Police hire civilians to quiz witnesses

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The Independent Online
ONE OF Britain's biggest police forces is employing civilians to interview witnesses, for the first time in more than 150 years of organised policing. Senior officers in the West Midlands force believe this will free officers to tackle "crime on the frontline".

The three-month pilot project has received Home Office blessing and it is being independently assessed by the Crown Prosecution Service. If it proves successful other police forces will adopt it.

But lawyers dismiss the scheme as a cost-cutting exercise "to the detriment of the public". Stephen Gilchrist, from leading law firm Saunders and Company, says it is a threat to the confidentiality of witnesses.

"There is an art to taking statements and even if you are a former police officer you would need further training," he said. "This is an appalling idea because you are disclos-ing information to a third party which is not part of the police force."

A private company called Ibis Datapol has been contracted to provide staff responsible for taking, for example, routine statements from members of the public who have witnessed physical assaults.

At present, former police officers are being supplied by the company. They carry a photocard to prove their identity as well as a letter of introduction and they have been formally vetted by the police force.

But West Midlands police say people who have not worked for the police force could also be considered for the scheme. They have stressed, however, that in cases of serious crime, or where sensitivity is an issue, only officers would be allowed to take statements. Civilians would not be used at all in investigations that involve juveniles nor in the taking of medical statements.

Last week, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers predicted that civilian and private patrols would eventually form a second security force in Britain.

The Home Office is also putting increasing pressure on police forces to cut costs and to be more efficient. From this autumn, it will introduce a 2 per cent efficiency improvement target with which all forces are expected to comply.

West Midlands police say they hope the witness statement scheme will improve efficiency and offer better value for money. Superintendent Stuart Green, the force's spokesman, said police would still be sensitive to victims of crime and the public would benefit from more officers on the streets.

"Less paperwork frees up patrol officers to get on the streets where they are most effective in crime prevention," he added. "It could have a beneficial impact on the way we put crime files together, by reducing bureaucracy and improving the management of the whole file preparation process."

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