The district council was the first in Britain to hire a specially trained squad to cover the ground its own police did not have the time or manpower to deal with. The council spent more than pounds 200,000 on the scheme, hiring a former senior policeman, John Reed, to run it. There are now 11 uniformed patrol officers equipped with six vehicles, security-type uniforms, radios and the use of a computer-based control centre.
The council and the people running the patrols have always been keen to play down the notion that they are simply a private 'force'. Its role has always been to respond to demands to combat vandalism and anti-social behaviour. Everyone recruited to the community patrols has been carefully selected and thoroughly trained specifically to avoid confrontations.
Young lads, either playing truant or with little or no prospect of work, now gang together on estates in the North-east and have created what locals call a 'climate of trouble'. It is these youngsters, who boast about joyriding and vandalising houses, parks and anything else that catches their mood, that the patrols are trying to deal with.
The new force, too, is having a dramatic effect in fighting crime on the estates. Since it was set up there have been more than 10,000 calls from the public, who have seen vandals at work or have information about petty crime. The crime rate in the Sedgefield district has dropped by 20 per cent, although this cannot be entirely due to the community force.
'They thought we were all going to be ex-squaddies or bobbies who wanted to put the boot in,' says Rick Shingler, 39, one of the newly recruited officers. He is ex-Army but determined not to be caught up in the mindless spiral of aggression he knows is never far away on his foot patrols around the more difficult areas. There had been an 8 per cent rise in crime just before the force was set up.
Mr Reed has now been asked to lecture on the system throughout the country. Other councils, Swansea in particular, are looking in detail at the scheme. Sedgefield council intends eventually to bring in other agencies, social services and education departments, the police and possibly the probation service to consider new initiatives in tackling the social problems they feel trigger vandalism and crime.
The initial response to the new force, at least from the police, was reservation. They were wary of what they privately felt was an untrained force that might run into serious difficulties. Now that the force has established itself and is seen to be providing a useful link between the community and the police, relationships seem stronger.
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