Where have all the Special Constables gone, and what can we do about it? (long read)

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Related Theme: Workforce

Where have all the Special Constables gone, and what can we do about it? (long read)

CJ Marshall – Special Assistant Chief Officer, Metropolitan Special Constabulary; Trustee, Association of Special Constabulary Officers and Police Foundation Practitioner Fellow
 
Dr Iain Britton – Visiting Fellow, Insitute for Public Safety, Crime and Justice, University of Northampton and Visiting Associate Professor, University of Central Florida
 

It is no exaggeration to say that this near 200 year old institution is facing an existential crisis. The headcount of our volunteer police officers, Special Constables, is at its lowest level for the past half century, standing at less than one third the size that it was only a decade ago. Numbers have decreased consecutively for the past 11 years and in the past year alone, numbers saw a further sharp 20 per cent reduction, falling again significantly in virtually every police force. Over the past 12 months, recruitment was at the lowest volume and the attrition rate was at its highest level for a quarter of a century.

The resultant hollowing out of Special Constabularies has seen many police forces with hundreds fewer Special Constables (SCs) than they had as recently as three to four years ago. In several police forces, there is a serious risk of ‘tipping points’ of basic sustainability, with in some cases the active cohort of SCs barely in double figures.

Debunking the myths

There are stories that policing tells itself about the disappearance of the Special Constabulary that maybe make it feel better about the shrinkage in volunteer officers, but they also get in the way of a true understanding of what is actually going on.

A few years ago, it was said to be all about a natural readjustment following a surge in recruitment from the Olympics in 2012, despite the data always pointing elsewhere, with much of the reductions back then being in police forces that had not even grown their numbers pre-2012.

Presently, it’s said to be all about SCs being recruited to be regulars due to the national Uplift Programme recruitment targets; again, this is not borne out in the data, which suggests that the flow of SCs into the regular service has not particularly grown during Uplift, and that it is still the case as it always has been that a large majority (over two-thirds) of SCs who leave do not do so to join up as regulars.

Policing has repeatedly told itself for the past decade comforting untruths that whilst numbers are down, this is all about good management and housekeeping, about exiting inactive volunteers, and that the Special Constabulary may be smaller but that those that are left are more active and serving more hours. National data shows that during the years of reducing numbers, the average hours served by individual SCs have remained stable. National data also shows that the proportion of SCs who are dormant, and also the proportion who are not serving an average of 16 hours a month, have also remained stable during this period.

There is more merit in arguments that the Special Constabulary is not unique in its challenges, and that there have been significant headwinds for all volunteer programmes: Covid-19, generational shifts in voluntarism, the cost of living crisis, the growth in volunteer opportunities across many sectors effectively making things more competitive. However, this bigger picture doesn’t tell much of the specific story. Over the past decade rates of volunteering in UK society have actually increased in many years, whilst SC numbers have fallen by two-thirds. The reasons for the reduction of SC numbers are mostly specific to the current Special Constabulary approach. To change that trend and begin to grow again will require fundamental rethinking of the model that we currently have.

Recruitment

There are three core fundamentals driving down rates of recruitment nationally across almost every police force.

  1. The volume of applications has markedly slowed, and many available training places are currently going unfilled. This reflects that the model of the Special Constabulary has become overly reliant on a very narrow demographic, primarily of volunteers in their older teens or in their young twenties who mostly want to passage quickly through the voluntary role on their way to paid service as a regular officer. The volume of such applicants has shrunk down as regular officer recruitment volumes have risen, and as direct entry into the regular service has become more accessible. Firstly, due to upward adjustments in regular recruitment volumes following a period of the ‘austerity’ non-recruitment during the Coalition government, and then latterly as a consequence of the Police Uplift Programme. The Special Constabulary profoundly lacks an inclusive and diverse attraction, amongst other things meaning very few older adults in their 30s, 40s and 50s feel attracted or able to join.

  2.  Police forces have lacked the resources to attract, recruit, train and onboard the required volume of SCs – mostly because those resources in HR, vetting, learning and development and similar roles have been prioritised elsewhere, particularly in recent years into the Uplift Programme. Most police forces have experienced periods of SC recruitment freezes or have seen substantive and sustained reductions and cancellations of training cohorts.

