The future use of South Yorkshire’s force of more than 200 PCSOs – the face of policing for residents in many neighbourhoods – is under review as police try to work out the best way to use their resources and a recruitment freeze means there will be increasingly few on the streets, for the immediate future at least.
PCSOs were introduced when then Sheffield Brightside MP David Blunkett was Home Secretary and were initially greeted with scepticism by some because of their limited powers, including no authority to make arrests, and were dubbed by some as ‘hobby bobbies’ or ‘Blunkett’s bobbies’, though they quickly proved their worth in dealing with low-level neighbourhood problems.
That was in the pre-austerity era and a combination of increasingly tight budgets and reduced numbers of regular police officers have forced chief constables to re-assess the function PCSOs play within their force, with some scrapping the service.
A recruitment freeze has been introduced in South Yorkshire to allow Chief Constable Stephen Watson time to assess what role PCSOs might hold within the force in future, with an expectation that one a month, or slightly more, will leave the service through natural wastage in the immediate term.
The force’s establishment, or expected number, of PCSOs is 225, with eight of those funded by Barnsley Council, and the reducing numbers mean South Yorkshire Police is expected to spend around £100,000 less than expected on those staff in the current financial year.
Details of the review emerged at a meeting of the South Yorkshire Police and Crime Panel, a body made up largely of councillors which scrutinises the work of Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings.
Doncaster Councillor Sue Wilkinson questioned a report which stated posts would be left vacant as PCSOs left the service and was told by Dr Billings: “The chief constable is reviewing PCSOs, what they do.
“There is a big review going on and this simply reflects that the review is not complete.”
Over the last year, South Yorkshire Police has been putting police officers back onto neighbourhood duties, after they were centralised into multi-purpose teams by the previous chief constable, a decision since discredited.
Independent Panel member Steve Chu questioned how the impact of the new neighbourhood policing teams would be assessed and was told by Dr Billings: “That work has to be done.
“This is a big step, by putting officers on neighbourhood teams.
“Unless you are increasing numbers, you are taking them from somewhere else.”
Police themselves and Government inspectors who assess their performance would be looking for evidence that the new system was providing the expected results, he said.
It is expected the review of the future role of PCSOs in South Yorkshire will involve some consultation work.
Dr Billings said: “When PCSOs were first introduced, money was not quite so tight and there were more bodies on the ground.
“What they (PCSOs) do is spend more time on the ground, talking to people. There is an aspect of what PCSOs do that will always be there.
“There are lots of other things they have been used for, that the chief constable has to take a view on,” he said.