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A squad car screeches to a halt, police jump out ... but first, a word from their sponsors. Stephen Pritchard investigates
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The Independent Culture
The police arrive at the crime scene within minutes. As the officers run inside, an eyewitness glances at their two cars standing on the drive, doors open and engines running. A common enough sight. But these cars seem different. The eyewitness looks again, and realises what it is: each car has a company logo just behind its back door: Barclays and Gold Blend. Each car is sponsored.

Since the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act came into force in April and chief constables took control of their own finances, they have been able to raise up to 1 per cent of their total budgets from sponsorship. In the case of larger forces this could run to millions of pounds. One day, advertising on a police car could be as ubiquitous as it is on the side of a bus.

Earlier this year, police in Lancashire took delivery of 12 new cars, for use mostly by Special Constables. Each bears the logo of a sponsor. Two are backed by local councils, the other 10 sponsors are commercial firms, including the AA, General Accident, Group 4, a local double-glazing firm and a security systems company. Each car costs around pounds 6,000. Special Constables will use them for patrolling; Lancashire Constabulary is keen to stress that the vehicles are not regular police cars.

The distinction is a fine one. The cars are white, with a blue checker- board stripe along the side. The word "patrol" adorns the bonnet. And they are available for crime prevention work by regular officers when not in use by the Specials.

Lancashire Constabulary declined to discuss the scheme, even though the cars were unveiled at a launch with the Home Secretary and the local media present. A statement issued at the launch explained that these patrols would be "targeted at high-crime housing estates which may suffer from the lack of regular police patrolling".

Faced with frozen or falling budgets in many parts of the country, and an insatiable demand for their services, Britain's police forces are in a difficult position. As many as 22 forces may have to cut the number of officers they employ this year. If the police can raise sponsorship, even in a low-key area such as crime prevention, it frees funds for front- line policing.

In Lancashire, the sponsored cars were welcomed by the local press. But the public is more guarded.

"If it increases the police presence, then it's good," says Vicki Culpin, a research associate at Lancaster University. "But it's terrible that it comes to this to get the police on the streets. That should come out of the money we pay in taxes.

"The police need as much help as they can get. Obviously they need transport but it's a form of advertising," says Samantha Lowe, who is temping for a bank. "If even the police, which used to be a pillar of society, needs help from volunteers or outside companies sponsoring vehicles, it tells us something about society."

Dave, who works at Kwik-Fit in Lancaster, is more supportive. "Why not?" he asks. "If the police don't mind, it's good for the companies."

Lancashire is not the first police force to accept this sort of sponsorship. Avon and Somerset Constabulary ran into controversy last year when it accepted a "scenes of the crime" vehicle, donated by the off-licence chain Thresher.

The prospect of sponsorship is causing unease within the police force itself. Officers worry that the police might be seen to offer a preferential service to the firm writing the cheque; a contribution to the constabulary in return for extra patrols or a faster response to alarm calls must seem attractive.

"We have to be very careful how we use sponsorship," warns John Hoddinott, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo). "General sponsorship would be enormously difficult. Whatever group you look at, the question will be, will they get better treatment?"

Police officers are also concerned about appearing to endorse firms or their products, especially where there might be a link to law and order, such as security, double glazing, insurance, alarm or lock companies.

Yet these firms are the keenest backers. In Lancashire, national companies sponsoring the Specials' cars, including Group 4, the AA, ICI and General Accident, say they are participating through their community programmes. As Simon Jones, the AA's north-west spokesman, explains: "It is part of our policy of putting something back into the community we get our members from."

Graeme Camm, sales manager of the local Lancashire firm Nelson Windows, which also sponsors a car, is more frank. "At the end of the day, there's publicity in it for us," he says. "There must be - we spend money. I don't see any harm in it." He admits that the association with security is useful to his business: "It strengthens our credibility."

Controversy could grow now that public bodies, shopping centres or councils can "buy" additional officers for their sites by topping up the local police budget. At least one chief constable - John Evans, of Devon and Cornwall Constabulary - has said that he is willing to entertain such requests.

"If a district council says, 'if we put money into the budget from council funds, can we have another three officers?', what is the answer to that? Is that sponsorship?" asks Mr Hoddinott at Acpo. "We get into questions of fairness and equity. Should rich people get more policing than poor people?"

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