  3. There are very high rates of attrition during slow recruitment and onboarding processes. Many police forces experience something close to a 9 out of 10 attrition rate between initial submission of application and completion of initial training. Whilst small proportions of this are about selection of applicants, the lion’s share of the numbers leaking away during recruiting are simply would-be SCs who have drifted away during application processes for a volunteer role that can take a year (and in some cases much longer) to complete.

 These challenges mean that just recruiting more will not solve the problems, or potentially even make much difference at all. There is a need to think about how to massively broaden attraction, and about recruiting and onboarding in very different ways which are more reflective of a modern professionalised volunteer programme.

Attrition

The current pattern of short careers in the Special Constabulary is unsustainable. Of the 15,500 SCs who have been recruited since 2017 across England and Wales (at an estimated collective onboarding cost in the region of £54m), approximately 4,000 remain in role. The median voluntary service of a SC when they leave is just over two years. This is reflected in the fact that a third of SCs leave each year. Given the high levels of finance and other resources required to onboard new SCs, and the fundamental challenges set out above in growing recruitment volumes, the current model simply will never recover in its present form. Doing what we have always done is not a viable option.

Much of this poor attrition is ‘baked in’ through the currently narrow and skewed recruitment model. National data shows that SCs recruited in their 30s or 40s are three times more likely to stay long-term than those recruited in their young twenties. Many current young recruits are also motivated by aspirations to join the regular service. More often than not, this results either in their rapid transition across into such a paid role, or alternatively that they ultimately choose a different paid career path or find their applications to the regular service unsuccessful. Either way, most of these people (almost all of them) leave their volunteer officer roles early in their voluntary service.

We also need to think about those currently in service in a more intelligent and flexible way. Too frequently, SCs are allowed to leave, or actively encouraged to resign, because of a change to their circumstances that render them inoperable or only able to provide a lesser number of hours. It seems we would rather ‘have them off the books’ so to speak as opposed to thinking about the vast experience and skills they possess which could be deployed in other more innovative ways.

Diversity and inclusion

For many years it has been said that a key benefit that Special Constables bring to their wider forces is being more diverse in terms of age, gender, and ethnicity. However, this is not wholly the case anymore. As of last financial year, the Special Constabulary was the most ethnically diverse part of the police workforce with 879 of the 6,351 SCs identifying as ethnic minorities. However, the proportion of females in the Special Constabulary was the lowest across all worker types, with 26.3 per cent of SCs identifying as female. When looking at age, the Special Constabulary had a younger profile than the paid ranks, with 20.1 per cent of SCs under the age of 26.

There is an urgent and existential need to shift to a more inclusive model. Despite so many positive changes – the strengthening of training and competency, improved integration, improved access to IT and equipment, growth in resourcing for support roles, and the development of specialist roles, to name but a few – nevertheless much of how the Special Constabulary operates, and how it is seen and understood in policing, hasn’t really changed over the past 20 or 30 years. There are inflexible, ‘one size fits all’, process-driven approaches to attraction, onboarding and initial training, which simply are not accessible or feasible for many people, especially those with competing care and other responsibilities. Despite some real progress in broadening out roles and specialisms, the default cultural understanding of what an SC ‘is’ still revolves around a narrow, response policing shifts on a Friday and Saturday night, singular interpretation of the volunteer policing role. There are enormous possibilities for how volunteer police could serve and what they could deliver across the whole wide spectrum of the police officer role, but to date apart from one or two pioneering forces, much of that has sadly sat beyond the policing imagination and groupthink. Responses to difference, and to life challenges and events, remain poor and inflexible. One clear and obvious example is that very few female SCs return after maternity.

There also remain challenges of culture and leadership. Many senior leaders in policing – Police and Crime Commissioners and Chief Constables – don’t appear that bothered in their Special Constabularies, as reflected in the largely absent debate at a strategic level in policing nationally whilst numbers have collapsed by two-thirds. The policing inspectorate has barely made mention of it. Many recent strategic reports on policing have failed to mention the Special Constabulary at all. On the frontline, whilst much is greatly improved from the old days prejudices of overtime stealers, seat warmers, and hobby bobbies, there remain real problems of othering volunteer officers as not quite being ‘real ones’, or of SCs being forgotten about or being an afterthought. Whilst much reduced, it sadly remains true that some ignorance and negativity are still experienced in pockets by SCs from their regular officer colleagues and local leaderships.

