Volunteers would investigate crimes in latest police shake-up

Police officers on patrol in Norwich.

Police officers on patrol in Norwich. - Credit: Eastern Daily Press é 2011

Volunteers could help investigate crime and interview victims under a radical shake-up of police powers proposed by the Government.

Specialists in computing or accounting could play a role in financial and cyber crime inquiries, ministers say.

The plans could also see civilians carry out tasks such as interviewing victims and taking witness statements as police chiefs are given the green light to hand more responsibilities to support staff and volunteers.

Newly-created police community support volunteers (PCSVs) will also be given uniforms under the proposed reforms.

The announcement by Home Secretary Theresa May will trigger fresh controversy following claims that thousands of officer roles could be axed if fresh funding cuts are imposed on police.

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Labour accused the Government of 'hollowing out' police services.

The Home Office insists a new list of 'core' powers will ensure civilians will not be tasked with doing officers' jobs such as making arrests.

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Launching a consultation on the proposals, Mrs May said volunteers already play a 'vital role' but can do more.

She said: 'This Government wants to encourage those with skills in particular demand, such as those with specialist IT or accountancy skills, to get involved and help the police to investigate cyber or financial crime and, as their experience grows, to enable them to play a greater part in investigations.'

Warning that officers cannot carry out their 'essential role' alone, she said civilian staff such as police community support officers (PCSOs) have played a 'key role'.

Mrs May added: 'We believe that they can play a greater role in the future, bringing new skills and expertise, and freeing up police officers to concentrate on the core policing task that most requires their particular powers and experience.'

'Hollowing out'

In a sign of the financial pressures to come, the Home Office consultation document says the proposals will give chief constables 'greater flexibility in meeting the demands on police forces at a time when funding policing remains a significant challenge'.

In the current model there are four categories of police staff who can be designated with a list of specified powers by force chiefs - PCSOs, investigating officers, detention officers, and escort officers. None can make arrests.

Under the new proposals, the list-based approach would be abandoned, allowing chief officers to confer civilian staff with any of the powers of a police officer, apart from a list of core powers.

Examples of the tasks support staff could be given under the new regime include applying for a search warrant or a production order.

Chief constables would also be able to confer powers on to volunteers.

The consultation points out that volunteers have been able to exercise the full range of police powers for almost 200 years in the shape of special constables.

An impact assessment concedes forces will face a cost for issuing uniforms and training volunteers but claims these should be offset by savings that would be made by freeing up officers.

It also says a greater reliance on volunteers 'should mean a greater availability of police personnel (i.e. the volunteers themselves) to interview victims, take witness statements etc in the evenings and weekends'.

The list of core powers reserved for officers includes making arrests, carrying out stop and searches and all powers under counter-terrorism legislation.

Existing safeguards, including a requirement for civilian staff and volunteers to be fully trained before being designated with a specific power, will be retained under the proposals.

Shadow Policing Minister Jack Dromey accused the Government of 'hollowing out' neighbourhood policing.

He added: 'Now Theresa May has the cheek to suggest that these jobs may be done by volunteers.

'Officers and PCSOs are extensively trained to deal with high-risk situations, sensitive and confidential information and vulnerable people. May's announcements show that she totally misunderstands the nature of the roles.'

Will Riches, vice chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales said: 'This Government's proposal for a new tier of police volunteers, given new, and as yet unspecified, powers, sounds like a half-way house between paid, employed PCSOs and specials.

'Recruiting super-volunteers is no more a solution to the challenges of policing than a nurse putting a little plaster on a patient who is bleeding to death.'

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