BLUNKETT'S BABIES AND THAMES VALLEY POLICE
BLUNKETT'S BABIES - THAMES VALLEY POLICE HAVE RECRUITED TWO 16 YEAR OLDS
Two 16-year-olds have been recruited as police community support officers with the authority to detain and question suspects. The pair, just out of school, will join foot patrols from a 'busy' police station. The move by Thames Valley Police has triggered a row about public safety and allegations that forces - and the Government - are trying to "police on the cheap". The teenagers are two years too young to join the regular police force. If they were offenders, they would be tried in juvenile rather than adult courts. Yet they will have a string of powers, including the right to detain offenders, stop and search under terror laws, issue penalty notices for disorder and stop vehicles. The development is the latest controversy to hit PCSOs, dubbed Blunkett's Bobbies after the Home Secretary who created them - but now being branded Blunkett's Babies. Full-time police must be at least 18, but there is no minimum for PCSOs. Jan Berry, chairman of the 139,000-strong Police Federation, said 16-year-olds did not have the skills to go on the front line. "To expect someone so young to put on a police uniform and patrol the streets is a few steps too far," she said. "It puts pressure on them as they have neither the maturity or experience to deal with situations they are likely to confront. This means they are more likely to let down their colleagues and the public." Federation officials claim Labour is deliberately replacing full-time officers with cheaper PCSOs to save money. Support officers cost the taxpayer at least £10,000 a year less. Though PCSOs have the power to seize alcohol from under-age drinkers, it is understood the young recruits will not enter pubs in the course of their duties. One Federation official pointed out that, technically, they could not deal with a disturbance in a cinema if a certificate 18 film was being shown. Shadow Home Secretary David Davis said: "We want to see as many police and PCSOs as possible. But they must be able to do the job and have the confidence of colleagues and the public. "There are important ways for young people to contribute to their communities, but recruiting 16-year-olds to frontline policing puts them and those around them at risk. "It defies common sense and speaks volumes about the Government's reckless approach to public safety." Thames Valley Police said: "We have recruited these people because they demonstrated the skills that we need. They bring experience of being able to interact with the public - especially young people. If you are good enough, you are old enough." But sources at Thames Valley admitted the force is under huge Government pressure to reach targets on the recruitment of PCSOs and could lose funding if it failed to do so. Thames Valley PCSOs earn £17,000-£20,000, depending on the hours they work. A full PC starts at £21,000, rising to £33,000. The force's extraordinary decision was revealed by a local Police Federation official. In an e-mail to colleagues around the country, Jay Williams said: "We are informed that risk assessments have been conducted and the force are aware that in law they are children and this presents some restrictions. "I would be grateful if you would contact me if any of your forces have recruited PCSOs of this age and your experiences of how these have been managed." The civilian officers were introduced by David Blunkett in 2003 to be a reassuring, visible presence on the street. They have only a fraction of the training given to police - an initial course of just five weeks compared to 19. A recent official report raised concerns over their performance, citing cases of PCSOs fighting each other, eating and shopping while on duty and struggling with simple tasks. The number of PCSOs is set to soar over the next year. Eight of the 43 forces in England and Wales expect to be recruiting more support officers than police by 2008 Policing in this country is based on democratic consent. Without the support of the public, our constabularies could not function. But such an approach requires the public to have respect for the abilities and efficiency of police officers. Sadly this respect can no longer be taken for granted, partly because traditional beat policing has declined so rapidly in recent years and professional officers have become increasingly invisible. The attempt to fill the gap with Police Community Support Officers has hardly been a roaring success. These officers were first recruited five years ago and were meant to provide a high-profile presence on the streets. But with limited powers and training, they have come to be regarded as a poor substitute for the real thing. That feeling can only be reinforced by Thames Valley Police's decision to recruit two 16-year-olds to act as Community Support Officers. These teenagers are too young to vote, to drive a car, to buy a drink or watch an adult film, yet the Thames Valley chiefs feels they are fit to be thrown into the front line against crime. Though barred from driving themselves, they are able to stop and seize vehicles, and direct traffic. They cannot have a pint in a pub, yet can confiscate alcohol from those drinking in public and issue penalty notices against fellow teenagers for breaking the licensing laws. It is absurd. Police officers used to be seen as substantial figures who had a natural air of authority..Now we have a pair of juveniles donning the uniform and patrolling the streets. The public would be justified in feeling a sense of despair, while the criminals must be laughing. Thames Valley claims that the two teenagers, "reflect the community in which they serve, that includes all ages, genders and races". That remark is both frivolous and wrong-headed. Taken to its logical conclusion, the police should be recruiting even younger children, as well as pensioners in their eighties. But the public does not want a service that is a precise reflection of its demographic make-up. It wants a service that can do its job properly and that has to mean the majority should be mature, physically capable men. After all, the overwhelming majority of offenders are male. Community Support Officers would never have been needed if the approach to basic policing had not been so badly flawed. The politically-correct view during the 1990s that traditional policing was too reactionary and male-orientated led to a dramatic widening of recruitment. Age and height restrictions were abolished and requirements that applicants had a certain physical strength were removed to encourage female candidates. As the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire at the time, I feared that public confidence in the police would be lost. I stipulated that my force should still have a powerful physical presence, a stance that led to accusations that I was "old-fashioned". Political correctness also brought with it the increasing influence of health and safety, which frustrated police work and restricted the ability of officers to use their initiative. Whereas they might once have moved swiftly to tackle a certain crime, such as a siege or a kidnapping, today the senior officers have to conduct a 'risk assessment' before acting. Swiftness, courage, and surprise have been lost. When I first became a constable, core duties included escorting cash runs from banks, keeping watch on certain premises, and responding immediately to burglar alarms. But during the sixties, a new breed of police chief emerged who thought such work could easily be done by private security firms. The abolition of small forces and the creation of much larger ones were an added spur to the end of locally-based policing, as was the ubiquity of the panda car. The drive to create specialist squads dealing with crimes such as child abuse, racism or drug-dealing has further encouraged the withdrawal from the street. As a result, beat policing became despised. When I first became Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, I stressed that time on the streets would be a vital factor in promotion. I was gratified to see that shift in focus put more officers on patrol, heightened detection rates and lessened the number of complaints from the public. That should be a lesson for all modern policing. We cannot fight crime from behind a desk, with Community Support Officers or with 16-year-olds. We must return to the basics that once served this country well.
13 AUG 2007