What needs to change?

There is no one single simple answer to how to make things different. However, the data points to some key recommendations that could be considered to achieve change:

  • Find ways of attracting older recruits and recruits who are not primarily motivated by a desire to use the experience as a stepping stone into the regular service. Understanding that these different recruits will bring different motivations, will be at different life stages, and will have different needs, and that they will expect policing to recognise and engage with what they bring to it, in terms of their skills, experience and abilities.

  • Provide opportunities for SCs to develop, grow their careers, have different impacts, and do new things. With volunteer officers specialising, supporting more teams and working across the wider organisation, allowing them to develop and providing them with a renewed sense of purpose. This could also be done by using SC’s pre-existing skills to support policing priorities.

  • Develop a more flexible and inclusive model that doesn’t restrict officers only to certain areas of policing at particular times, allowing SCs to commit when it works for them and fulfil a wider variety of roles. Reviewing how we onboard and initially train SCs, to make this more accessible to older recruits who may be more professionally established or have greater family and care commitments.

  • Embed consistently a culture within police forces to treat volunteers with respect, to support them to have the impact they and members of the public would want, and to empower them. Wearing the same uniform, having the same powers and responsibilities, and performing the same challenging role should mean something.

  • Come together more as a Special Constabulary and professionalise the model. Stopping it being constantly (and, mostly, pointlessly) reinvented 40-plus times across individual forces. Recognise the potential of attracting and recruiting beyond the local scale – regionally and nationally – and the possibilities of having consistent and respected leadership ranks.

  • Listen to and empower female voices within the Special Constabulary, especially those already in leadership positions, who are seldom heard.

The need for a strategic debate

SC’s make up less than 3 per cent of the entire police workforce (including officers, staff, Police Community Support Officers and Police Support Volunteers). This may appear as an insignificant number of officers to worry about, however, the millions of hours of policing delivered every year, saving forces millions of pounds (an estimated £85-90m a year in policing delivery) will have an impact on forces’ abilities to meet their policing priorities, the growing scale and complexity of demand on their services, and the enormous challenges of growing public trust and connection across communities.

The reputational damage of letting the volunteer wing of police forces collapse through a lack of strategy would be devastating; even more so when policing is a high priority for the public, it is at rock bottom in terms of public trust and is going through enormous change and challenges as a service.

These pleas for a refreshed vision and commitment is not a financial growth bid. Policing already invests a great deal in Special Constabularies – probably directly in the range of £25-30m each year, and overall much more than that – it just does not do so in a strategic, coordinated, optimal and sustainable way. It is hoped this can be the beginning of an open, frank and genuinely ambitious discussion with those that need to know the depth of the current crisis and are in a position to do something about it. Partners and stakeholders need to work together in a more intelligent, imaginative, and ambitious way. Doing what we have always done will simply get what we have always got. There is a huge potential here to deliver more and have a great impact, but this does require attention and solutions today rather than making it tomorrow’s problem. We want to see the Special Constabulary model thrive for another 200 years, not collapse just before it reaches this huge milestone.

Notes:

The data in this article is based on the series of biannual published Police Workforce Statistics, England and Wales.
An interview-based research study has previously explored strategic perspectives in policing in respect of the Special Constabulary (open access article). Exploring strategic perspectives on the Special Constabulary – Matthew Callender, Iain Britton, Laura Knight, 2022 (sagepub.com)

Reflections on the leadership challenges for the Special Constabulary and recommendations for the future reflect previous national research undertaken by the Institute for Public Safety, Crime and Justice, University of Northampton. 
The themes in this blog on Special Constabulary attraction resonate with a national research project undertaken in 2018-9. Britton_Iain_Knight_Laura_IPSCJ_2019_Attracting_People_to_Join_the_Special_Constabulary.pdf (northampton.ac.uk)

Previous work has highlighted the case for expansion and diversification of Special Constabulary role and the value of SC specialisation. Britton_etal_IPSCJ_2019_Specialisms_in_the_Special_Constabulary.pdf (northampton.ac.uk)