A review of PCSOs, the uniformed civilians introduced to take on ‘low level’ duties from more highly trained police officers when Lord Blunkett was Home Secretary in Tony Blair’s Government.
Although they have been widely regarded as a success, they have limited powers – including no right to make arrests.
It is acknowledged by the South Yorkshire force that such powers are needed to deal with some types of neighbourhood problems, resulting in a review of the part PCSOs take in the neighbourhood teams.
That has been going on for some time, with staff already briefed on initial findings, and the force has now entered into a “a quite intense consultation with PCSOs, officers, neighbourhood teams and partners,” said Dr Alan Billings, the county’s Police and Crime Commissioner.
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“The idea of the review is to try to strengthen neighbourhood teams.
“There was a period when police officers vanished; the review is saying, now we are putting back police, how do we get the balance right between police officers and PCSOs?
“There is a commitment to try to get more police officers into the neighbourhoods as there are issues which arise in neighbourhoods where you want a police officer there, to have someone arrested, and PCSOs cannot do that.
“You have to look very carefully about where they are all placed and what you are asking them (PCSOs) to do. When police officers were not present, you were asking PCSOs to pick up some more work. Is there a need to rebalance?
“The next few weeks will be quite intense, in terms of consultation, talks and discussions. They are talking around many options, but they are not the conclusion. It is not just about PCSOs, it is about what you want from a neighbourhood team, how can it function better and where do PCSOs fit in,” he said.
There is no expectation of redundancies among PCSOs, though the force paused recruiting when it became clear a review would take place, so numbers have fallen with staff leaving going unreplaced at present.
*A review of neighbourhood teams is being made possible by changes to police staffing levels in South Yorkshire, with 55 additional officers being recruited and 40 of those being directed directly into community-based work.
In future, Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings is also hoping to work in conjunction with Chief Constable Stephen Watson to review police finances to make even more additional officers available for front-line work.
The additional staff is a visible result of the decision to increase the South Yorkshire precept – the cash paid on council tax bills by householders – by 14 per cent this year, something Dr Billings insists cannot happen in future years.
He said the decision to raise bills was difficult to make and was done in the knowledge that many of the county’s residents are struggling financially.
“I don’t think you can do it by loading it all onto council tax payers,” he said.
“It was a word to the Government that you cannot go on doing this because there are parts of the country which cannot bear it.
“They may not look like significant sums in Westminster, but they are significant sums in places like this,” he said.
South Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Panel, a body made up largely of councillors which holds the PCC to account had asked for 90 new neighbourhood officers over the next year, which was rejected by Dr Billings as impractical without undermining the force’s finances.
*When then Home Secretary Lord Blunkett was Home Secretary, his decision to introduce police civilian support officers was met with widespread scorn and suspicion.
Among the catalogue of nick-names created for the job title – since universally shortened to PCSO – ‘hobby bobbies’ was perhaps the kindest.
However, the service stood the test of experience and the staff became welded into police forces as part of the front-line presence the public have always demanded.
As officer numbers dwindled as a result of austerity cuts, PCSOs were left alone as the visible presence in some South Yorkshire communities.
But with a renewed emphasis on the need to provide the most effective neighbourhood policing possible, the focus has switched to examine whether the official powers, and skills, of PCSOs need more support from traditional officer colleagues.