Blunkett plans civilian patrols for street crime

White Paper lays out a five-tier service but constables say new "CSOs" will face tough times with drunken youngsters
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The Independent Online

Thousands of civilians are to be hired as uniformed patrol officers in an overhaul of the police service to break it into five tiers. David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, is also proposing to allow foreigners living in Britain to join the police, an alternative 999 service for non-emergency inquiries, the establishment of an élite corps of detectives, and new powers to sack chief constables.

The most controversial plan of those outlined yesterday is for civilian "Community Support Officers" (CSOs), for duties such as house-to-house and missing person inquiries, victim support, viewing CCTV footage and dealing with street yobs.

They will be employed by the police at £17,000 a year (a constable earns £25,000), may be armed with CS spray and batons and will be given a new power to use "reasonable force" to detain a lawbreaker. The Metropolitan Police plans to hire 800 CSOs in the Spring.

The White Paper, called Policing a New Century, also proposes that private security guards and wardens employed by firms and local authorities be accredited to work with police. Members of the Accredited Community Safety Organisations would be allowed detain offenders, but could not use force. Instead they are expected to photograph suspects who escape. Anyone accredited would wear a badge or kitemark.

The Police Federation, the organisation that represents more than 120,00 junior-rank officers in England and Wales, called the plans "policing on the cheap" and said only second-rate candidates and police rejects would be employed.

The creation of other police tiers include the 54,600 civilian support staff now employed by police in England and Wales who will be given higher profile roles, such as interviewing suspects and taking statements in simple cases. Civilian jailers would search inmates, take fingerprints and escort suspects inside and outside the station.

The Home Office also intends to boost the 12,700 special or volunteer constables with a new recruitment campaign and allowances. All the changes are designed to free trained constables, allow a greater number of patrol officers on the streets at a low cost, and tackle low-level anti-social crimes.

The duties of the new CSOs are expected to entail checking on truants and people with curfews, dealing with abandoned vehicles, cordoning crime scenes and issuing fixed-penalty notices for dropping litter and dog fouling.

John Denham, the Home Office minister with responsibility for policing, did not rule out arming them with CS spray and batons, and denied it was policing on the cheap.

Mr Blunkett also proposed giving himself new powers to sack a chief police officer who failed to introduce measures to reduce crime rates. Now, the Home Secretary can only intervene and force a top policeman to step down over misconduct or other disciplinary matters.

Other proposals in the White Paper, which will become the basis of a Police Bill next year, include:

* The Home Office to recruit foreign nationals living in the UK to serve in the police for the first time. At present, only members of the Commonwealth and the Irish Republic can become police. Foreigners who join will have to pass all entry qualifications, such as fluent English;

* Trials of a non-emergency contact number called Police Direct, similar to NHS Direct, in spring 2003, which would take pressure off 999 operators over less urgent incidents; and,

* Setting up the long-awaited independent Police Complaints Commission, in which civilians will play a greater role.

Fred Broughton, chairman of the Police Federation, said: "The proposals to have civilian patrollers will result in cheaper policing, not better policing. They are bound to cause confusion in the public about what powers and responsibilities they have. They are also going to be asked to deal with one of the toughest areas of policing, handling anti-social behaviour among young people possibly influenced by drinks or drugs. And private security guards will be accountable to commercially driven paymasters."

Sir David Phillips, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said: "No amount of police endeavour will improve the attrition rate from crime to conviction to a satisfactory level unless the rules of engagement in courts also change."