Police volunteering: It’s time to use citizen power

Blog post

Police volunteering: It’s time to use citizen power

The citizen has always been central to our model of policing, but police and public safety volunteering has long been neglected in policing policy discussions. Before the foundation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 England had an essentially volunteer-led policing system that went back to the Statute of Winchester in 1285. This was based on two elements: volunteer village constables and the obligation on all citizens to ‘raise hue and cry’ upon witnessing an offence.

The creation of the Met in the late 1820s could be seen as a statist turn away from this model of community self-policing. However, the Peelian model retained an important role for the citizen. There was to be no ‘blue plague’ of state agents oppressing the population. Rather policing was to be restrained, using minimal power and operating with the consent of the public, who would voluntarily cooperate in upholding the law. Moreover, the police were to be viewed as citizens who have some additional powers to carry out the obligations on all citizens to uphold the law. They were to be part of the citizenry, not apart from them. It is noteworthy that the special constabulary, a volunteer reserve of auxiliary constables, was established shortly after the Met in 1831.

Despite these origins the 20th century saw a marginalisation of public safety volunteering. This was due to a mixture of the decline of traditional community bonds, the rise in crime and the growing complexity of police work, much of which can only be done by specialists. Nevertheless, today in England and Wales there are 6,481 Special Constables who possess warranted powers and supplement the work of regular officers and 7,332 Police Support Volunteers who carry out various support roles. There is appetite from the public to get more involved. Over a decade ago I carried out research which found considerable enthusiasm for public safety volunteering in various forms. We found that:

• 44% were willing to participate in neighbourhood watch

• 42% were willing to attend a monthly neighbourhood policing meeting

• 18% were willing to volunteer at local police station

• 17% were willing to receive training to enable them to safely intervene to prevent crime or harm

• 10% were willing to participate in joint patrols with the police

• 8% were willing to pay for extra PCSOs.

This week I have been at the International Symposium on Volunteering in Policing in Edinburgh organised by Dr Iain Britton and Professor Matthew Callender at Northampton University. This fantastic event brought together experts and practitioners from across the world to share ideas and best practice.

Reflecting on the conversations this week, I have the following two thoughts about how we can maximise the power of citizen participation in public safety. First, the role of the citizen in policing should be central to strategic conversations about police reform, not marginal to them. If we think of any of the big challenges facing the police, volunteering has something to offer. There is growing evidence that it can cut crime. The Symposium heard the example of the mimamori movement in Japan, whereby 2.8 million people have been mobilised to help take care of their local communities, including helping to walk children to school and patrolling the streets while walking dogs (bow wow patrols). Growing flowers to beautify local neighbourhoods is thought to have contributed to a significant fall in crime in recent years. Research in the United States has similarly found that efforts to mobilise communities to reduce violence and promote safety has contributed to a fall in crime.

Volunteering can play a role in tackling other big strategic challenges too. Recruiting more auxiliary officers can help boost police numbers. In rural areas they can help provide more visible policing where this is difficult given the need to patrol larger areas. Deploying volunteers in community facing roles can help policing become more proactive and preventative. And there is plenty of evidence that people in volunteering roles tend to come from a more diverse range of backgrounds than police officers. They may therefore play a part in promoting confidence in the police among those communities where trust is lowest.

So, citizen participation should be central to efforts to reduce crime and improve safety, nor marginal to them.

My second thought is that the police need to be less demand-led in their approach to volunteering and consider how they can supply opportunities to volunteer that can help them tackle the big challenges they face. The traditional passive approach which is to have specials help out on a Friday and Saturday night and have an open rather unstructured offer to Police Support Volunteers (what would you like to help with?), means that policing is not getting the most from the appetite that is out there.

The police should be inviting the public to get involved in key areas where they need help. The Symposium heard about how the Met have started to recruit a new category of volunteer called Community Based Volunteers who do not possess the powers of specials, but who require less vetting and burdensome onboarding, and who can be deployed in frontline neighbourhood roles. Likewise, Kent Police has used the ability to delegate discretionary powers made available under the 2017 Police and Crime Act to create a new category of Community Policing Volunteers.

We also heard about efforts to attract specialist skills into policing through programmes targeted at particular sectors. So, for example, the Dutch police are now recruiting specialist volunteers to help in areas where the police need technical skills, but lack the resources to pay competitive salaries. This is particularly important in areas such as cybercrime, forensics and financial crime. In the UK the National Police Chiefs’ Council similarly has a Cyber and Digital Specials and Volunteer programme. Locate International has been established to mobilise volunteers with digital forensic, open-source intelligence and other specialist skills to review unsolved missing person cases. This group of volunteers is solving cases that the police simply don’t have the resources to prioritise, bringing comfort and resolution to loved ones. We were told that the most important lesson was to give people a clear purpose, and if you do, they will help.

I conclude by holding my hands up and confessing that I have not always practised what I preach. In our Strategic Review of Policing in England and Wales I am ashamed to say we did not mention police volunteering at all. However, I am convinced that activating citizen participation is a big part of the answer to a number of the big challenges we face. The public want to help. Let’s help them to do so.