Police attack proposals for volunteer street patrols: Home Office scheme for citizens' army will put untrained people in danger'

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SENIOR police officers yesterday attacked plans by the Home Office to encourage volunteers to join street patrols in the fight against crime. Chief constables said proposals for 'citizens' army' patrols would put people at risk and could waste police time. Labour also condemned the initiative, expected to be launched in the next few months, as policing on the cheap.

Both groups have called for more research into the effectiveness of patrols by volunteers after it emerged that the Home Office has not carried out any studies into the subject. The last research into neighbourhood watch schemes was published more than six years ago.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, wants members of Neighbourhood Watch schemes, of which there are 130,000, to take part in patrols. He also wants more people to become unpaid special constables, working with fully qualified police officers.

The Home Office is drawing up a code of practice with the police for volunteers wishing to take part in foot patrols. They will not be expected to take any direct action if they see a crime. Instead they would report anything suspicious to the police. Uniforms and weapons would not be used, although some people on existing schemes use two-way radios.

Mr Howard's initiatives, some details of which were announced last December, will be launched in a high-profile media campaign. He is also expected to suggest the increased use of electronic devices to combat crime. This could include an expansion of telephone links between adjoining neighbourhood watch schemes. The proposals are seen as an attempt by the Government to regain the initiative in the law and order debate.

Sir John Smith, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, and deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said: 'People underestimate how difficult and dangerous a job patrolling is - if it was just a matter of citizens being our eyes and ears that would be OK, but if it's regular patrolling there could be problems.'

He warned the police's limited resources could become overstretched if untrained people made dozens of unnecessary reports.

There has also been opposition from members of Neighbourhood Watch. A survey of the associations last year found that the majority do not want to be involved in patrolling. Many members believe it could place untrained citizens in dangerous situations.

Alun Michael, Labour's Home Affairs spokesman, yesterday accused Mr Howard of 'giving up on crime and abandoning communities to police themselves'.

He added: 'There should not be a type of peacetime Home Guard. Patrolling is a serious business which should be left to the professionals.

'The idea of citizens walking the streets at night in areas of high crime as a substitute for a police presence is patently laughable and very dangerous. This proposal goes far beyond the valuable contribution of neighbourhood volunteers.'

A Home Office spokesman said: 'We are still finalising the initiatives, but we want to encourage more people to work in partnership with the police and help make the community safer.'

Mr Howard has been influenced by several volunteer patrolling schemes, such as one in Sandwich, Kent, which he visited earlier this year.

The project, called Town Watch, was set up to protect businesses in the town and has seen crime drop by about one-third.

Each night, between 10pm and 2am, two or three men patrol the town centre, equipped with radios and torches. Any incidents are reported to the police. Despite the scheme's apparent success, critics point out it based in a rural area with very little serious crime.