that PCSOs were well regarded:

•accessibility and approachability meant that the public were more likely to pass on information

•good ethnic diversity of PCSOsthirty seven per per centpolice officers (important in light of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry recommendations on relations between police and BME communities)

However, there were several less positive issues:

•PCSOs were seen as less valuable than fully sworn police officers in some areas with little publicity of the role

•High staff turnover – when PCSOs became full officers, then the composition of the Safer Neighbourhood Teams altered. This was problematic as the original intention was that PCSOs and officers would build up a close relationship with the local community.

Responses to PCSOs seem to suggest that they are most effective when they are part of a neighbourhood team and balance their role between enforcement and community engagement.The main opponents of the scheme were the Police Federation who felt that public affirmation was not legitimate justification for the effectiveness of PCSOs – who they saw as cheaper as and less trained than police officers. They were, however, willing to accept them so long is as it did not mean any reduction in existing police numbers.

Government involvement
The rapid introduction of PCSOs appears to have contributed to problems with the implementation and integration of PCSOs in the early stages. As the National Evaluation identified, communication prior to the arrival of PCSOs was not good, and many police officers felt their position was under threat.The speed also caused problems in consistency: PCSOs were being used in different ways and powers varied between forces - although recent changes in the Police and Justice Act 2006 will address this. A national training model for PCSOs exists, but many forces have not had time to implement this, so experiences varied. This suggests that PCSOs innovations have been hindered – by confusion and lack of clarity at the outset.

Nationally set targets for PCSO numbers have also created issues in the PCSO scheme. In 2004, the Home Office strategic plan set a target to have 24,000 PCSOs by 2008. However, at the end of 2006, it was announced that the Home Office would not require forces to increase PCSOs beyond the 16,000 target by the end of April 2007. Police services argued that they did not need 24,000 PCSOs (despite this being a Labour Party manifesto commitment). The priority is now to continue the roll out of neighbourhood policing (including PCSOs) while accounting for different local needs and circumstances. This was not greeted favourably by some who felt a reduction would do little to improve public confidence in the police. These developments can be interpreted in two ways – either as evidence of a slow take up (and therefore, unpopularity?) amongst forces, or that in effect, the shift towards local priorities is evidence of innovation – allowing for changes to the original idea to best meet the needs of communities, even if this means going back on previously made promises.

Government interventions on funding have had an impact on the diffusion of PCSOs. In March 2005, the Government stated that it would only meet the full cost of PCSOs in the first year of recruitment. The Surrey evaluation highlighted concern about these arrangements as the local CDRP was clear that there was no spare money to fund PCSOs after the first three years. The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) has also expressed concern about meeting thetwenty five per centfunding gap.There is evidence to suggest that forces have entered into successful funding arrangements – for example, Thames Valley Police had arrangements with a number of unitary authorities and county and district councils, underpinned by the principles that core policing services will continue to be provided, and PCSOs are only in addition to these.These changes throw into doubt how PCSOs fit in with the ‘extended police family’, and more research may be required to see how they fit into a wider picture of multi agency working.

What has been learnt?
- there has been a lack of clear piloting and dissemination of findings

- speedy implementation has been detrimental to the take up and success of PCSOs in some areas

- more clarity on the specification of remit necessary

- the links anddifferences between PCSOs and Community Safety Wardens has not been made clear.